A Tale of Two Timers

Timers should be simple enough to use without having to think (much) about how to work them.

I have been perpetually amazed at how badly designed timers of all sorts are.

They all time things, but few do it well. Digital models, because of all the clever things a good programmer can do with microcontrollers, should be the best, yet are inexplicably harder to use than analog models.

A while back, I found two different timers that I thought would suit my needs perfectly. The first I have used to brew just about every cup of tea I’ve made since, while the other has become a dusty curiosity, and a monument to form over function.

Can you guess which one is now merely an art piece?

Trouble with Tape Timer

This is a gorgeous concept, crippled by its construction and components.

Using roughly the same mechanism as traditional spring-wound kitchen timers, this cube uses a facsimile of a tape measure as its timing mechanism. It looks like it would be simple to operate—just pull the tape up to the number of minutes you want, and release.

Unfortunately, the backlash between the spring, the tape, and the gears means it’s not very accurate, and though it’s apparently necessary, the “pull past 10” instructions are missing from the device. Worse, the base isn’t heavy enough to keep itself on the counter while you pull the tape, so it takes two hands. And should you shoot past the desired number of minutes, you must turn it upside down, find the molded-in arrow indicating which direction to turn the dial, then flip it back upright and turn the dial until your desired mark reaches the top of the opening.

Alas, in testing it this morning to write this review, I discovered that its ringer no longer works reliably. I’m not sure how this simple mechanical device failed, but it now emits only a muffled whimper of a ring when the tape nears its end. If Kikkerland’s designer set out to achieve the combination of elegance and function exhibited by Philippe Starck’s “Juicy Salif (which appears on the cover of Emotional Design), he failed on both counts. The timer does not work well enough to keep around, and there is nothing quite unique or appealing enough about the design to leave it out as a showpiece.

Polder Traffic Light Timer

This clever Polder  is the easiest-to-use timer I have ever laid my hands on. There are four (mostly) well-labeled buttons; a large, clear LCD display, and the slickest built-in stand I’ve ever seen.

The round shape is ideal—it evokes an analog clock and is easy to palm while you’re adjusting or moving it. The face’s angle of about 15 degrees is also ideal for viewing while standing at a kitchen counter. Should you prefer to stick it to the oven or fridge, however, the bottom stand flips back change the angle to 0 degrees and reveal three tiny but powerful magnets. Now you can slap it to any metal surface near eye-level and read the display easily.

Setting the time is easy, just tap the minute and second buttons until the display reads as desired. The timer will remember and revert to this setting every time its used, once you press “start/stop” until you change it. Should you overshoot or need less time, you must press both the minute and second buttons together, clearing the display to “0:00”.

Whenever the display reads “0:00”, pressing “start/stop” turns the countdown timer into a stopwatch. This function is hidden, but its existence and operation seemed obvious to me from the combined labeling of the “start/stop” button.

The presence of a count-up timer enables what is my favorite feature—once the timer reaches 0, it starts counting up. This simple nicety lets you know just how strong a cup of tea you brewed when you forget or miss the pleasant alert beeps. It may be a trivial feature, but ask yourself how many times you’ve set a timer that didn’t do this, stepped out of the room, and then wondered how much extra time had elapsed after the end when you returned.

The feature that gives this timer its name might seem like a mere novelty, but I really appreciate it. When in countdown mode, the entire face of the timer glows green once it reaches 60 seconds. At 30 seconds, it turns yellow. For the final 10 seconds, it glows red, allowing you to get ready to take appropriate action, even if you’re too far away from the timer to read the digits.

I could not ask for much more in a general-purpose kitchen timer, and I expect this little Polder will be my timer design benchmark for quite some time.


The ability to adjust the time down instead of having to start over from 0:00 would be nice, as would a set of subtle sounds mapped to the green/yellow/red display.

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