Skip to main content

Let's talk about the Pixel's crazy new on-screen keys

So the first proper render of one of the new Google Pixel phones has leaked out, and with it we're getting a look at some new UI tweaks in that device's software. The Pixel phones put the Google brand front and center, and so we're seeing some significant UI tweaks — not least of which is in Android's soft keys.

The new key layout uses a solid triangle, circle and square for the three main Android keys, with the home key having a white border around it. It's not a huge departure from the outlined icons of old, but it is a significant change to a part of the Android UI you'll be looking at an awful lot.

The new-style home button is a big visual differentiator from other Android phones.

There's no suggestion that these new-style buttons will come to other Android devices, Nexus or otherwise, with the arrival of the first Nougat maintenance release (Android 7.1). Indeed, our money would be on this style of button being unique to Google's Pixel devices. We'll have to wait and see on that, though.

We'll also have to hold out on whether there'll be any animation changes accompanying the new button style. Right now on Android 7.0, there's a familiar glowing effect when you tap the on-screen buttons, and Screen Search (formerly Google Now) expands to form a border around the screen when you long-press the home key. With Google (and its services) taking a more central role in the software, it'll be interesting to see whether the visuals of Screen Search — or simple button taps, for that matter — are also changed.

The new keys also raise a few concerns over possible image burn-in on phones with AMOLED screens, as the Pixel and Pixel XL are rumored to have. Since you're you're lighting up more pixels more often compared to the old hollowed-out icons, any burn-in could be more noticeable. (That's almost certainly something Google's factored into its design process, though.)

Android's on-screen keys: A brief history

Android 3.x Honeycomb — Tron-style

Honeycomb buttons

Honeycomb was weird — a tablet-only release of Android in 2011 that never really took off, with an oddball sci-fi UI. And that extended to glowing blue soft keys — a first for Android at the time — with sharp edges and bold outlines.

Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich - 4.4 KitKat — Holo-style

ICS buttons

In late 2011, Ice Cream Sandwich toned down the overtly futuristic visual style of Android, bringing a cleaner button layout with more consistent lines and a curvy back arrow. This button style would stick around through to KitKat in 2013.

Android 5.0 Lollipop - 7.0 Nougat — Material-style

Material Design buttons

Lollipop introduced Material Design, a major design overhaul for the whole of Android, and other Google properties. And with it, Android's on-screen keys became simpler and more geometric, with small outlined shapes for each key.

Pixel phones (Android 7.1 Nougat) — Google-style

Pixel buttons

The new Pixel phones are more Google-focused than ever before. So it's only natural to see this reflected in the devices' new button layout, with solid shapes extra prominence given to the home key, which is used to activate Screen Search (formerly Google Now).

Love 'em? Hate 'em? Share your thoughts on the Pixel's new-style soft keys in the comments below!

Alex Dobie
Alex Dobie

Alex is global Executive Editor for Android Central, and is usually found in the UK. He has been blogging since before it was called that, and currently most of his time is spent leading video for AC, which involves pointing a camera at phones and speaking words at a microphone. He would just love to hear your thoughts at alex@androidcentral.com, or on the social things at @alexdobie.

