2377: xkcd Phone 12

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
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xkcd Phone 12
New phone OS features: Infinite customization (home screen icons no longer snap to grid), dark mode (disables screen), screaming mode (self-explanatory), and coherent ultracapacitor-pumped emission (please let us know what this setting does; we've been afraid to try it).
Title text: New phone OS features: Infinite customization (home screen icons no longer snap to grid), dark mode (disables screen), screaming mode (self-explanatory), and coherent ultracapacitor-pumped emission (please let us know what this setting does; we've been afraid to try it).


This is the "12th" (actually the 8th) in the ongoing xkcd Phone series in which Randall explains his new joke phone designs with many strange and useless features. It is also a reference to the recently released iPhone 12. However, there have only been 8 comics released, with the previous two being 2000: xkcd Phone 2000 and 1889: xkcd Phone 6.

The note about the xkcd Phone 12 and the xkcd Phone 12 Max (only for people named Max) is a joke about the different models of iPhone 12: iPhone 12, iPhone 12 Mini, iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max. The xkcd Phone 12 Max would be expected to have a larger screen, but it seems that this phone is also only for people with the name Max. If the phones are respectively placed, Max's (Maxes'?) phone is the smaller of the two models.

The tagline '"The only phone you'll ever own"' could be interpreted as something of a threat, which is believable given some of the purported features. It is similar to the phrase "The last suit you'll ever wear", describing the black suits worn by the Men in Black in the movie of the same name. The slogan has the "registered trademark" symbol, which appears to itself be trademarked, which is highly unlikely.

Multiple features are labelled on the phone that are common when advertising other products, but highly unusual in mobile phones, for comedic effect.

