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Buttonless phones are a cool idea that serve no real purpose

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an editorial complaining about in-screen fingerprint sensors — going as far to say that they're the worst thing about phones in 2019. I'm still not a fan of them, but I will acknowledge that I may have been a bit harsh with some of my wording. I personally prefer regular side and rear-mounted sensors, but there is room for in-screen sensors to improve. When that happens and their speed is up to snuff with traditional sensors, I'll be happy to eat crow.

Now, I'm ready to complain about something else — buttonless phones.

Last week, a report came out claiming that the Galaxy Note 10 won't have any physical buttons and instead have pressure sensitive sensors on the frame to do things like adjust the volume and turn the phone on/off.

The argument for buttonless phones, at least right now, is that they make the handset more durable as there aren't moving parts of any kind — allowing for a sturdier frame and better waterproofing. However, I call BS on that. Case in point, the HTC U12.

HTC released the U12 in 2018, and as you might remember, its biggest claim to fame was the fact that it didn't have real buttons. There were still "buttons" for the power/lock button and volume rocker, but they didn't actually press in. Instead, they were merely pressure-sensitive sensors that activated once enough force was applied.

Buttonless phones don't contribute anything meaningful to the conversation.

At launch, the phone was a hot mess — so much so that we couldn't recommend buying the U12 because the buttons were that bad. HTC did eventually push out a software update that resolved our complaints, but at that point, it was too little too late.

Outside of being something to use in marketing and promo materials, the lack of buttons on the U12 didn't contribute anything meaningful to the phone. It was just as sturdy as anything else on the market and came equipped with IP68 dust/water resistance. You know, the rating that pretty much every flagship phone has.

That's the kicker. Even if buttonless phones get to the point where they aren't hot garbage at launch, we're not gaining anything. We're still left with a weird alternative for a nonexistent problem.

Buttons may seem like a nontrivial part of a smartphone, but when implemented correctly, they do add a lot to the day-to-day experience. There's something satisfying about good, tactile buttons. They add a tangible interaction to a device that you otherwise interact with by tapping and swiping on a sheet of smooth glass. Furthermore, with things like Google Assistant and remappable Bixby buttons, you can perform various actions without having to even look at your phone.

Sure, vibration motors can be used to simulate a response like we saw on the U12, but unless Android OEMs manage to steal Apple's Taptic Engine, the physical feedback currently available just cannot compare to a real, clickable button. Apple mimicked the feel of a button quite remarkably with the iPhone 7 and 8's home "button", but we've yet to see anything come close to this in the Android space.

Is it weird to get this worked up over buttons? Maybe. I'm also someone who really goes nuts over vibration motors and haptic feedback, so I wouldn't be surprised to be in the minority with this train of thought. Even so, this is another hill I'm willing to die on.

As much as I dislike in-screen fingerprint sensors, I admit that they could be quite useful once the tech improves. If/when the speed and reliability issues are worked out, we'll be able to have phones with large, bezel-less displays and a front-facing fingerprint sensor to unlock it. With buttonless phones, all we'll end up with is a worse way to change the volume and turn our screens off.

Counterpoint: Bring on the portless phones and keep the weird ideas coming

Joe Maring was a Senior Editor for Android Central between 2017 and 2021. You can reach him on Twitter at @JoeMaring1.