114 Comments
  • Missing those Holo-styled on-screen buttons.....
  • Same...
  • I loved how they looked. The one on Lollipop and above looked a bit too "playful" to me. The closest to those design-wise would be the capacitive ones on my Note. Shame that they're in the reverse order.
  • Being right-handed, I find the return button on the right hand side is the right side. I can't imagine what kind of pain in the a$$ it would be to reach across my Note 4 every time I want to skip back to a previous page.
  • I'd be surprised if you can't move the position of them around. You can on LG phones.
  • Same. I miss them too.
  • Yup, Holo looked the best IMHO and were intuitive. Now the triangle, circle and square just look childish (reminds me of toy blocks).
  • Simplicity is what sells in mobile. I don't see the big difference. A hollow arrow vs a hollow circle. When a left arrow represents back, a up arrow (looks like a home) would reference upwards, not home. Plus homes around the world look different so it wasn't universal. The square referencing the screen and apps on it, is a stretch though, but the right has always been a stretch.
  • If it makes you feel any better, they also give the OS snack names.
  • First introduced with Ice Cream Sandwich
  • I prefer the physical home button!
  • I look at that screen resources used and am so glad for my GS7e. I cringe when they go away with it. Won't be a deal breaker but I love my screen resource
  • I'd rather have the on-screen keys especially with my my GS7e since it's such a large screen. First of all I have always hated the physical home button! Second vertical real estate on a typical home is a none issue with the soft keys and video can go fullscreen hiding the keys. The soft keys not only give you flexibility but also only require a slight touch vs. a full physical button push with the physical home button. I guess that is the great thing about Android, there are options for everyone. I just wish the best phone (GS7e) had the softkeys. Used to run AOSP ROMs on my S3 and S4 to enable the softkeys...
  • There are still games coming out to this day that don't feature the Immersive Mode (where the OSB's hide away) so instead of hitting a control within the game you accidentally press the home soft key or the recent apps soft key, that was legitimately frustrating especially on Landscape games with the LG G4 we had which I did NOT experience with my Galaxy Note 3 and its hardware controls, and the controls were small (GTA Chinatown Wars, I would hit the recent apps key when I meant to hit the pause button, SMH) Personally, it's much harder to match a certain theme with permanent OSB's unless you had Cyanogenmod or whatever so you could replace the OSB, I have an Xperia Z2 as well but again I'm at the mercy of the Xperia theme, not the free rein of Substratum or Cyanogenmod when I could be creative as heck on the Note.
  • Also, I remember vividly many, many times with my Nexus 5 where I could not get those on screen buttons to show up. Probably user error because I'm sure I was missing something, but you shouldn't have to know any tricks to be able to push a home button.
  • You can have the G4 disable the on screen keys automatically for any apps through the system settings.
    And bring them back with a swipe up or down if memory serves.
  • I agree. I don't understand the reasoning behind on-screen buttons. People have good arguments for why they are OK, but i have yet to see a good argument for why they are better.
  • The biggest argument for them is that they can allow for a larger screen to body ratio.
  • That might be true in theory, but actually in practice the opposite is true: all phones have chins at the bottom, and if they don't have physical buttons on these chins, your 5" phone becomes a 4.7" phone (I'm making up the numbers here) since the bottom is always taken by pictures of buttons. Also, the phone with the best screen-to-body ratio I could find is the Note 7 (80.94%), which has out-of-screen buttons. Most phones with great S2B ratios are around 76-77%, and it seems like button design has little correlation to the S2B ratio. In addition, most of the time the buttons should not be counted as screen estate, since they cannot display any content: in that case the ratios are highly favorable to physical button solutions.
  • "a big overhaul". I don't think so. I don't care what they look like, just keep that physical home button out! #MAGA
  • Holo ;/
  • Meh. Was never a fan of on-screen buttons from the start.
  • I have cm13 on my tablet and the latest update to the N theme adds those new buttons. I actually learned to like them in probably the first 10 seconds.
  • I still like Holo . . . and dare I say it, I thought Honeycomb's style was actually pretty sweet . . .
  • +1 for honeycomb
  • At least for new users, the honeycomb and ice cream sandwich ones were easy to get used to since their function is obvious. I'm taking new users like my parents, not tech savvy users.
  • I like these new buttons and am looking forward to the update on my 6p.