Full drivetrain warranty
A common warranty feature for automobiles — see drivetrain. As a side note, the phone here would be cheaping out on the warranty if it were a car; a "drivetrain" warranty covers almost everything except the engine; only if it were a "powertrain" warranty would it cover the engine. A phone typically has none of these things, although this one seemingly does.
Coated for easy swallowing
A common feature on solid medicines meant to be taken orally. Phones do not belong in the set of edible objects, much less orally taken medicines[citation needed]. Since some parents of young children let them teethe on their phones, this would be an undesirable feature. Since these coatings tend to be lubricants, it's also possible this "feature" makes the phone harder to hold. There may be a pun here, based on the larger smartphones being practically the same as the more minimal portable computers.
Surgical-grade apps
"Surgical-grade steel" is sometime used as a selling point indicating quality materials. This feature suggests that the apps themselves are made from high-quality material, although this is absurd because an app is (as the name suggests) a software application, not any physical object that could be reasonably defined as 'surgical grade' or not. Note that both hardware and software can be certified for safety-critical applications.
Built-in 600 lb magnet for magnet fishing
Magnet fishing is an activity for searching for objects that can be pulled in by a strong magnet. A 600-pound magnet can lift a 600-pound (272 kg) object (at Earth's surface). This would tend to make the phone stick to any iron or steel objects (such as refrigerators) and be impossible to remove with human strength, and only the strongest humans could pick up the phone even if it were properly insulated. It would also be impossible to separate two phones without destroying one of them if the interlocking feature were used. This feature would also erase any credit cards the owner puts in the vicinity of the phone, meaning this phone could not be put in one's pocket with a wallet. There is also a possibility that this is a reference to Apple’s MagSafe accessory.
Oral-B partnership: hold phone against teeth to ultrasonically remove plaque
This is a reference to ultrasonic toothbrushes. Oral-B does not produce any ultrasonic toothbrushes but does produce sonic toothbrushes. There is a logical connection between electric toothbrushes and smartphones, namely they are both electronic and both vibrate; however, most phones cannot perform dentistry autonomously[citation needed].
40 mL emergency water supply
40 milliliters are equal to 40 cubic centimeters. For comparison, an average shot glass holds about 44 milliliters of liquid, and the iPhone 11 Pro Max's volume is just shy of 100 cubic centimeters; if the Phone 12 Max is similarly sized to its iPhone counterpart, then the water supply would take up over 40% of its total volume. In this day and age, many phones are water-resistant to some degree; nevertheless, shipping a phone with an interior consisting of a 3:2 ratio of electronics-to-water will surely lead to many short-circuited, inoperable phones.
Furthermore, survival kits often come with pouches that can hold several liters of water, in case of emergency. Because people typically take their phones with them everywhere they go, storing a survival kit inside the phone would be a life-saving feature. Unfortunately, 40cc of water is not enough to stave off thirst for a meaningful amount of time, extinguish a flame much larger than a candle's, or deal with most other situations which would constitute an emergency. Unless you are suitably proficient at waterbending, this feature is useless for its intended function.
Security feature: unmarked side buttons
Some vendors (particularly car dealers) try to explain away questionable User Interface decisions as "Security Features". Technically, if everyone (including the owner) has difficulty using it, it is secure... Here, no buttons are visible which could indicate they are, in fact, simply a touch sensitive surface, which would certainly be difficult to use as users would have to guess the area they should touch to use these "buttons"; the question of what security benefit this would bring exactly is also unanswered. This might be a reference to a feature present in iPhone 12s where one can double-tap on the back to do a set action, which some websites have called a "secret button".
3,000,000-volt arc allows wireless charging from a range of up to 36 inches
Induction charging is a method that a number of modern phones advertise, allowing power to (inefficiently but 'conveniently') transfer into a device from a mains charging station or another device's battery without the need for plugging in cables. It transfers energy between safely tuned coils, that do not touch, though typically the case of one device must remain placed directly upon the other for the optimal transfer of charge between them. An electric arc can also be used to transfer electrical energy through the air through a lightning-like discharge. While arcs can transfer large amounts of energy quickly, the plasma generated would be very dangerous and damaging to the phone, charger, and immediate vicinity. The electrical breakdown voltage of air is approximately 3 kV / mm, which would allow a 3 MV potential to jump a distance of 100 cm (40 inches). 36 inches (91 cm), however, is within reach of a simple extension cord. Shocks of 11,000 volts are usually lethal, so 3,000,000 volts of electricity (possibly from a complete Tesla coil assemblage) would require considerable protection.
99.9% BPA- and hands- free
Bisphenol A (or BPA) is a compound that is used in making plastics. BPA has been found to exhibit hormone-like properties, so there is a movement to produce BPA-free plastics using alternative bisphenols. Hands-free describes using the device "without hands", e.g. using voice commands. This is important when using a device while driving. These are 2 unrelated ideas, which use the suffix "free" in different meanings ("BPA-free" means "containing no BPA", while "hands-free" means "your hands need not be used"). The construction "NOUN- and NOUN-ADJ" is normally only used with the meaning of "ADJ" repeated for both nouns, implying that this phone "contains no hands" (or possibly "your BPA is left free"). The "percentage free" description is also a standard form of advertising weasel words, as remarked by Randall in 641: Free. A food might be described as "90% fat-free" with the heavy implication that it has a tenth of the usual fat content, but likely really means "10% of the product is pure fat" (typically by weight or maybe pre-cooked volume) compared with perhaps 15% in the typical non-'fat-free' recipe. 0.1% of BPA is not an insignificant quantity given its possible effects, and is likely to be a higher leachable content if it is all concentrated in external trimmings. It is unclear what a tenth of a percent of a hand needs to do, to operate the device, but it does also mean that it is not as completely hands-free as implied. Or else it also implies that up to 0.1% of the phone contains ingredients sourced from human hands. At best, this could be skin cells from the workers (although phone assembly lines should be kept meticulously clean, to prevent damage to delicate components), or at worst, some workers could be losing hands into the assembly line due to poor safety practices.
Extended release charge cable
Electronics manufacturers support standards to reduce time to fully recharge, e.g. Qualcomm Quick Charge standard. This is a reference to "extended release" medication. It's unclear what purpose would be served by charging a phone slower than normal.
Closed timelike curves
This label is applied to the curved corner of the phone. Randall may be making a visual joke by referring to the corner of the phone by a relativistic concept. Closed timelike curves is a world line in spacetime that is "closed", in that an object following that world line will return to its starting point in spacetime, which implies that the object would be able to go back in time. It could also be a reference to the Bloomberg leaks that predicted the sharper corners of the iPhone 12, the phone model this is designed on.
Fits in standard shipping container
An intermodal shipping container is large enough to fit automobiles, raising the question of just how big this xkcd phone is. Other standard "containers" used for shipping items might be things like the FedEx, UPS, and USPS boxes, which often come in various sizes (small, medium, large) as well as their shipping envelopes, all of which could easily hold just about any phone that's out there.
Interlocking, stackable
A quality of, among other things, LEGO bricks. Probably a bad idea to use this feature, given how close the phone is to critical mass. There are electronic boards designed for interlocking and stacking, such as Arduino and Raspberry Pi computers, which can have other boards attached to them (shields, hats) to add functionality, however it's unclear what advantage there would be to stacking multiple identical phones together.
Nintendo partnership: GameBoy Printer compatibility
The Game Boy Printer was a thermal paper printer originally paired with the Game Boy Camera. This device was released in 1998 and discontinued in 2003, so this partnership would be obsolete.
Sustain pedal
A sustain pedal is commonly associated with a digital keyboard or piano; it lets the note continue sounding when the key is released. It's unclear what purpose it would serve in a phone, although it might be used for the screaming mode in the title text.
CDC partnership: when in an indoor space with too many people, phone begins playing "We Like To Party! (The Vengabus)" at slowly increasing volume until everyone leaves
An allusion to the COVID-19 pandemic. CDC stands for Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the United States public health institute. In 2284: Sabotage, Randall "promised" to bring an annoying karaoke song to a party to hopefully discourage people from attending, but this phone will apparently do so automatically. "We Like To Party! (The Vengabus)" is a 1998 Eurodance/techno hit by the Vengaboys, and is perhaps most familiar to Americans from a series of Six Flags ads.
Sacrificial anode
Useful if something metal will be in a wet environment for a long time. Commonly used on bridges and boats, but it may be a 'feature' of this phone because of its built-in water reservoir. The sacrificial anode is made of a material with higher redox potential (typically zinc) and will corrode faster than the (more valuable) metal object it's attached to. It's unclear if the phone HAS a sacrificial anode or IS a sacrificial anode.
Tactical helium reserve
Since 1925, the United States has had a strategic helium reserve. Helium is very rare on earth and has important scientific and military uses, so it’s important to have a supply in case supplies disappear. But here we have a tactical helium reserve, which suggests it's smaller and focused on shorter-term goals. Compare strategic bombing focused on destroying entire cities or countries and tactical bombing aimed at destroying individual targets or military units. Helium also has the property of being lighter than air, so if this reserve is large enough, the phone could float away if let go. However, this is unlikely, as the phone boasts other, heavy components such as large magnets, a water reserve, and a critical mass of fissile material.
50% below critical mass (2x safety factor)
Indicates the phone contains fissile material. This "2x safety factor" means that if you put 2 phones next to each other or put one phone next to a neutron reflector, you would have a criticality accident, which may explain why you would not own another phone after this one. A phone with this much fissile material would pose a radiation hazard. The "2x safety factor" claim may be related to physicist Richard Feynman's famous criticism of NASA in the Rogers Commission report on the space shuttle Challenger disaster. Feynman found that when he confronted NASA engineers with a part worn one third of the way through, which was not supposed to be worn through at all, the engineers claimed that this demonstrated a 3x safety factor rather than a failure of the part. This could mean that using the phone is harmful for some other reason (social media addiction?) but the xkcd phone has half as many users as it would need to cause a problem in this way.
Shake for factory reset
A factory reset is often possible on electronic devices and is usually accomplished either by pressing a button that is often well-protected against accidental contact, for an extended period or closing an electrical bridge. This one works like an Etch-a-Sketch, which would not be preferred, as slight disturbances could easily cause massive losses of data. In the other hand, given that it weighs at least 600 lbs, it will probably not be shaking due to a user intentionally trying to delete their data.
Norton MacAfee protection: if you're ever attacked by John MacAfee, Peter Norton will come out of retirement to defend you
Norton and McAfee (note spelling) are competing software security companies, founded by Peter Norton and John McAfee respectively (though neither has any involvement with their name-sake companies anymore). This "protection" combines the two of them and claims that Norton (the person) will defend you if McAfee (the person) attacks you. May have been inspired by John McAfee's recent arrest which brought attention to the allegation that he had hired a hit man to kill his neighbor in Belize in 2012.

