Sunday Debate: Software vs. Hardware Keys
Join us in a fun Sunday Debate on navigation keys. Come with your opinions and feel free to read some of our thoughts, then pick your side or play devil’s advocate to get your voice heard and engage in friendly discussion. You can read our food-for-thought or jump straight into the fray below!
Touchscreens have the virtue of being able to represent all sorts of buttons and prompts on a screen, making for interactive and dynamic interfaces. But since Android’s inception, a few key functions have remained at the bottom of our devices. Many have come and gone, and new ones have showed up. But Android devices still ship with keys, be them the old hardware keys or the new on-screen buttons. Both have gathered preference from users, but manufacturers seem to be opting for the software variants more and more.
Hardware keys are still prevalent, though, and some of the most popular devices still feature them. The Galaxy S6 and the OnePlus One, for example, have keys outside of screen real-state. The Nexus line brought and popularized software keys, though, and this one is also one of the most popular lines among these circles. Love them or hate them, both options have had key roles in shaping the OS and both feature strengths and weaknesses.
In this debate we want to explore what you think are the best and worst things about both solutions, and whether one should claim complete supremacy over the other for the future of the platform. While much of this falls into personal taste, we urge you to look at their traits objectively to determine which one is the one to go for, or to reasonably justify your preference. Feel free to skip our food-for-thought if you feel confident on your stance; we ask: what are the strengths and weaknesses of each option? Which option is best for the platform? Why do you personally prefer one over the other? What can be done to improve each solution? Which types of devices are better off with or without a particular type of keys, and why?
Software / On-Screen Keys
One of the main reasons software keys are preferred by many is their reliability: since the buttons are tied to the software and the touchscreen, one does not have to worry about a home-button becoming flimsy or unusable. Reducing mechanical components and internal hardware can result in benefits for phone makers and users alike, and ultimately, it can allow for sleeker and more compact designs and profiles. The bezel benefits do have a limit, though, as some chin is needed for a good grip that doesn’t sacrifice usability. That being said, the benefits of software keys go well beyond reliability and costs:
Their flexibility allows for one to have greater control over key navigation options. Not only can you hide the buttons if you so desire, but you can also customize them on many ROMs from both OEMs and our developers. This means that you can switch the buttons around and their labels, avoiding confusion. You can also add or remove buttons, allowing for other options such as menu and other triggers to be right on your screen at all times. Software buttons can also flip their orientation and adapt to different themes, as well as change depending on the context (for example, when a keyboard is up). All of this makes software buttons a lot more open than the hardware solution.
Hardware / Physical & Capacitive Keys
The OG of all phone input, this solution still lives today despite the push for software keys in Android. While many feel hardware keys are antiquated and unreliable, they do offer some benefits in terms of physical design. For one, hardware keys give OEMs the option to utilize the bottom bezel and leave less space unused in the phone’s front. The home button’s middle placement can also act as a fingerprint scanner, as seen in Samsung phones and as we can expect in the OnePlus Two. Depending on how they are executed, hardware buttons can have static labels that render the keys unintuitive if one chooses to switch up functions. However, one can indeed switch functions around through various methods, allowing for certain degrees of flexibility.
But the other side of the hardware keys’ flexibility is the fact that one can still have software buttons on these phones, and one can also disable the hardware keys as well. This allows phones like the Galaxy Note 4 to opt for the hardware keys or the software keys in custom ROMs or through alternative software modifications. More over, one can even mod different functions while having both types of keys to allow for more options in less space, or disable certain keys and not others. It is another dimension of flexibility that is still quite useful in itself. Finally, some users prefer the tactile feedback of physical buttons, or how they are incorporated into the design of the phone. Phones like the OnePlus One allow you to opt for whatever solution you decide, and in that phone’s case, for example, the hardware keys do not hold anything back as they are subtle and unobtrusive.
One one hand, software keys are flexible and allow for all sorts of inventive features and customization. They are also cheaper to produce, can save space and can be considered more reliable than hardware counterparts. On the other hand, hardware keys make better use of the space in the bottom chin if there is one, they allow for better tactile feedback, can incorporate different sensors and, in some cases or with some modifications, can be toggled off to allow for software keys as well. The latter can offer the best of both worlds, and in some cases (like with the OPO) without significantly sacrificing aesthetics due to hidden capacitive keys. So once again, we ask:
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of each option?
- Which option is best for the platform?
- Why do you personally prefer one over the other?
- What can be done to improve each solution?
- Which types of devices are better off with or without a particular type of keys, and why?