  • Unfortunately I do not think it will happen.
    I like change.
  • Why not?
  • It's my hunch Google wants to differentiate the Pixel from the Nexus line. Hope I'm wrong.
  • That would be alienating the existing fan base. I hope they do too.
  • I completely agree. I think Google is going to want to do everything they can to position the Pixel line as completely separate from the Nexus line, and adding some design flairs that will be available only on Pixel phones seems like a pretty easy way to do that.
  • Yeah I doubt they'll be putting those new buttons on the nexus phones. Cause it's not about alienating nexus users,this is just a completely different phone. A different launcher and probably all kinds of other stuff.
  • I think I'm indifferent, hopefully they wouldn't be super bright at night lol.
  • How many words were just presented about 3 buttons???
    Slow News Day...
  • Judging by how many people were losing their minds over them in some prior stories and in this one, it seems pretty justified.
  • Honest to goodness. "The on screen buttons are now solid." End of story. No comment section necessary.
  • I like the samsung off screen layout
  • ew omg why does the bottom 1/4 of the homescreen of a white background? What are they thinking. Hopefully it looks better when the phones are revealed but in this render it looks like poooooo pooooooooo
  • It's JUST for Pixel Launcher, IDK why they went with that, but get Nova Launcher or Action Launcher or even Google (Now) Launcher and you don't have to see that.
  • I agree 100%. It looks terrible but that's just my opinion.
  • If you're going to have a Chin the size of Jay Leno, you could at least make it useful by having your buttons on it, and regain the screen real estate lost to onscreen buttons, although, Google only does on screen buttons.
  • This. I get the flexibility of OSB's for remapping and theming, but I MUCH prefer the buttons to be always out of the way and off my screen. Look him much phone real estate is wasted in this pic between chin, buttons, and the home row of icons!!!
  • I wonder why someOEMs never adopted Lollipop buttons.
  • Not something I'm overly bothered about but the more minimalistic they are the better.
  • Gosh, I like Android and Google but some of their product strategies - lots of them really - are ridiculous.
    They create Android TV but totally fail to come out with a more affordable version of it to compete with the cheaper Rokus and Fire TVs to build market share. Neither do they ever actually promote it, as 99% of the population has no idea the product exists. They create good messaging products in Instant Messenger (web-based client ahead of its time), Messenger and Google Voice ... only to abandon them in favor of Google Hangouts, which never truly worked properly and was only really good with their failed social media product, and now they are going with Duo and Allo. When all they needed to do was to combine Messenger and Voice into a single app, make it truly work across all platforms (including Chrome, Android TV and Android Wear) and add video and the ability to plug into EXISTING social networks (including Google+ but also Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat). Android Wear? They needed a low-cost tier that could have been FitBit or Jawbone type devices that would have handled basic notifications, fitness and voice functionality for less than $100. Instead they went all-in on wrist smartphones (well wrist tablets actually as virtually none of them offer 3G/LTE or NFC and initially most didn't even offer Wi-Fi) that cost more than some good smartphones do. They create a very good OS for tablets and other large form factor devices in Honeycomb ... and then totally drop it. Completely. And in the process almost entirely cede the tablet market to the iPad and allow an opening for Microsoft to create a niche with the Surface, which is what devices like the Asus Transformer, Lenovo Yoga and Galaxy Note tablets (all of whom now run Windows 10!) would have become if they had Google's support. Now they come back <b>5 years later</b> to what they could have had with Honeycomb in Andromeda. And now they come out with the "Pixel" phones that are basically souped up HTC One devices (that nobody wants ... the marketplace has spoken ... only if HTC is going to be the sole manufacturer for Pixel phones going forward and if Google uses the relationship to drive cutting edge hardware the way that Samsung, LG and even some of the Chinese manufacturers do instead of pretending that their OS and updates is the be-all end-all for more than a tiny band of enthusiasts, most of whom also buy devices from other OEMs anyway!) that have 2012 era HUGE BIGGER THAN i-PHONE BEZELS EVEN THOUGH THE DEVICES LACK A PHYSICAL HOME BUTTON OR ANY OF THE EXTRA PREMIUM HARDWARE THAT OTHER FLAGSHIPS HAVE THAT WOULD EXPLAIN OR JUSTIFY IT. Bigger bezels WOULD make sense in the case of the Galaxy Note 7, LG V20 or Moto devices because all of those are packing extra hardware and options. But why on earth does a software-driven