The title text mentions xkcd phone OS updates, including:

Infinite customization (home screen icons no longer snap to grid)
iOS 14 offers new features such as widgets on the home screen and changing of app icons, allowing for customization on a level not seen before on the platform. Here though, the "customization" hinges on a technicality, specifically of permutations: On a phone with, say, one million pixels, the number of ways one can place 20 icons is P(1000000,20)=9.998x10^119, an absolutely enormous number, but most people would not call two home screens where the only difference is that one icon is one pixel over a different configuration. Plus, not being able to snap the icons to a grid would be incredibly unsatisfying, as it would make it very difficult to get icons lined up with each other.
Dark mode (disables screen)
Dark mode is a popular feature on websites/apps with light backgrounds like Twitter and Reddit, changing the background to a dark color to help late-night users sleep better. Disabling the screen would not be a pleasant surprise when a user goes to turn on beloved dark mode. May be impossible to turn off if the screen is no longer touch sensitive when darkened unless the unmarked buttons can be used to disable it. Also, a possible reason to want to use the shake-activated factory reset.
Screaming mode (self-explanatory)
The phone screams. Reference to the screaming-while-falling xkcd Phone. There is also a trend for modern games to have a Streaming (or Streamer) Mode, which suppresses the playing of licensed soundtracks so that streamers (those who promote the game by live-streaming their sessions) don't potentially fall foul of automated 'take-down' orders on behalf of the originators, and potentially also various display optimisations suited to the medium.
Coherent ultracapacitor-pumped emission (please let us know what this setting does; we've been afraid to try it)
This mysterious feature has a terrifying name, with even the developers refusing to test it out. This option would probably be very easy to accidentally tap, given the style of every xkcd Phone ever. Possibly activated with one of the unlabeled buttons making it even more dangerous. Coherent Emission is associated with lasers, and a common type of laser uses helium and neon to generate the beam, which could justify the helium reserve. Ultracapacitors store a large amount of energy than can be discharged very quickly. The feature described is then probably some sort of very high-power pulse laser. Raises the question of who designs the phone if the people marketing it don't know what it does, or what purpose someone may use it for.


