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Haptic feedback is the most important smartphone feature no one talks about

OnePlus 8
OnePlus 8 (Image credit: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

Haptics is a term that you hear tossed around whenever a company that makes phones either does a really good job or a really poor one. What it means is simply how the vibration motor functions to make your phone vibrate when you want it to vibrate. Like everything else about a modern smartphone, though, it's not that simple. Haptics are difficult to get right, yet they make all the difference when it comes to the user experience.

What are haptics, exactly?

Vibration settings

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

Inside every phone, there is a tiny motor with a weight attached to the shaft in a way that makes things off balance. When the motor spins, it vibrates inside your phone — you've seen this in action if you're ever had your phone in silent + vibrate mode and gotten a phone call. But there is so much more that you might not even recognize is going on from that little vibrating motor whenever you touch your phone screen.

Tapping on glass needs a way to provide feedback.

A phone display is a single piece of hard glass or plastic. It doesn't bend or flex when you're tapping an icon or typing a message, so on its own, there is zero tactile feedback. Your finger hits a piece of glass, and without some sort of haptic motor and software to properly use it, that's the only thing you would feel.

I know some people look for ways to disable haptic feedback, especially in their keyboard app. More power to you if you're one of them, but most people rely on that feedback without even knowing it and would feel lost if it suddenly went away.

Now that we know what haptics are, what does it take to make them good? There are different ways they can be great, and — of course — different methods to get there.

The right motor is important. Some companies use a really strong motor while others use a weaker motor. What's most important is that it's strong enough and fast enough to give a response when it needs to. That's easy when vibrating for an incoming call, but not so easy when you're typing as fast as you can in your favorite keyboard app.

Motor placement is important, too. I think most of us have used a phone with a strong motor mounted too low in the phone body, and when it "buzzes" you can feel the bottom of the phone shake. The motor needs to be strong, fast, and in the right spot to create a feeling of balance when it's bouncing away in your hand.

The most important thing of all is the software. Motors are easy — you order one, hook it up to a switched circuit, and when you flip it on, it spins. Knowing exactly when to switch it on and how long to let it spin is not easy, and this is where phones with poor haptics usually fail. Software is just hard sometimes, and this is one of those times. Haptics are about more than just the motors!

Haptics are not easy to get right, and Google, as well as the company that made your phone, did a lot of work on them.

You're dealing with milliseconds so there is a little room for error, but for the most part, the haptics engine needs to start exactly when the touch is registered and stop as soon as our finger begins to lift off the glass. And a lot of that, especially the stopping part, takes some testing, some more testing, and even a little luck to get right.

OnePlus has been able to choose just the right motor and put it in just the right place for a while now, and we love the haptics on phones like the OnePlus 8. Google never uses a strong motor in its Pixel phones, but enough tweaks are made so that the experience is perfectly timed even if it is a weaker vibration. You might think those are great haptics, too. Both answers are right.

Why great haptics make such a difference

Gboard

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

In Android, haptics are one of those things that "just work," but not very well on their own. The operating system supports haptic feedback, but the company that made the phone has to source the haptic motor, the motor controller, and the software that makes it adjustable.

Once that's sorted, the Android APIs can tell the haptic motor to turn on and off. The company that made your phone did a lot of work to make the haptics work as well as it can when you're tapping away at the screen, but software developers also need to do some work here.

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A great example is a racing game, like the Asphalt series. Just like your game console controller, your phone will rumble and vibrate according to how well (or poorly) you're driving on the screen. Run over some bumpy terrain, and your phone will vibrate for each bump. Crash into a wall or other car, and it will vibrate more violently for a longer time.

The haptics engine has no idea that you're playing Asphalt 8, but the developers of the game know how to talk to the hardware through an API so that the experience is fine-tuned and we enjoy playing it even more.

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Now, think about your keyboard. Unless you're someone who disables haptics, you don't really think about how the vibration works in tandem with your typing. The haptics motor has to turn on as soon as you tap a key but shut down in time for you to tap another key so it can spin up again. Remember, the software has no idea when you'll tap the next key, so your keyboard uses a fixed number for how long to vibrate. A very tiny number so that by the time we feel it, it's already done.

That's important when you have no other tactile feedback. Your eyes know when something on your screen changes and your brain knows that you intend to tap a key in the keyboard or tap an icon to open an app. Your fingers need to know that it actually happened, too.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Senior Editor — Google Ecosystem

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.

