Am I the Only One Who Likes Physical Android Buttons?

By  |  Wednesday, June 15, 2011 at 4:04 pm

Boy Genius Report has posted some thorough alleged specs for Google’s next unannounced Nexus phone, possibly dubbed the Nexus 4G. Many of the specs are what you’d expect from a flagship Google phone, such as a dual-core processor, 1 GB of RAM, 1080p video capture and LTE connectivity.

But what’s most intriguing about this rumor is the possibility that Google will completely do away with hardware buttons on the next version of Android, called “Ice Cream Sandwich” or Android 4.0. The home, menu, back and search buttons will presumably become part of the software.

It wouldn’t be an unexpected change. Android 3.0 Honeycomb, the software version optimized for tablets, already lacks physical buttons, and Google has made clear its intentions to merge smartphones and tablets onto a single software version with Ice Cream Sandwich. But it’s harder to picture how Android tablets’ button-free concept would work on Android phones.

In Honeycomb, Google relegates the home and back buttons to a strip along the bottom of the screen. That way, the menu always aligns with the tablet’s orientation, so there’s no wrong way to hold the device.

But phones don’t have that issue. Sure, you may jump into landscape mode to watch a video, or to use the physical keyboard on a handset like the Droid, but the navigation buttons are always within thumb’s reach either way.

Besides, I kind of like physical buttons on Android phones. They’re not as elegant as the iPhone’s massive home button, but their omnipresence means that you usually know how to escape, search or adjust settings (except when developers don’t use the buttons, which is a problem for some apps).

And whereas iPhone apps have always built navigation into the software, Android apps have always relied on buttons. In their absence, those legacy apps will always need some kind of independent navigation bar, like the kind used in Honeycomb. If that’s the case, what’s the point?

I’m not saying Google can’t come up with an elegant way to ditch physical buttons. Maybe we’ll see some swipe-based navigation like that of the Blackberry Playbook. But if the Nexus 4G is real, and it’s doing away with buttons for good, I’ll miss ’em.



10 Comments For This Post

  1. James Says:

    There will be dedicated software buttons though….

  2. @abhijeet80 Says:

    The Pre does fine without buttons, they aren't really needed.

  3. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

    The buttons cost too much and are expensive to fix when they break. A simple rectangular touchscreen on a sealed-in battery/storage device can be made cheaply and sold to feature phone users. That is most of Android's business. They are way, way downmarket, eating up feature phone sales. The buttons were already really cheap and unreliable. Making them cheaper means getting rid of them.

    The buttons were never a good idea, though. Every pixel of the touchscreen is a button. And if you are going to install on various devices, just run on the touchscreen on each device. And the buttons were always in a different order on various phones.

  4. Stilgar Says:

    I've found that between a Swype keyboard and the Voice to Text options in Android that I'm much better off than I would be with physical keys.

  5. ahow628 Says:

    I'm torn. On one hand, I like having buttons that don't take up screen real estate. On the other, I like that we will now have some consistency with button placement/order. Every Android manufacturer has a different order of the buttons or even nix a button or two.

  6. Mike Cerm Says:

    I definitely prefer hardware buttons in use… However, hardware buttons are more likely to break or wear out, so there is some trade-off there. If I could choose the exact same phone with or without buttons, I'd choose 'with', but if my only choice is between a high-end phone with capacitive buttons, an LG Optimus One-variant with physical buttons, then is there really any choice?

    The saddest thing is that they're probably going to do away with the buttons and move them on-screen. While it makes the device cleaner-looking, as the screen can occupy the entire front face, it get really irritating when I look at Honeycomb and see a black bar occupying almost 10% of the screen, with just 3 little buttons on the left hand side. If that bar could auto-hide when not in use, it would just make things worse, because you'd have to just unhide it again before doing anything.

    I think Android's interface is a cluttered mess, and I don't really have any hope that they're going to improve it much any time soon. I think it's one area where Android will continue to lag far behind iPhone and even Windows Phone.

  7. Harry McCracken Says:

    When I used Windows Mobile fans, I was a big fan of physical buttons–which I'd usually reprogram to give me one-click access to the apps I used most. So I'm not opposed to them on philosophical grounds. But I do see some issues with their use on Android phones:

    1) With the advent of iPhone-style touchscreen phones, physical buttons feel like a departure from the UI that dominates your experience. It's like having to leave the room to turn the lights on and off.

    2) There's too little consistency among apps in how they treat the buttons. (In some, the search button works; in others, it doesn't.)

    3) The existence of a menu button–and menus at all–causes developers to build clunky UIs with stuff hidden in menus that should be easy to find.

    4) Google never mandated the order of buttons, so there's little consistency from phone to phone.


  8. nick dafo Says:

    i like the buttons a lot. i would love to have a buttonless phone too though. actually buttons or not i have no real problem. something that google has said is that they want to give OEMs the flexibility to not have buttons so i think that in the end it will be up to the OEM to decide if they want buttons or not. it will be possible to have both devices with buttons and totally clean of buttons ones and i fully welcome both of them.

  9. Max Says:

    Buttons on my Samsung Galaxy S2 are great, love having a consistent ‘back’ and ‘menu’ button and the occupy space to the sides of the main (iphone-ripoff) single button under the screen. They are ‘touch’ buttons so feel like touching the screen.

    I have not had any issues with the consistency of these buttons across apps, and would have to respectfully disagree with Harry that menus are always a bad UI choice. Menus allow the presentation of common options while allowing for more detailed configuration to be hidden in an orderly fashion for when needed.

    They can be implemented well or poorly, just the same as the simplification of a UI.

  10. Guest Says:

    Definitely you are not alone. I'm currently using an android phone with physical front buttons because I love them. If manufactures do not make high-end android phones with physical buttons in the future, I'd rather go for Blackberry – despite the fact that I'm not a fan of BB. I used to be a WM phone user, and I still miss the physical call/end buttons and optical trackpad. (and other buttons I reprogrammed to do different functions)