Button Pushers: Virtual, physical, or capacitive?

Anna Scantlin
Contributing Editor from  Kansas City, MO
| May 3, 2014


Have you ever felt that our modern day smartphones all pretty much look the same? If you look at smartphones today compared to the smartphones of yesteryear, that would almost seem to be the case. The very first smartphones were still trying to figure out that perfect form-factor that people were comfortable with. Did it include a physical keyboard, and if so, should it be slide-out or candybar? Should the mouth piece be tilted towards the chin? Does it need a trackpad or trackball in case the touchscreen fails? Over time, those unique designs started to fade away. Today, you’ll see that most smartphones are flat slabs made out of glass, metal, and plastic; but there is still one feature that has yet to really be decided on, and that’s what type of menu buttons should be used on the phone, if any.


To be fair, it’s probably a feature that will never have a set standard. People prefer different types of buttons for different reasons, and each type has their own pros and cons. Although I’m not sure if the type of button on a phone is a make or break decision for anybody, it’s still one of those trivial things that can enhance or take away from a user’s smartphone experience.


I’ve had phones will all three types of buttons, but most of my experience has been with capacitive buttons. I both like and dislike capacitive buttons for a couple of reasons. I like them because they’re always there, but I also don’t like them for the same reason. You can never make capacitive buttons go away, and when holding the phone in landscape mode it’s not exactly hard to accidentally press a button and go on an unexpected trip to the last page you visited. At the same time, though, capacitive buttons are nice and low-key, and when not in use you still have a perfect level slab of phone to work with.


Physical buttons are a bit of a different story. I have a certain fondness for physical buttons because I like the confirmation that I have indeed pressed a button when the button physically presses down and gives a click. On the downside, though, physical buttons have a tendency to get dirty, lose their strength and get flimsy, or even just plain break because they’ve been pressed too often or too hard.


Finally, we have the virtual buttons that many Androids have decided to go with since the release of the Galaxy Nexus. This is what my current daily driver, the Moto X, uses to navigate the phone. I have to admit, out of the three options, on screen keys are my least favorite. It’s nice that the keys can be hidden when I’m watching a movie, but otherwise I find that my buttons occasionally glitch out and don’t show up, which gets really frustrating after a while. I don’t know, there’s just something about the fact that my buttons have the ability to disappear on a whim that’s a bit unsettling to me.


In the end, I think it’s a tie between physical and capacitive. I like both just because they’re always there. I definitely know that my least favorite is virtual, but it’s not a deal-breaker for me in a phone. It’s just one of those things where I wish I could have something different, but sometimes it’s just worth it to deal with it. I really like the Moto X, so it’s a mild inconvenience.


Readers, what are your opinions regarding buttons? Do you prefer physical buttons, capacitive, or virtual? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!


Image via Skatter