The first Android smartphone – the HTC “Dream” – came with a trackball and five hard buttons on the front: home, menu, back, call accept and call decline. Though as Android has evolved over the years, so have handsets running the OS and by now, we have lost the trackball and phone call buttons. In 2011, Google announced Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich running on the Galaxy Nexus, which used virtual buttons Back, Home and Multitasking Tray, along with on-screen menu buttons that only show when required, replacing their hardware counterpart.
Google’s attempts at standardizing Android phones’ button layouts haven’t been all too fruitful, as just about every Android smartphone manufacturer – save for Sony and Motorola – have their own special layout for their flagship devices. The HTC One, for example, uses two capacitive buttons for Home and Back, while high-end offerings from Samsung and LG phones feature two capacitive buttons for Menu & Back, and a hard button for Home.
So, at present we have two types of button layouts out in the market: Purely virtual keys, and a combination of hard keys plus capacitive ones.
I have spent a respectable amount of time using phones from both of these camps, and personally dig Samsung’s combination of hard buttons and capacitive ones. With solely capacitive button phones like the Xperia P and HTC One X, there is no distinct boundary between the different keys, which can result in misplaced taps. This is all the more problematic with purely virtual, on-screen buttons like in Nexus 4. By keeping a hard Home button in the middle that also separates the two capacitive buttons for Menu and Back, Samsung and LG have eliminated any chance of accidental button taps.
Of course, one beef I have with Samsung is the functions of these buttons; I don’t quite understand why they don’t adapt Google’s standard of Back, Home and App Switching buttons. Search and Menu now appear within apps wherever they are required but no! Samsung still clings on to the physical Menu button like an overly attached girlfriend.
Having a unique button configuration to maintain a distinct brand identity is understandable, but it comes at the cost of a diminished, inconsistent user experience, and increased headache for developers . It about time Android manufacturers started working properly to kill the beast that is fragmentation.
But that’s just my opinion! I’m clearly against a purely capacitive button layout, but virtual keys have their own, real benefits. They are dynamic in nature so if you are watching a video, the buttons can go away, leaving you to enjoy a full screen view. Bezels become smaller as well*, resulting in bigger displays on smaller device sizes. For instance, Motorola’s virtual key-equipped DROID RAZR HD has a 4.7” display within essentially the same dimensions as the DROID RAZR, which had a 4.3” display and a capacitive button layout. Also, developers have an easier time maintaining a consistent user experience. To sum it up, the world becomes a better place for everyone, except for people who prefer another button layout.
Enough from me; it’s time for you – our readers – to tell us what you think.