[The comic shows two smartphones: one taller and wider than the other. ]
[Labels to the left of the larger smartphone:]
  • Full drivetrain warranty
  • Coated for easy swallowing
  • Surgical-grade apps
  • Built-in 600 lb magnet for magnet fishing
  • Oral-B partnership: hold phone against teeth to ultrasonically remove plaque
  • 40 mL emergency water supply
  • Security feature: unmarked side buttons
  • 3,000,000-volt arc allows wireless charging from a range of up to 36 inches
  • 99.9% BPA- and hands- free
  • Extended release charge cable
  • Closed timelike curves
[Labels to the right of the larger smartphone:]
  • Fits in standard shipping container
  • Interlocking, stackable
[Labels to the right of the smaller smartphone:]
  • Nintendo partnership: GameBoy Printer compatibility
  • Sustain Pedal
  • CDC partnership: when in an indoor space with too many people, phone begins playing "We Like To Party! (The Vengabus)" at slowly increasing volume until everyone leaves
  • Sacrificial anode
  • Tactical helium reserve
  • 50% below critical mass (2x safety factor)
  • Shake for factory reset
  • Norton MacAfee protection: if you're ever attacked by John MacAfee, Peter Norton will come out of retirement to defend you
[Text below the phone:]
The xkcd Phone 12* and 12 Max**
*Standard **For people named Max
"The only phone you'll ever own"®™

comment.png add a comment! ⋅ comment.png add a topic (use sparingly)! ⋅ Icons-mini-action refresh blue.gif refresh comments!


Is there any way to install the Vengaboys feature on my own phone? It's pure genius

(Above unsigned comment was clearly being replied to by the following. Tidying up by moving my own signed comment about coatings.) 12:39, 27 October 2020 (UTC)
Perhaps by taking data from infrared sensors and microphones, an app could automatically start the song? Might have some interesting copyright issues, tho idk how those things work … 23:57, 26 October 2020 (UTC)

If it's coated for easy swallowing, perhaps it's actually a tablet... 22:50, 26 October 2020 (UTC)

Now officially entered in Explanation. 12:39, 27 October 2020 (UTC)
This could be a reference to the recently-released Animaniacs reboot trailer, where the Warner kids are shown a tablet (probably an iPad) that looks like it's on Wikipedia and told that it contains the sum of all human knowledge. Yakko then takes the tablet, puts it in a comically large glass of water, swallows the water and tablet in one gulp, and then seems to have absorbed all of the knowledge. Duraludon (talk) 17:34, 27 October 2020 (UTC)

Disabling the screen is a real feature (though it's called screen curtain on iOS https://support.apple.com/en-ca/HT201443). -- (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

The 600LB magnet doesn't weigh 600 pounds, it's strong enough to hold 600 pounds. And if you used the interlocking feature, and it doesn't explode, you'd never be able to pull the phones apart. Mikemk (talk) 01:42, 27 October 2020 (UTC)

I just looked up 600 lb fishing magnets on Amazon.com. They weigh a couple lbs. Barmar (talk) 05:05, 27 October 2020 (UTC)

I think that the coherent ultracapacitor-pumped emission feature may be a lightsaber mode? 19:33, 8 February 2023 (UTC)

From what we've learned about xkcd-Phones so far, I wouldn't be surprised if the magnet actually weights 600 lb. 11:23, 27 October 2020 (UTC)
yes, the text is ambiguous if the 600lb is force or weight. And, if it's weight, it would explain the need for a drivetrain to move it, and a shipping container to ship it.
How much does the magnet cost? 600₤?