device have bezels that are so large as to make their devices nearly the same size as 5.7' screen ones? And if I wanted a device with rounded corners, massive bezels and a $650 price tag why not just go ahead and make it an iPhone 7? It is not like I ever use the headphone jack anyway (have favored Bluetooth for years). By the way ... do we see Google matching Apple's $150 AirPod lunacy - then again Apple fans are notorious for being willing to pay double for the Apple sticker so why not - with Chromecast Audio headphones? Which would be super-easy to make, could cost as little as $40 and could double as Bluetooth devices also? I don't know, maybe hiring Rick Osterloh wasn't such a good idea. Google should have brought on someone from a hardware division that actually succeeded, like Samsung, Oppo or Huawei.
  • When all they needed to do was to combine Messenger and Voice into a single app, make it truly work across all platforms (including Chrome, Android TV and Android Wear) and add video and the ability to plug into EXISTING social networks (including Google+ but also Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat). ^^ Yeah. Super simple. Why didn't they think of that?!
  • Your tone is quasi-facetious but he's not wrong. Google has done all these things seamlessly... so we know they CAN do it.. they just choose not to by releasing new apps that do the same things and then abandoning them when the community says "wtf do we do with all of these?". Google Talk was fine. Rebrand it to hangouts was a bit of a misstep but we accepted because it did Gtalk, SMS, and Video... it was as close as anyone was going to get to an all in one, next to What's App, which isn't really all that big in USA. But then they could have integrated Google Voice into it and made it a full fledge all in one app, but instead they just let Hangouts and Voice get stagnant. Then they release an official Messenger app, which is really just google branded app for SMS/MMS, decoupled and defeatured from Hangouts.. and a year later they dangle Allo and Duo in our face... which is the polar opposite of what we wanted. And yes we all installed Duo and Allo... tried them for a few days and have subsequently uninstalled them because we know we'll never use them and we've already expressed this to Google before their release. DOA. Sometimes they just don't get it. Google. We want Hangouts 2.0! Cross platform Messenger that defaults to Google Talk protocol when talking between 2 google accounts, sms when talking to someone on a phone that doesn't have hangouts or a google account, Voice integration, tons of emoticons that work universally (apparently), and smooth video chat. It can be done if you put all your apps into one.
  • You started out right.. but HTC phones have been stellar since they pretty much MADE Android with the original HTC Evo. The HTC One line has always been cream of the crop, giving all the features people would complain about like aluminum case, top end processors, and lets not forget that all too popular clock widget. Hell, google still doesn't have an official digital clock widget... and while that widget is no longer trending, HTC still makes some of the best phones... even Apple copied off them with the iPhone 6.. HTC has always been about beautiful designs and I'm actually excited that the Pixel phones are being made by HTC. Google should just buy HTC and have them make all their phones.
    The HTC 10 is also a very great phone. HTC doesn't do bad phones.. even the A9 which made the mistake of putting a donkey ass battery in it, is a pretty great phone.. its just that nobody wants it because of the battery oversight.
  • If they're so great, why do so few people buy them?
  • The two points are not mutually exclusive. Just because people don't buy a ton doesn't mean they are not great devices. Htc suffers the same fate as Google... Lack of advertising, lack of wow factor. I can count on one hand how many nexus or htc one commercials I've seen in my life. I count that same number nightly of iPhone and galaxy commercials watching evening television. And we all know apple can market ice to an Eskimo... It's all about the hype. Htc and Google don't build hype, despite the fact that they make superior devices. Nexus phones historically don't get anywhere near iphone or galaxy sales, but tech blog readers know that the 6p was rated the second best phone you could buy right behind galaxy. But ask your mom what Samsung galaxy is, then ask her what a "6p" is or "one" is. She'll have no idea because htc and Google have no idea how to advertise. Meanwhile, the best phones are overlooked
  • Great post. I too am baffled by many of Google's questionable strategy and product decisions.
  • Have fun AMOLED users. It's pretty obvious what these buttons will do to your screen after about 4 months. "(That's almost certainly something Google's factored into its design process, though.)" I think you are greatly overestimating Google...
  • My old Galaxy Nexus, which was the first phone to have on-screen buttons, also has AMOLED and it's still looking great. It got years of use. #thepluralofanecdoteisdata