37 Comments
  • Turning off all haptics is one of the first things I do on every new phone. They drive me crazy!!!!
  • I CONCUR!!!!!!!! Sorry, I didn't mean to yell.
  • 100%. It's easily the least important consideration when choosing my phones.
  • Amen. Getting a new phone drives me nuts till I turn it off.
  • Yes, that's one of the things I turn off when I get a new phone! Haptic feedback drives me nuts!
  • I'm in the same boat and it looks like that boat is Getting full LOL
  • Only weirdos turn off haptics.
  • I replaced my Pixel with a OnePlus 8 yesterday and I am still blown away by how much better the haptics are. The motor is much more precise and pleasant to use. I was hoping for improve haptics on my next device and OnePlus delivered.
  • Was it the original pixel? That vibration motor wasn't very good. I just got the OnePlus 8 from the pixel 2 xl and the haptics are definitely different. They feel pretty good, but seem louder. Like tapping sound. I think the pixel 4 still wins on Android. I would much rather have good haptics than super strong haptics. Apple does both and on a phone like the SE, it takes up a huge amount of space and the battery is tiny
  • Yeah I had the original pixel. Additionally, I was using a Moto g6 between when the Pixel died and when I got the OnePlus and that haptic feedback was atrocious.
    I like the OnePlus' motor because it feels much tighter, and the feed back feels more like a tight pop than a floppy buzz.
  • A keyboard? How quant.
  • Quaint? You mean?
  • That's closer to it.
  • One of the first things I turn off when setting up a phone.
  • Yes! I never understood why some phone reviewers mention them in their reviews.
  • Turn them off on all my devices, 1st thing to do.
  • OnePlus haptic engine is really good, as an iPhone now which is still the gold standard for haptic feedback.
  • For once I agree with you!
  • Like rest of these guys commenting, it's one of the first things i turn off. The only thing more annoying than a phone vibrating, is a phone meeting a noise.
  • For a blind or visually impaired person, haptic feedback is valuable.
  • "Haptic feedback is the most important smartphone feature no one talks about"??? Really, that's the most important feature no one talks about? Maybe no one talks about it because it is the LEAST important feature on a smartphone! What about LTE bands, and how well it keeps a cell signal inside buildings, or any of a dozen other way more important features that rarely get talked about? Most of these Android web sites are nothing more than wannabe camera tech sites. I rarely even take a picture. I like a strong vibration motor for when I place my phone in vibrate mode (Moto X Pure would loosen your fillings) but I never use haptic feedback....and nobody I know uses it either!
  • To be honest, I never even think about haptics when I buy a phone. It's one of those things that, yeah, I'll notice if it's good or terrible, but it's never something I base a purchase decision on.
  • No one talks about it? Are you sure, Jerry? Almost every phone reviewer, brings up haptic feedback. Why? I don't know. It's the first thing I turn off during the setup of a new device.
  • iPhone still has the best haptics of any phone IMO.
  • Very true but OnePlus is leading the way charge for the Android side, I love how you the haptic feedback is on my 7T.
  • The only time I cared about the haptic feedback on a phone was with the HTC 10. The vibration motor on that phone felt horrible and sounded terrible.
  • Jerry, I'm surprised at you! Linear resonant actuators (LRAs) are the "good" haptic motors, while eccentric rotating mass vibration motors are the old style that give your phone that lazy buzz while it dances on the table! The problem with ERMVs is that the motor needs time to spin up, and it can only buzz at the same frequency. LRAs have a weighted mass with magnets suspended above or between electromagnetic coils, and input to the coils moves the magnets one way or the other like a voice coil causing a speaker to move (except the "voice coil" is fixed in this case, if you want to get technical ;). In addition to fast response, LRA's also have the advantage of being directly controlled by the input frequency and amplitude. This means they can vibrate at any frequency, and be soft or strong. This last bit is a huge advantage over a spinning motor which can only be cycled on and off. The Pixel 3, which some here have praised, has a box shaped LRA with two magnets sitting on top of one coil. The drawback is that it wastes half the energy from the coil, and needs higher voltages to compensate. I have another unit that is similar from another phone, but this once has two plates with four magnets, and the coil is suspended between them so that it uses both halves of the electromagnetic field. This one is more efficient and has the potential of being more powerful, but the downside is that it's more expensive. However, the iPhone takes the cake. The mechanics behind the Taptic engine are identical to the LRA's I mentioned above, and it also uses coils moving magnets on a weighted plate. However, the Taptic engine is haptics on steroids, with five magnets and EIGHT coils! If it were bigger, you could probably use it to drive nails with the side of the phone, lol. The haptics are so strong that it feels cool in games, for about two minutes before it gets annoying and you turn it off (Hello Alto's Adventure). The downside is that it's expensive, chews battery, and takes a huge amount of space. If you are into haptics: totally worth it. If you are not into haptics, it's a huge waste and probably cost 200mAh worth of battery space. I will have to disagree with placement though. Android Central reviewers made big deals about vibrators being in the wrong place. I just realized that sounds dirty, but I digress. The OnePlus 8, iPhone, and several others have their vibration motor on the bottom.
  • I can't stand Haptic feedback. First thing I turn off when I get a new phone.
  • I leave haptics on because I do like that slight response to pressing the screen. But, I use the OnePlus 6t a device that people regularly diss for haptics and I really don't understand what reviewers get so obsessed over. The haptics on this phone feel just fine to me, I'm paying extra attention right now and the motor spins and stops on time like it should. I don't know if reviewers have super sensitive fingers or something but you need to stop this obsession. I'd you need to write one sentence about it in a phone review go nuts, but the articles about only haptics and making them sound like the most important feature of a phone is just nuts.
  • I just moved from the 6T to the 7T and believe me.. the haptics are different, much better and feel more like a tap rather than a vibration. The original idea behind haptics are to reproduce the feeling you get from typing on a physical keyboard. This regular vibration you get with the 6T is just that.. a vibration. It's nothing like a tap on a physical keyboard.. which is what the 7T feels like. I can't for the life of me understand why anybody would turn it off. Typing on glass with no "physical" feedback is totally ridiculous to me and is a key decider when purchasing a phone. Blame it on my BlackBerry days.
  • I'm not thrilled about having a vibrator in my pants pocket.
  • You sound a bit boring
  • No, just not keen on it. It's annoying AF.
  • If you are visually impaired then haptic feedback is important. For the rest of us it isn't. It's either something we turn off, I do, or it is a very minor experience on your phone.
  • I really like the new haptic motor on my s20 ultra 👍before that I allways turned it off but I'm using it now
  • The main thing that annoyed me when I tried an iPhone lately was the fact you cannot turn on haptic feedback for the iOS keyboard and it drove me crazy to not have it after so long being used to it.
  • Wow everybody's talking about haptic feedback, sorry Jerry you need to change the title of your article!
    Personally I turn every single sound and vibration off straight away, can't stand it when you hear that click click click when somebody's typing on their phone.