32 Comments
  • Remember all the buttons blackberry had? Replaced them all with a slab of glass and took years to be as quick and useful as the physical button counterpart. And even now some people would prefer to type on a pkb. It's really not about what we need to make a phone better anymore. It's about making people believe they needed a new alternative
  • There are still blackberry branded phones with a physical keyboard if that's what you're into. I never had one, but i do kinda miss the numeric pad. I remember having a text convo with my then gf at age 17 at a bus stop in winter where I'd take my phone out, quickly read her message then stick my hand back in my coat pocket and reply by feel. Can't do that with a touchscreen! Spelling was better than feature typing too.
  • My keyone sitting in a drawer knows all to well TCL is still trying to figure out BlackBerry magic. Lol.
  • That makes me remember the old wheel interface on the early BlackBerry phones. One of the most intuitive physical interfaces ever, lost to the ages of 'progress' (and while it would make it incredibly difficult to maintain water resistance with a wheel these days, durability was never an issue - those phones were abused more than just about any other, and pretty much never had issues with the wheel). The trend these days has been towards all 'soft' interactions with the phone, and away from things that can be done without actually looking at the phone. Nice in idea, but not always best in practice.
  • Has anyone actually asked for this? I think not.
  • Without realizing it? Absolutely. Everytime we ask for larger screens, larger batteries, more intuitive software ect, companies will try to figure out what they can loose to accommodate it. We're going into the future whether we like it or not. Eventually we will be interacting with our phones like Tom Cruise in Minority Report. And there is no stopping it. I never asked for smartphones to begin with, yet here we are.
  • I mean, who asked for the notch? OR the holepunch? Or 4 cameras?
  • You don't have to buy in. The market dictates what is produced.
  • New technology isn't always immediately useful. Sometimes it takes an innovative use no one thought of to make one realize the usefulness of something new. Does that always happen? No. But it doesn't mean to stop trying new things. Swipe-typing wasn't even an idea until *after* software keyboards were a thing. With the costs of phones going up, honestly maybe reliability of less moving hardware may become more important as folks may keep their phones longer. Maybe some engineer will think of something nifty that makes buttonless a better option. I don't know. But hey, a lot of tech is filled with stuff no one asked for. That doesn't mean it won't end up being awesome. Not all technology is 100% accepted by 100% of people. If you don't like something, it doesn't mean no one will. If you don't find something useful, it doesn't mean no one will. The blanket statements are kinda tiresome. Since when should technology bow to the desires of any one individual?
  • Edit: Just thought of a future for buttonless tech. If we get better and better at haptic responses, we can start to simulate buttons where they don't exist. These can be configurable buttons that the user can place anywhere on the phone they want. Is this possible yet? No. But hey, you're not going to progress if all you think of are things already done.
  • Other than helping with water resistance , I see no real practical reason to have this.
  • Doesnt even help with water resistance. My galaxy watch has 2 physical buttons and a spinning bezel on top. Its waterproof down to 168 feet. Far, FAR more water resistance than any phone. Even the button free U12
  • Fact: The U12 Plus buttons are more reliable than the Galaxy S10 fingerprint scanner.
    And to back up that claim, I've been using the U12 Plus as a daily driver since January.
    Matter of fact, we own the iPhone 8 Plus and the XS Max, but I prefer the U12 Plus for many reasons, including the solid buttons (literally!) and a higher quality feel than the iPhones.
    Here's how the U12 Plus buttons work: You press the power button, and it turns on. All the time. You press the volume down button, and the volume turns down. Shocker, I know, right? What's interesting is that Android Central says the S10 is the best phone in the world right now. Despite the FP reader being a mess. Despite the FP reader being permanently disabled when the screen cracks. Despite the S10 being slower than the U12, having a bloody hole in it's screen, having worse biometrics, worse audio, and fewer hardware features. Oh, but the screen is nice as long as you have a wallpaper that hides that nasty hole. It's baffling from a logical perspective.
  • Uh oh...someone is HTC butthurt again. See what you guys did lmao!
  • Not butthurt, lol, just a little tired of a good device being used as a scapegoat. Don't YOU think it's odd that a device with only one issue is constantly having shade thrown on it, and a device with several issues is so highly praised? There was nothing technically incorrect about my post, by the way 😉
  • I'm assuming you own an S10? If not, where are you getting your assumptions from? Read ANY S10 review, and they dispute everything you listed.
  • "and they dispute everything you listed"
    Ok, let's just go down the list in a friendly manner.
    FP Scanner: "Samsung has addressed the issue directly: "we will continue providing updates to make the scanner work better""
    Scanner non functional after screen crack: Check any drop test. The Phonebuff S10 drop test comes to mind as one example. You can't break an ultrasonic transducer and expect it to work, and the S10 screen is a transducer for the FP reader. It's just science.
    Speed: The S10 is Slower than the P30 Pro, and also slower than the U12+
    Hole in the screen: Wait... You're denying this?
    Biometrics: Unreliable FP reader and face unlock that can be hacked with a pencil drawing on the S10+, while the U12+ has a rock-solid FP reader, and face unlock with 3D face mapping.
    Audio: S10 uses the default DAC that comes on the SD 855. HTC uses a custom DAC, and they demoed it in public using a Samsung and AKG earbuds as a comparison. Not. Even. Close.
    Hardware features: U12+ has multiple frame sensors that are programmable with variable sensitivity for pressure and duration, double tab sensors that are also programmable, and capacitive frame sensors that tell the phone how you are holding it with your hand to control or lockout screen rotation. The you also have a four microphone array for noise cancellation, active noise cancellation through headphones, audio zoom which can capture sound miles away (2.2 miles in our tests), and 3D surround sound recording. If you have technical questions, let me know, and I'll do my best to answer them. I'm looking at it from a technical perspective, and I know many will like the S10 because it checks so many boxes.
  • Is HTC still a thing? I hear LG is following their lead.
  • My first thought was, good point. Phones without buttons are basically useles options. Then I thought about the Galaxy Fold and how going buttonless might help such a device become slimmer, when folded. Right now, it's rather bulcky and I cant see spending $2000 for a phone that folds out into a tablet, with no real purpose other than viewing more at one time. But, I digress... That's not the topic. However, I can see Samsung implementing buttonless tech into the Fold. It would only make sense.
