GS8 navigation keys

A few weeks back, Samsung started rolling out a new software update to the Galaxy S8 series in India and Europe, including a curious new option for the phones' navigation bar. As standard, a small dot icon in the bottom left corner lets GS8 owners hide the on-screen navigation buttons for home, back and recent apps, freeing up space for whichever app is currently on-screen.

That's not a huge deal on the surface. Other manufacturers have included similar features for years, and Android itself has had the ability to auto-hide the navigation bar in some apps going all the way back to version 4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich. But when you combine this new feature with Samsung's "invisible" button setup, things become really interesting.

The technology already exists for Samsung to hide the softkeys by default in the Note 8 or S9 without any impact on usability.

You see, with the navigation bar hidden, you can still activate the home button by hard-pressing the area of the display where it would usually appear. (That's not a new feature, by the way, but it becomes even more useful when combined with the new option to hide the navigation bar.) You can't do the same with the "back" or "recents" keys on the GS8, because they're not pressure-sensitive, but this limitation would be trivial to overcome in future phones, even if the whole area of the display isn't pressure-sensitive. A hypothetical Galaxy Note 8, for instance, could simply include three pressure-sensitive areas, one for each key, giving Note owners the option of hiding the navigation bar at all times, and reserving the entire (rumored) 6.3-inch display for app content.

It would be a natural next step in the war on bezels we've witnessed over the past six months, freeing up more display space for the things that matter with only a minimal impact on usability.

Such a feature, which surely makes too much sense to not arrive in either the upcoming Note 8, or next year's Galaxy S9, would be beneficial in other ways. On an OLED screen, displaying the same thing in the same place for an extended period of time is bad, because it can cause image burn-in — a ghost of, for example, the on-screen keys, might appear in the same spot when you're watching a full-screen movie. This is a characteristic of the way OLED screens age, and is non-reversible.

Eventually, all your Android buttons will be invisible.

In fact, despite Samsung's best efforts to gradually shift the position of the GS8's keys ever so slightly to avoid burn-in, I'm already seeing ghosting around the rectangular shape of the notification bar itself, because that area is always black, and the rest of the screen is always brighter. That's after just two months of use.

A completely buttonless setup would eliminate this problem, allowing the bottom area of the screen to wear more evenly.

If Samsung is successful in bringing this feature to the Note 8 or GS9, it's likely other phone makers would follow suit, particularly as big phone bezels fall further out of fashion. Even if you're not using OLED, the aesthetic and functional benefits remain.

It's taken a long time for the majority of Android phone makers to ditch physical and capacitive buttons, with only a few holdouts remaining as of mid-2017. So could the next evolution take us from virtual keys to entirely invisible keys? I'd say there's a very good chance indeed.

Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8+


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