What's the Ideal Button Layout for an Android Phone?

By Ryan Whitwam

There are as many ways to arrange buttons on a smartphone, as there are stars in the sky. Here's how we'd like to see them arranged.

Looking back at the original Android phone, the T-Mobile G1 (or HTC Dream), it's really a spectacularly utilitarian phone. All boxy design, covered with buttons, and a full keyboard. Android's widely varied hardware experience has resulted in a variety of button and port designs that take some getting used to on each phone. The way these components are laid out can hugely affect how you use the handset. Android is becoming a highly popular platform, and that means phones are coming out frequently with hardware looking to differentiate itself. This has uncovered some interesting concerns with certain button layouts. But is there a layout for buttons and ports that's preferable to others? Should some items be removed altogether? 


Camera button

A two stop button will initiate the auto-focus at the first stop, then snap a photo at the second. But for the use of this button to be a pleasurable experience, it needs to be well made. If the button is too stiff, you risk having the phone slip as you struggle to press it. Given that you may sometimes be leaning around objects, or in an otherwise awkward position, that's not something you want. Also, having a loose button that requires only a light touch can be an issue of you choose to disable, or otherwise alter the phone's lock screen. Even a half press of the camera button while floating around in your pocket can wake the phone up. 

If a phone has a slide out keyboard, the design of this button should lean toward a softer press. As you hold the phone, applying too much pressure to depress the button could cause the keyboard to begin opening as you hold the phone from the bottom to stabilize. Similarly, this button is often placed in an area that your hand wants to be touching while you're holding the phone. This is a reason to have a button requiring a firmer press. Overall, we think the placement is non-negotiable if you want it to function. A dedicated camera button is something to look for in a phone if you expect to be taking any amount of photos. For a phone with a keyboard, a softer button should be used to avoid accidentally moving the keyboard around. For a slate form factor, a firmer button is preferable. 

Trackball, Trackpad, D-pad, or none?

If you look at the Droid X, US Galaxy S, and Evo 4G, you will notice something interesting about their hardware layout. These phones, while being quite large, do not have the characteristic trackpad or trackball of other Android handsets. Some users say they just don't need them, but we've always found some real utility in having one.  

Having the trackball (for the sake of brevity let's assume ball and pad to be the same for now) present right at the bottom front of the handset offers some useful interface options. The way Android handles text editing is more or less based around having a trackball. If you need to select text, get the cursor in the right place, or scroll through wonky input fields, the trackball is a life saver. HTC Sense on the Evo has some on-screen arrow buttons to help with the lack of trackball, but we'd still prefer the real thing.

Another big reason to look for a trackball is that it's useful for hitting small links on web pages without zooming in. Yes, you can probably tap on them if you're careful, but not all touch screens are created equal. In the browser, you can also use the trackball to hover over dropdown menus, revealing the options within. 

Some phones also have a d-pad in lieu of a trackball or trackpad. You'll see this on phones like the Droid, Droid 2, and Epic 4G. It's preferable to not having a physical input device at all, but can't compare to the usefulness of a trackball. The keyboard must be opened, and the phone held in landscape to use the d-pad, but a trackball can be used in any orientation. At the end of the day, we like trackballs for their raw utility, but a stylish trackpad is also an acceptable choice.  

Android System Buttons

As for the buttons themselves, you have two choices on modern Android phones: physical, or capacitive. A capacitive button has the advantage of looking much nicer, and the lack of moving parts means they won't get gummed up with age. However, a physical button provides the sort of tactile feedback that a capacitive button with haptics can never replicate. 

There are times when an Android phone hangs for a moment (sometimes much longer). If that occurs, capacitive buttons may be less responsive. It can be hard to tell if you missed the button, or if the phone's software just cannot process the action. No problem like that with physical buttons; you can tell when you've hit them. Having hardware buttons can also allow you to wake the phone with them. This is a feature of the Droid X that we really like. Our take? Physical buttons all the way. 

Sleep/wake button

The Samsung Captivate makes a really interesting change here. The sleep/wake button is on the right hand side of the phone, near the top. The only way to describe this button placement is "awesome". Of all the things that bother us about the Captivate, the placement of this button is not one of them. The Vibrant also has this button placement. It might take some getting used to, but it is worth it for the sheer usefulness. 

If a phone is going to have the sleep/wake button on the top, we at least want to see it be a little easier to press. Because of the way a phone sits in a pocket or pouch, this button is not likely to be pressed accidentally. So can we at least stop seeing phones with completely recessed sleep buttons? Motorola has a tendency to do this. We would love to see more upper side mounted sleep/wake buttons. But failing that, placing them on the top is fine, provided they aren't completely recessed. 

USB Ports

A side-mounted USB port is a design that Motorola has been using lately. The docks for the phones work well, and we like the feel of a landscape format when using a phone as a clock or picture viewer. It's more stable, and less prone to being knocked over. The only problem is that if you have it plugged in and need to use it, that cable is going to be in the way of holding the phone. We can't lie, with the battery life on Android phones, this does come up from time to time.

Samsung it shaking things up by putting the USB port on the top of the phone. The reason for this is unclear to us, but it basically precludes the possibility of a desktop USB dock. A car dock could still work since the phone would be suspended in a harness of some sort. If you have your phone plugged into a laptop on a desk, a top-mounted USB could be nice as the phone would lay right side up, with the cable going straight to the computer. But in general, we prefer classic bottom microUSB, with side-mounted USB also an acceptable option.  

These are the components of Android hardware that we feel are the most pertinent to your daily use of the phone. Their placement will change how you hold and use the phone. There are some design choices we like (trackballs), and those we don't like (recessed sleep buttons on the top). You will not necessarily agree with us when it comes to button placement, but let this be food for thought the next time you shop for a phone. Let us know what your ideal button and port layout for a phone is. Is there anything about the buttons or ports on your current phone you can't stand?
Image credit: Gadgetsteria, TechRadar