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[Ask The Readers] Physical Or Virtual: Which Android Smartphone Key Layout Do You Prefer?

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.

[polldaddy poll=”7122112″]

Leave a comment

  • jorem

    Virtual buttons is the way to go, they are very customizable especially on custom roms. But I wouldn’t mind a proper qwerty android phone

    • Exactly! That’s what I love about virtual keys too: customization through custom firmware.

    • ShiroEd

      They are a waste of screen space pure and simple.

      • Brian Koppe

        It seems you don’t understand how this screen space thing works. The virtual buttons allow the screen to be *larger* since less bezel is needed at the bottom without dedicated buttons. That means you get the *same* screen space when the virtual keys are on the screen, and *more* screen space when using apps in full screen that turn them off.

        • Jeff

          That is not true in the real world. Apps typically do not move the buttons out of the way but, rather, ghost them with three dots. No part of the screen should be reserved just for three little buttons. If a display is 1280×800, every pixel needs to be usable for the app’s display. That does not include buttons.
          Personally, I use a hack to hide the virtual buttons until needed. Every app is now in a proper aspect ratio, which virtual buttons ruin.

      • spepper

        Absolutely. Back/Home/Menu keys are standard navigation keys, and not to include them on the bezel, thus forcing the use of the goofy “virtual” bar taking up valuable room on the display area is just design error, IMHO. This is especially true on the phones that have less than a 5 inch screen.

  • Virtual keys, like my Galaxy Nexus.

  • I’m the only person to choose purely capacitive keys? Oh well 🙂

  • rshewmaker

    Swiftkey and Swype have improved my view on button-less phones. Until, they create a greaseless touchscreen (typing this as I’m eating pizza) buttons will always be a necessity.

  • KJ

    On screen keyboard with Swype or similar. Physical keyboards are pointless on a device as small as a phone, making typing slower and the phone twice as thick.

  • argtx

    virtual buttons take valuable screen space…i dont like that so..capacitive or physical home buttons for me

    • ShiroEd

      Agree. I’m amazed that more people don’t seem to see this as a problem or a downside…

      • Brian Koppe

        That’s because it’s not a problem at all, you’re misunderstanding the purpose of the virtual buttons. Without dedicated buttons, the phone needs less bezel on the bottom and the screen can be lengthened. You get the same screen space when the buttons are visible, and *more* screen space when the buttons are turned off by an app in fullscreen.

        • ShiroEd

          Assuming that the section of phone beneath the bottom of the screen ‘needs’ to be a certain depth (Microphone, Antenna or whatever) then ANY phone will have this space regardless of whether it has on screen nav buttons or not. There is ALWAYS space beneath the screen. Look at the Nexus 4. Plenty of space for the nav buttons (capacitive or physical) but its also eating into screen space with the virtual buttons. I do understand the potential for the virtual buttons but it won’t be realised until the bezel beneath the screen is the same width as the bezel to the side of the screen. If you can show me a phone like that then I will concede your point above.

        • Guest

          In other words – Show me a phone with On Screen Virtual Navigation buttons and a reduced bottom bezel size (too small for physical/capacitive buttons) and you might understand my point.
          Best examples I can think of – Sony Xperia Z, Nexus 4, Moto Razr Maxx HD. All have bottom bezels AT LEAST as thick as the SGS3 (for instance) BUT the SGS3 doesn’t have screen space take up by nav buttons.

        • Jeff

          I believe that you may be misunderstanding the problem. The issue is not the physical screen size but rather the resolution. It does not matter how big or small the screen and bezel physically are if actual pixels are lost to the buttons. Apps do not typically make the buttons vanish, either. One of the most popular image viewers, for example, keeps them visible. This means that a 1280×800 picture on the Nexus 7 displays shrunk and with top and bottom borders. Yes, I realize that this is the fault of the developer, but it illustrates the real issue with virtual buttons – pixel loss, not bezel size.

  • Dimitri Smith

    virtual keys are a waste of space. not worth losing 10% of the screen.

    if there is room then capacitive buttons are the way to go.

  • foggyflute

    Am I the only one prefer pie / lmt ? It take no screen page, just need a few mm of bottom border to work.

  • Rehan Ahmed

    Virtual keys for me, especially because you can customize them and also make them disappear if you’re watching a movie!

  • You must be out of your mind if you’re a root user and you don’t have removable battery and hardware keys.

  • Gauv

    Virtual keys – for those who womplain about screen space, install LMT and enjoy the PIE launcher.

  • simpleas

    Im guessing millions of people who actually buy phones want the samsung kind. it’s really the best of both worlds. I love my home button. Although I will admit, LMT does an awesome job.

  • anand mehta

    motorola xt907 and xt926 virtual button r the best of any
    wud prefer apk file of those motorola back menu and home virtual key of motorola
    to use on another cellphones