I would actually buy something with Game Boy Printer compatibility. Goodbye, world! (talk) 03:49, 27 October 2020 (UTC)

John MacAfee fled Belize (and the Belize police) when he was wanted for questioning as a “person of interest” in the murder of Gregory Viant Faull. I suspect that that is part of why Randal posits an attack from John MacAfee (and defense from Peter Norton, who (unlike John) hasn’t completely lost his mind). I think he is also on the run from Spanish authorities for tax evasion. 04:33, 27 October 2020 (UTC)

I think there should be some explanation of who these people are. I could assume that they're the founders of the companies of the same name, or look it up, but the explanation should probably mention it. Angel (talk) 12:44, 27 October 2020 (UTC)
Isn't it "McAfee", not "MacAfee"? Or is there an unknown menace named MacAfee that we need to be warned about? 13:30, 27 October 2020 (UTC)

Don't many mobile games use shaking as a way to reset or roll the dice? Barmar (talk) 05:04, 27 October 2020 (UTC)

Also Moto phones use shaking to turn on the flashlight. Mikemk (talk) 05:19, 27 October 2020 (UTC)

The tactical helium reserve might prove problematic if the phone uses MEMS for timekeeping.

(Great link, but unsigned...) Helium's a wonderful substance. Everyone speaks highly of it! 12:39, 27 October 2020 (UTC)

"Coated for easy swallowing" could be referring to ambiguity between 'tablet (pharmacy)' and 'tablet computer' (which is quite similar to a phone). Angel (talk) 12:44, 27 October 2020 (UTC)

See comment (nearly) at top of Talk. Also you may have missed the change I made which then momentarily vanished due to someone's overzealous manual reversion but now is restored. Enjoy. ;) 12:54, 27 October 2020 (UTC)
(I seem to be IP-hopping. I was the "Tweaks and Buffs" author/restorer consistently on 141.*, not the "I'm an idiot" one on 162.* but here in comments I'm appearing as 162.* both before (inc. last night) and after. - Probably something to do with Cloudflare. It's always something to do with Cloudflare! Any guesses what my IP sign-off will be this time???) 13:09, 27 October 2020 (UTC)
Solution: Make an account, and log in. OhFFS (talk) 16:53, 27 October 2020 (UTC)

Possibly, to note, Thermal Paper, as what is used by the Gameboy Printer, has high quantities of BPA. Running gag? Also, atmospheric helium temporarily makes IPhones not work, due to mems device issues. https://www.cnet.com/news/iphones-reportedly-malfunctioning-after-helium-exposure/ 15:24, 27 October 2020 (UTC)

Vengabus increasing volume as a method of behavior discouragement has been referenced on the podcast My Brother, My Brother, and Me episode #398. Randall Monroe is a listener and a one-time guest on the program, and this line may be in reference to this segment.

Retro gaming is becoming more popular, could the joke of GameBoy Printer compatibility be that compatibility with a regular GameBoy might actually be a desired feature? 01:53, 28 October 2020 (UTC)

Coated for easy swallowing could also be a reference to this anti-swallow coating: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/mar/02/nintendo-switch-game-cartridges-taste-bitter 09:43, 28 October 2020 (UTC)

Could somebody finish off that "Given that Closed timelike curves are usually associated with solutions to general relativity that allow for time travel...", or at least alter it so it isn't trailing off? 10:39, 28 October 2020 (UTC)

Hey, if the phone has a 2x safety factor, and the phones depicted in the comic are next to each other, wouldn't this be a picture of something moments before disaster?

Alternative explanation for '"The only phone you'll ever own"®™️' could be that future phones are either expected to become Mobile Device As A Service, or alternatively so highly locked-down into a proprietary eco-system of technology that your 'ownership' of the device in your hand becomes moot. From yet another sharer of a CGNAT ip address 18:13, 29 October 2020 (UTC)

I thought it was a reference to the "Closed timelike curves": once you own this phone, you own this phone. 10:37, 30 October 2020 (UTC)

The laser projection system might be useful for emergency self defense, though depending on the potential, it may also count as a concealed weapon and thus be illegal to carry without a permit in the United States (place dpendent) and be basically illegal to own elsewhere.

I bought the phone, and by default it boots into 16-bit real mode. How do I make it automatically boot into 1024-bit protected mode (this is a joke, by the way.) -- 16:42, 4 June 2021 (UTC)

Is Screaming Mode really self-explanatory? I first thought it meant a mode to let the user scream into it. I thought the joke might be that it's not "self-explanatory" what a screaming mode would do on a phone. 04:39, 28 February 2022 (UTC)

What if the object depicted in the image isn't 2 seperate things, the 12 and 12 max, but actually just one object that's stuck together somehow? 16:57, 22 September 2023 (UTC)