An argument for hardware buttons on mobile devices

Butter-side up or down? That’s the source of conflict in Dr. Seuss’s “The Butter Battle Book,” where, if you’re foggy on the details, two sides clash over their toast preferences, pushing one another to the brink of war. Less contentious but equally trivial to onlookers is the currently raging button battle: Are mechanical buttons necessary on mobile devices? One camp, Apple, says yes, and it’s sticking by the prominent Home buttons on its iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. The other camp, Google, disagrees and has moved away from physical buttons on its Android devices, embracing on-screen soft buttons in their place. So what’s the fuss about? And why should I care? Read on to find out.

Over the years, Apple’s Home button — featured on every iOS device, save for Apple TV — has added more tricks to its bag. In 2007, for instance, when the iPhone debuted, the Home button did little more than whisk users back to the home screen. Now, four major software upgrades later, the iPhone’s Home button handles multi-tasking, Siri, and the camera shortcut, too.

Then there’s Google, which has moved to abandon physical buttons in favor of on-screen soft buttons on its Android devices. Since the company took the wraps off its tablet-specific Honeycomb OS last February, an introduction that coincided with the launch of the Motorola Xoom, minimalism has been the order of the day. In fact, neither the Xoom nor the ICS-powered Samsung Galaxy Nexus — both flagship devices developed under the watchful eye of Google — sport a physical Home button.

And that’s an example Google hopes hardware and software developers will follow. It recently advised both to ditch the central Menu button (strangely present whether or not it’s accessed by a physical button) and fold those functions into an on-screen action bar.

So which has it right? I’m partial to physical buttons, myself. They offer something that soft buttons don’t. For one, tactile buttons give you the satisfaction of actually pushing something, which, stress relief aside, lets you know that you can expect a result. And they make reassuring sounds when you press them — even when the host devices are muted or asleep.

If you think either point is overrated, I challenge you to find someone who prefers an ATM-style virtual keyboard over its tangible cousin. Good luck.

What’s more, physical buttons promote accuracy, and they’re always where you left them, regardless of the device’s status. That makes them substantially more accessible, especially in the dark or for those with weaker eyesight. Play around with a Kindle Fire for an afternoon and you’ll see what I’m on about. That tablet has but a single button, and even the simplest tasks like adjusting the volume can be an exercise in frustration.

That said, physical buttons aren’t without their faults. Anything that’s continually pressed is bound to wear out eventually, and that’s a problem I’ve run into with my iPhone 4. A year and a half into ownership, there are times when pressing my phone’s Home button does absolutely nothing. In fact, sometimes I have to press it two or three times before the action registers, which can be extremely annoying when I’m trying to move quickly through the OS. It’s even withstood my attempts to fix or recalibrate it.

Soft buttons are immune to this pitfall. With fewer moving parts, reliability’s improved. The Galaxy Nexus, for example, won’t have any difficulty navigating to or from its home screen down the road, no matter how many times its user requires it. In my brief time with a Nexus, I grew to appreciate that dependability. It just worked. (Isn’t that supposed to be Apple’s motto?)

But that’s not enough to make up for the simplicity of physical buttons (when they work), in my mind. What’s so difficult about a soft button? you ask. Try explaining to your tech-illiterate grandma how to return to her buttonless device’s home screen, or how to adjust the volume on her Kindle Fire. Not so easy, huh? The buttoned approach will always win out with the lay crowd because it’s just more intuitive, which is precisely why user-friendliness-obsessed Apple has kept it around: Everyone knows how to get back home.

So what about the savvy among us? Which is better for people who don’t crochet in their spare time? For my money, it’s physical buttons. I can certainly understand the appeal of on-screen soft buttons, and they do have one major advantage (reliability), but it’s not enough to trump the convenience, accuracy, and satisfaction of a well-sorted, old-fashioned button.

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