  • You can say it's anecdotal all you want. A simple google search will say otherwise.
  • Same here, my old Galaxy Nexus didn't burn in either. Not sure what people do with their phones to make that happen. Like any device, take care of it, and it will take care of you. Unless you are a Note 7. :)
  • Well, from what I've heard, making it slightly grayish will actually reduce the risk of burn-in on an OLED panel.
  • By grey do you mean the icons themselves or the dock shading?
    Both my 2nd gen Moto X and N6 have burn in from day one.. but only noticeable when you remove the nav bar....
  • The icons on the navbar. White statusbar icons can also burn-in. From what I know, Samsung's statusbar icons actually have a slight tinge of gray. The reason for that is to reduce the risk of those "burning-in" on the display. I can do the same on other devices with root access and Xposed + GravityBox. But rooting on a Pixel is probably going to be more challenging. Not impossible, though.
  • Thanks, if I could control, without root the colour of status/nav icons I'd probably do slightly grey. I could of course leave them in place then I'd not notice the burn in...
  • Legitimately the ONLY Samsungs that have Burn In are SHOW FLOOR DEMO UNITS, but those have screens that remain lit up from 10 to 9. The same screen interfaces. Every single day. For multiple months on end. Virtually every normal user or the most aggressive Ingress-er or Pokemon GO hunter will not use their phone to that point that screens will burn in.
  • My last 2 phones have been samsung and they both showed burn-in within a year. Specifically the notification bar pixels are noticeably brighter, even though it's hidden on my homescreen and most apps support it being the same colour as what's on screen. So the burn in has occurred only from when I have apps that use a black constant notification bar, not a good sign for the longevity of amoled screens. Can't see it being feasible for TV screens if the pixels dim as quickly as they do on phones. Current phone with this issue is a note4 btw
  • I wish I could agree.. Currently on N6 with no nav bar I'm seeing the nav icons in a very pale shade of grey against the white background of the comments.. not bothered but there still there.. also a slightly lighter shade of white, where it's usually solid black..
  • Worthless trolls gotta troll.
  • Oddly I've had amoled phones for years and have never even heard of this burn in problem. Well see if it's an issue but doubtful. The buttons auto hide for most apps
  • This is simply not true, I've got 2 AMOLED phones, one is a few years old with daily use and the other about a year old. Neither panel has any burn in. The black levels, colour reproduction and brightness of AMOLED panels is far superior to any IPS panel. Both of my phones are Nexus, and I am very very happy with them.
  • Thank goodness for Nova
  • Is nova pro worth the $5? Anybody???
  • Yes.
  • Yes, it is. Though if you wait, it tends to go on sale now and then for a dollar or two. If you see it on sale, most definitely worth whatever the sale price is.
  • Thanks to all. I'll keep my eyes open
  • Oh yes it is
  • It is when it's on sale for 99 cents.
    For most people the free version works good enough.
  • I'm gonna treat them like I currently do.. removed as much as possible.. definitely no nav bar, status bar or persistent search bar, especially on my homescreen.. same goes for a clock/date widget that won't shortcut to both Clock and calendar...
  • "crazy new on-screen keys" Really? They filled them in and added some blur around it... CRAAZZZY!!!
  • Google Now Launcher and the problem is gone.
  • Launcher doesn't control navigation buttons.
  • "Let's talk about the Pixel's crazy new on-screen keys" Let's talk about those stupid round icons instead. A much bigger problem.
  • I wonder if they are going to incorporate pressure sensitivity ala apple?
  • That title didn't disappoint at all! Those sure are *craaazy!*
  • Clickbait much? This article is an embarrassment. Wow, that's a HUGE change. THANK GOD androidcentral was here to keep us informed! Would've hated to have been blindsided by THAT!
  • And you clicked and got hooked. Move along now.
  • since when in filling in a circle "crazy?"
  • Since it's Google doing it to an Android device.
  • This is a site where a fraction of a millimeter added to a phone bezel elicits a nearly insane level of negative reactions among its readers...so I suppose a few extra lit pixels on the home button would, among these readers, be considered "crazy".
  • Craaazy, man, just craaaazy! Wow! I am completely and utterly blown away!
  • I have allways removed my navbar and used only pie control, looks amazing while avoid burn screen
  • No matter what it still looks ugly.
    Windows 10 has some great looking icons but damn we don't have a good phone. Someone please tell google that we need "Dark Theme" and better icon design.
