In defense of capacitive buttons

The first setup is a combination of home button and capacitive buttons, as seen on the Galaxy S7. The second is on-screen buttons like we see on the Huawei P9. The third is capacitive buttons. Now, after having used all three, I’m going to argue that capacitive buttons are the most minimal, elegant way to interact with your smartphone.

Who cares about buttons?

Without buttons, your phone has no idea what you’re doing. If there were no buttons, all it could register would be taps, swipes and pinches. A mess of directionless gestures you used to smudge your way through apps and webpages.

With buttons, you introduce order into the Android experience. You can tell Chrome you’d like to go back to the previous webpage, or hold down the back button to switch to the last-used app. You can bring up the app switcher to browse recently-used apps. You can tell Android to return to the home screen, or switch on Google Now on Tap for the few of us who are running Marshmallow.

Whether physical or capacitive, buttons are important and help turn a mess of gestures into a structured set of actions. It’s like a car needs pedals for acceleration, braking and gear changes.

Home button mythology

The first widely-used configuration for smartphone buttons came with the iPhone. Aside from its volume controls, all iPhones have one physical home button placed under the display. It allows users to exit apps and return to the springboard, or to access apps such as iTunes with a double-tap, or a long-hold to launch Siri.

The physical home button, as also used in Samsung’s Galaxy S and Note lines, is an interesting design choice. The iPhone introduced a touchscreen with gesture controls and a virtual keyboard to the masses. It removed the need for physical hardware – a mouse and keyboard – to interact with a GUI. But adding a round, tactile button retains a small but poignant link between person and machine. It also enforces simplicity in iOS. To me at least, Apple’s home button is a sort of poetic design choice.

But is a physical button any better than a capacitive one? I think not. The fact that Samsung has gone a step further than Apple and placed capacitive buttons beside its physical home button – when an all-capacitive setup would do exactly the same job – makes you wonder what Samsung’s design reasoning was.

Defending capacitive buttons

I’ve been using the OnePlus X for several months now. It uses capacitive buttons for navigation, with the choice to use on-screen buttons as well. I’ve also spent quite a bit of time with theGalaxy S6 and its physical/capacitive mix. But I’ve spent the most time with Android’s classic on-screen capacitive buttons, primarily with the Galaxy Nexus.

I have to say, on-screen buttons aren’t so good. At times they even suck. They chew up part of the display and it leaves me wondering – is this necessary? Practically all phones have a lower bezel that could be used for buttons.

Off-screen buttons don’t take up any space on the display. They’re invisible, discreet and don’t lose their ‘clickiness’ after a few months. For me, the only drawback of adjusting to capacitive buttons was that they’re virtual – my fingers want feedback when I press them, just as users of the MacBook enjoy the manmade ‘clicks’ of the touchpad, even though it doesn’t actually click. It feels a little strange at first. But this was easily solved by switching on Vibrate on touch in the settings.

With the reliability, minimal design and there-when-you-need-it qualities of capacitive buttons, I’d argue that you should give them a try. You might even realize that it’s the best way to engage with a mobile OS.

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