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Drawing a Line in the Sandwich: Android Phone Makers Right to Keep Buttons

The death of dedicated physical buttons is killing Android phone usability.  First smartphone vendors came for our keyboards, relegating QWERTY handsets to the low-end of the market while so-called "superphones" make you hunt and peck at virtual buttons on their touchscreens. Then dedicated camera buttons started to become an endangered species. Now, with Android 4.0, Google wants to replace the dedicated back / home / menu buttons below the screen with persistent icons that sit below all your apps. Fortunately, vendors are finally drawing a line in the sandwich.

At CES and Mobile World Congress, all the new Ice Cream Sandwich phones we saw had the same row of dedicated navigation buttons below their screens you see on Gingerbread, rather than the virtual set that appears on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, the only Android 4.0 phone designed by Google.  From the HTC One X and One S, each of which has back, home and recent apps buttons at the bottom, to LG's L7 phone with its circular physical home button and the unnamed Fujitsu Tegra 3 phone with its hard-plastic buttons, everyone's ignoring Google's bad advice.

Building buttons into the UI is a waste of precious screen real estate.  On the Samsung Galaxy's Nexus's 1280 x 720 screen, the virtual button bar takes up a full 96 pixels or 7.5 percent of the available vertical space in portrait mode. That may not seem like much, but it could be the difference between seeing an extra photo on a web page or needing to scroll. When you combine that with a 54-pixel status bar that appears on every screen, you're losing 11.7 percent of your screen, before you get to application-specific toolbars like the gigantic 98-pixel button row that appears at the bottom of your inbox in Gmail .

In landscape mode, the effects of this wasted real-estate are not quite as bad as the button strip cuts 85 pixels off the side of the screen while the status bar still trims 52 off the top. Still every pixel you lose hurts your usability by making you scroll.

"In theory, physical buttons are an attractive concept: they can save precious screen real estate," Nielsen Norman Group Usability Expert Raluca Budiu told us. "You don’t need to bother with interface widgets for 'Back' and 'Search' on the screen, if you have dedicated physical buttons that do exactly that."

Budiu said that, by removing physical buttons from Ice Cream Sandwich, Google is actually getting rid of a major usability faux pas, the ambiguous "menu" button that has so many different functions in earlier versions of Android. The problem, Budiu noted, is that buttons which look the same but have different purposes in different contexts can confuse the user. Fortunately, in Ice Cream Sandwich, the menu buttons are all built into the app itself, not into the three system-wide navigation buttons.

However, buttons like back and home which perform the same function in every app, work better with their own dedicated, physical spaces. By including discrete back, home and recent apps buttons, vendors are providing the same consistent experience you get with the button bar, but are providing a far superior usability experience that saves all-important pixels. If only, the HTCs and LGs of the world would take their new-found button-consciousness a step further and put physical keyboards on their high-end phones again.

Online Editorial Director Avram Piltch oversees the production and infrastructure of LAPTOP’s web site. With a reputation as the staff’s biggest geek, he has also helped develop a number of LAPTOP’s custom tests, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. Catch the Geek’s Geek column here every week or follow Avram on twitter.