  • How come the key position can't be moved on stock Android? On my LG G4 I can move the location of the keys. I prefer the back key on the right hand side of the screen instead of the left like on Samsung phones. Seems like such a basic thing why isn't it part of stock Android. Android is supposed to be all about customizing the system no?
  • I guess they want to leave that to OEMs.
  • I am in agreement with this! I have just got the pixel xl after having to hand my note 7 back.
    After being with Samsung for many years I am struggling with the back button being on the left I would love to move this to the right .
  • wow, they made them solid. CRAZY !!! ..... google has Lost their mind here !
  • Change for the sake of someone justifying keeping their job at Google. I can see the PowerPoint at the software design team meeting now.
  • I don't... I don't know what life is anymore
  • Wish they went with capacitive buttons. My HTC has on screen navigation. I just assumed I'd get used to the inadvertent touches, lost screen real estate, and constant rotation frustrations and that I would grow to love them. Not the case. 2 years later I still hate it and don't get why they're even a thing.
  • On android 7.1 the rotation thing was fixed now they are always at the same place no matter which way you go landscape. Now we just need an immersive mode option for the burn in problem
  • Sigh Google is the new Microsoft, they constantly reinvent the wheel. There's already enough consistency issues with Android because OEM's spew there ugly skins on top. We don't need Google changing buttons every major release cycle. 1. It's confusion.
    2. It serves little point because the buttons have the same basic functions any way.
  • As a former Nexus user for the many years making after making the jump to the Galaxy series. I can say the very first thing I fell in love with was the physical home and capacitive buttons. Specially being completely dark (no metal or gold ring around it) and having the option of turning off the back light on the multi task and back button. It gives you more on screen content and reduces the chances of accidentally hitting those buttons that are constantly there.
  • I'm not seeing a "big overhaul" here. Same basic shape, same basic size, same location, same order, they even do the same thing. All I can see is a slightly different look to them. What is it I'm missing?
  • You're missing that AC needs to hype meaningless article like this one to generate click throughs. If the headline said "New nav icons are no big deal" no one would bother the click on it.
  • Ev
  • Physical keys over everything
  • Love all of the new design changes. Keep up the good work Google!
  • Gosh! A dot, a triangle and square... and now their coloured in? Crazy those keys eh?
  • I can't believe how much the Google Now button (or whatever) reminds me of the unlock slider on my old OG Moto Droid!
  • People devote way to much time and energy to worrying about trivial crap like this. Most people learn where the buttons are by location, and don't even have to look at them after a while. There a far bigger issues with Android that Google needs to spend time on than the look of these buttons.
  • The solid white soft keys are already a part of CM13. I have them on my Nexus 4 and 10. I also love that CM13 lets you hide the navigation bar on top, as well as the soft keys on the bottom. They can both be pulled up with a swipe. Stock Android should've had that a long time ago, especially with all the AMOLED burn in issues.
  • I hate everything being so minimalist that the icons don't provide any hints as to their functions.
  • Did Rene sneak over from iMore!?
  • I'm overcome with excitement at the change in these little on screen buttons.
  • Hate the new ones. Lollipop ones are better. Holo style are best. Holoyolo. This kind of fits my general opinion of Google's design in general. It peaked in jellybean era, and has gotten progressively worse since. The same is kind of true of their hardware design. The Nexus 4&5 were the best looking Nexus phones, and have gone down hill since also (even if the build quality has gotten better). Whoever was making the decisions back when those were being designed was onto something. What happened?
  • I could care less about the shape or where the buttons are located. It all works for me. Never bought or didn't buy a phone because of the buttons.
  • Very nice
  • I just don't see the reason behind removing the physical home button. I expected more people to be upset with it, but it seems that most people don't care a whole lot. It may just be me, but I've only had the phone 2 days, and I can't even count the number of times that I have hit the home button when trying to hit the space bar. I also don't like that when the screen is turned off, I have to hit the power button to turn the screen on with no physical home button. There's one or two other reasons that I'm forgetting, but the lack of a physical home button is the reason that I am going back to the Galaxy S7, since I have a 14 day trial period with this Google pixel phone through Verizon