Android users are being faced with an interesting dilemma in their next phone purchase. For some, the decision could make or break their next phone purchase. For others, it’s a fairly trivial thing that no one notices. Before Android 4.0, every Android phone had these four buttons just under the screen that were used for navigation on the phone. Typically, these buttons were the Back, Home, Menu, and Search buttons. Every manufacturer had their idea of which order those buttons should be laid out, and as a result the button layout often changed from phone to phone. These buttons are commonly referred to as soft buttons. In an attempt to exert a little control over the crazy Android ecosystem, Google introduced fixed software button in Android 4.0. The buttons were designed to create a uniform feel to the Android experience, as opposed to the current system where the OEMs adjust the button layout as they see fit. Already we’ve seen OEMs like HTC ignore this and put soft buttons on their Android 4.0 devices, showing no signs of complying with Google. So, which is the better way to do things, and is it something that should effect your next phone purchase?
For some reason, every time an OEM makes an Android phone, the layout for the soft buttons changes. Just imagine how much time and energy is wasted on the decision of where to place these same four buttons on the bottom strip of the phone. I’m sure there’s all sorts of market research and analysis that goes into figuring out which layout is the most optimal for users to do their thing. The companies don’t share that information, so each one of the companies conduct their own research.
At the end of the day, it is the same four buttons that you need in order to have an Android 2.3.5, or lower, device. The end result, every time you pick up your friends phone, you feel like you are holding some alien artifact as your thumbs struggle to find the comfortable layout they have on your phone.
Now, with Android 4.0, there are three buttons, since the Menu function has been placed inside the apps themselves. So far, none of the manufacturers have altered Google’s software layout of Back, Home, and Multitask. The buttons are soft buttons, like before, and provide the same functionality, as they did before. While none of the OEM’s have spoken as to a reason for the preference, it is entirely likely that cost of a factor here. Keeping the phones the same size would mean making the screen larger to include space for the software buttons. Compared to a piece of painted glass with a soft touch sensor and a light, there’s more than likely a cost difference in favor of soft buttons.
Google’s message to the carriers was pretty clear. By exerting a little bit of control over the software buttons, if feels almost like a line was drawn. Like all of their reference devices so far, OEMs have picked bits and pieces of the Galaxy Nexus and incorporated it into their existing designs. For some manufacturers, that meant a switch to software buttons. This meant having a little bit of the screen that was controlled entirely by Google. The software buttons are fixed, unless there’s a movie or game playing that takes advantage of the whole screen. In exchange, the software buttons are uniform across a wider base of devices, and the widescreen video looks great when you have that extra room to pull from.
Unfortunately, the software buttons are no more stable than soft ones, and if the software keys glitch, you often have to reboot your phone. This isn’t a regular occurrence, mind you, but it’s still frustrating. To make matters worse, some members of the Android modder community decided they liked their button layouts exactly the way they had it before, and performed a little manipulation to get that old look back. In the end, the software buttons are aesthetically pleasing, and the user gains a wider viewing angle for movies and games, but there’s very little else different.
Worth the wait?
I don’t see manufacturers like HTC backing down anytime soon. While companies like Asus have made the switch with the Padfone, there are too few benefits to the change to justify it. If a larger manufacturer like Samsung were to move to a software button system on a device like the Galaxy S3, competition would be reason enough to make the switch. Either way you look at it, there’s not nearly large enough a difference to justify holding out for a phone with that particular feature, unless you watch a lot of movies on your phone.