Gizmos

Gadgets Don’t Look Like Gadgets Anymore

Fabrics and textiles are giving electronics a softer look.

Collage of the HP Tango X printer, Echo Dot, Echo Plus, Ikea Smart Speakers, and Spire Health Tag.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Amazon, Surface Go, Spire, Ikea, and HP.

If you’ve been eyeing a new gadget for your home, you may have noticed a curious trend. While much of the tech world is still made of glass, aluminum, plastic, and composites, a number of companies are opting for a softer material to outfit their electronics: cloth.

Textiles are emerging as a fun, stylish, and irreverent way to accessorize and protect the tech we use in our homes each day. We saw a few examples among the smorgasbord of products Amazon announced at its surprise hardware event in Seattle last month. The Echo Dot and Echo Plus each got a cloth-covered refresh. The smart speakers are now wrapped in charcoal, heather gray, and sandstone-colored fabric. Paired with curved top and bottom edges, the extra-small and extra-large Echo variants have a softer, less gadgety appearance. New products like the Echo Sub share that aesthetic. And Amazon isn’t the only smart speaker–maker to include textiles as a design choice. Google Home devices have embraced this style. Apple’s HomePod eschews a hard exterior for a fabric-covered alternative. Ikea’s smart speaker favors the cloth-fronted look.

It shouldn’t be a huge surprise. Speakers have used cloth on their grilles for decades. Smart speaker manufacturers have merely embraced that idea in more creative form factors. But more recently, the trend has spread to other types of gadgets. Microsoft uses a suedelike fabric called Alcantara on its Surface tablets and PCs, including the Surface Go that debuted this summer. On the Surface Laptop, it’s used in and around the keyboard, offering a pleasantly textured alternative to your typical plastic or aluminum wrist rest. A wearable tracker, the Spire Health Tag, also forgoes typical tech materials in favor of a soft Ultrasuede exterior. As this device is designed to be worn next to the skin, fabric offers greater comfort and flexibility than a hard plastic exterior.

The latest product to get the cloth treatment is the home printer. HP’s $199 Tango X is a smart home printer with a “wrap” covered in soft materials (indigo linen, charcoal linen, or cork currant). This wrap has three functions: It gives the white device a pop of home décor–coordinating color, it acts as a landing pad for printed pages, and it functions as an on-off button for the printer, sending the device into sleep mode when it’s shut. When the printer is encased in the wrap, it looks more like a large book than a small printer, helping it blend into a bookcase or office shelf. Historically, printers haven’t been the most attractive desktop hardware, what with their paper trays, buttons, and boxy exteriors. I’ve tried a review unit in my home for the past two weeks, and it’s the first time I’ve ever thought a desktop printer looked cute. Being Wi-Fi-connected and controlled via app, it’s also relatively easy to set up and use, but it’s the Tango X’s aesthetic that makes the biggest impression on a product you might not normally think of as noteworthy. HP also debuted a laptop wrapped entirely in leather—again, making a piece of technology look more like a book than a gadget when it’s not in use and adding some comfort and style when it is.

The use of cloth in and around our electronics is part of a greater trend of companies designing products that better blend into our daily lives. Samsung’s Frame TVs are an example of this—the screen masquerades as a large art or picture frame when not in use. On the opposite end of the product spectrum, the geodesic dome–styled Norton Core secure Wi-Fi router looks nothing like a router, or a gadget at all. But in an increasing array of products, industrial designers are turning to textiles to make hardware feel less hard and more integrated with the style inside your home. Like most gadget trends, the textile look is one that will likely evolve into something else in a few years. Not that long ago, it seemed like everything was shiny and white. But for now, I’m relishing this creative—and soft—twist on traditional consumer hardware.