  • Maybe I'm old fashioned but I don't like or want this idea, just say no!
  • One thing I will say about a phone with buttons in it, every time i'm putting on or off a form fitting case, I **** myself expecting to see a button go flying off whenever the side of the case stretches over the buttons. This would certainly keep that from happening.
  • Funny...that thought never crossed my mind.
  • nobody ever thought about that
  • Mike_Luchia - It helps if you put the button side in first... but I know that doesn't help if you have buttons on both sides!
  • Honestly, I'm really tired of buttonless and bezel-less trend that has taken over the design elements of mobile phones over the past 5 years or so. When Android phones first came out about a decade or so ago, they had all the components of a truly functional communicatin device [ even though Android was still half-baked and the underlying hardware wss lacking. ] . For those of you who still remember, I would like to draw out of the history pages 2 devices, the HTC mytouch 3g [ I think called htc magic internationally], and Samsung behold 2 . They had the essential phone hardware, like call , end-call, and a scroll button or ball.
    Those keys were extremely practical. Whats wrong with having a scroll button ? How simple was it to end a call with the "End call " button [ why do I have to remap out the power button to do that on new phones? ] All this has been lost today. Just a race with apple to an dark abyss with Huge screens and buttonless phones that serve no purpose other than youtube viewing. If you really need a portable large screen device, consider getting a laptop or large tablet. I could continue my rant but I will stop here
  • Different strokes and all ...
    People who have constant pressure on the face and back of the phone really hated the LG volume and power rockers on the back of the G4 because it was constantly pressed. People who hold the phone in one hand for hours at a time, and change hands often as a result, are more annoyed by extra buttons. For instance, its difficult to NOT press the 'power off' button all the time while reading for hours at a time. Same with the BIxby button, too many frustrating accidental pushes.
    For most folks who interact in many short sessions with their phone, the more buttons the merrier because that can lead to more instant interactions. The LG V35 was the last 'best compromise' in buttons for me. Volume rockers for page switching in Kindle, and power/fingerprint on the back. But I am a shirt pocket naked phone person. And am, therefore, in the minority.
  • "I'm also someone who really goes nuts over vibration motors and haptic feedback, so I wouldn't be surprised to be in the minority with this train of thought." Joe, who do you think does haptics the best in the Android world? Many reviews I've read say LG, and as a G7 owner I can't say I disagree...but then again, it's not like I have a chance to use every phone out there, so I could be missing out. So, is there any mfr out there who does haptics as well as or better than LG?
  • I personally haven't had a chance to use the G7 or any of LG's latest devices with the updated haptics, but I have been quite happy with the Pixel 3's motor. Still doesn't compare to what you'll find on an iPhone, but it's probably one of the best I've experienced on an Android handset.
  • I agree with most of the article. My question is, because i haven't played w the htc, how is the phone affected putting a case on it? Right now my note 9 is in a case, because it's too slippery for me w out one. If we lose the buttons will there be holes in the cases? I know the evolution of phones went away from physical keyboards and such, but that was to gain screen space for viewing, i don't see losing the side buttons as a gain. My other observation is this, how fast do we need to get into our phones? The fingerprint reader on my note9 unlocks the phone in what feels like less than a second.. when i hear people taking about readers being faster i wonder if it's taking some people a long time to get into their phones.
    I haven't tried the new under screen sensor, but when i pick my phone up my hand naturally holds the phone where my fingerprint is read immediately.. wasn't that where a lot of the reviewers wanted it on the back a couple of years ago?? I have begun to accept that while every now and then there will be a valid improvement of smartphones and software, nowadays a lot of things are changing for the sake of change. My opinion, yours may vary.
  • Russel Shouse - The effect on the HTC buttons depends on the case, but I only have one case that increased the pressure needed for activation. That was the Fusion X by Ringke, and it's because they put a thin rubber strip to contact the button, and that rubber strip mushes down before it can apply any significant pressure. It's the wrong design for this phone, but it still works pretty well. Every other case I have either has no effect on button performance, or slightly enhances it. This is actually interesting, because cases sometimes have a huge impact on the physical button phones, making them hard to press or overly sensitive, and most of the time that "clickiness" that we love gets turned to a mushy, uncertain feeling. The haptic buttons seem more forgiving in my experience.
  • Dumb idea. Buttonless phones are a gimmick. Why fix something that is not broken?
  • I guess my perspective is a little different because I fix phones and other small devices. Right now, I'm dealing with a Dell desktop with a failed power button, an HP tower PC that you have to slap the front of the case to get the power button unstuck each time, an Acer monitor with a "menu" button that works half the time, an iPhone 6 and an iPhone 5SE with failed home keys, a worn out "lock" button on my car key fob, a video switcher with a intermittent "select" button, a Mackie 8 Bus recording console with several failed "solo" buttons, a Mackie SR 1500 loudspeaker with a power button you have to press "just right" to get it to work, a 2400 watt Microtech subwoofer power amp that I have to unplug each time because the power button is broken, an Android phone with a worn out power button, a Plantronics headset with an iffy power button and a dead volume button, and the select switch on the space heater in my room requires about ten presses to change temperature. I love good clicky buttons, but they fail a lot. The only downsides to pressure sensitive buttons that are exclusive to just them, is that they don't "feel" like regular button. This is true. Pressure sensitive button feel different, but it's not necessarily worse. That sharp haptic "snap" is cool when you get used to it, and hand the phone to a person who has no biases, like a child, and they they just use it. No one I've handed my phone to in the three months has ever asked anything about the buttons or had an unusual experience. You press the power button and it turns on and off. You press the volume up or down and the volume goes up or down... What else do we want?