Android phone buttons: we differentiate because we can!
June 23, 2012 10:31 AM   Subscribe

Why do different Android phones have drastically different configurations of buttons (home, back, menu, search, etc.)? Does it make a difference?

I'm in the market for a new smartphone, switching to Android from the relatively controlled ecosystems of iOS and Windows Phone 7. I've been able to get my hands on quite a few Android phones, both from last generation (2.3) and current (4.0), and I've noticed that every phone seems to differ in terms of its fixed buttons at the bottom.

The current Google Nexus phone has Back/Home/Multitask, as does the current HTC generation. The Samsung Galaxy S 3 has Menu/Home/Back. Previous generations of Android phones have four buttons, and arranged in even more varying configurations.

I've only used these phones in stores, and haven't actually lived with them. Every time I hold a different one, I have to relearn where these buttons are located on that phone (if they even exist).

Does not having a specific button really matter? How well do apps work if some phones have a "menu" button and some do not? Is there a button configuration that's drastically better (or worse) than others?
posted by meowzilla to Computers & Internet (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
There was some inconsistency in previous versions of Android, but the latest crop don't have physical buttons at all - they're just at the bottom of the touchscreen and should be mostly the same throughout devices.

The buttons are now context-dependent, so they'll change depending on what app you're using. The home screen default is back, home, and multi-task.
posted by iamscott at 10:36 AM on June 23, 2012

Newer phones are the ones that generally don't have a menu button. This is because Google has been pushing developers to phase out the menu button in favor of an "action bar" that occupies a piece of dedicated real estate in the application window and provides access to settings and the like. As far as I'm aware, any app that's compatible with the phones new enough to use a three-botton configuration will have the action bar.

Why anyone wants to sacrifice real estate on a three-inch screen for a permanent menu bar? I haven't the foggiest.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 10:46 AM on June 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Your title says it all. Every phone manufacturer and every carrier can adapt Android at will. I recently had to adjust 5-7 Android phones at work to put them on an Exchange server, and found that about 2 of them used exactly the same menu structure to enter the info.
posted by randomkeystrike at 10:51 AM on June 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I've owned 3 different Android phones, two (Droid X and Droid X2) that had true buttons including the menu button, and my current phone (Samsung Galaxy Nexus) with the virtual buttons. The removal of the dedicated menu has never been an issue for me- it was the button I used least on my old phones. Sure, it took me a short time to adapt to the Galaxy Nexus after over a year with the previous phones, but it was no biggie. I've used many apps across all 3 phones and have never encountered a problem. I'm very happy with the Galaxy Nexus- the 4.0.x/Ice Cream Sandwich version of the Android OS is terrific- aside from overall UI smoothness (finally rivaling my friends' iPhones), the ability to make app groups and the outstanding multitasking/recent app button/menu (that replaces the menu button of old) are really awesome additions.
posted by EKStickland at 10:57 AM on June 23, 2012

Best answer: I just got, one week ago, a 4.0 smartphone which has the 3 buttons, after using for 2 years a phone that had 4 at the bottom-- the last phone was updated as far as Android 2.3.5. The new phone has a back button, a home-screen button, and a kind of "Current tasks" button which lets you shift between current apps, and also close them as needed with a quick flick of the finger. The old phone had a back button, home screen, a generic menu button which acted in context, and a search button, which was contextual, unless there was no applicable context, in which case it took you to the google search bar, which would parse the search for any context and search the phone or the net.

The new system is simpler. Where menu buttons are needed, a small button (top right) or bar (>1cm height bar across the bottom, like the size of a typical ad) appears with 3 vertically-aligned squares in the center. That means menu, and it only appears where menus are appropriate.

So far I haven't found anything on the new phone that I can't do on the old phone, and the new OS is far better than the old-- that' to say nothing of 2 years worth of hardware improvements, 2 years of expanding LTE coverage... things have gotten much better.
posted by Sunburnt at 11:02 AM on June 23, 2012

Yup, "Because they can". As mentioned Google does give them some guidelines about what the buttons are, but lets face it: When your product is a square of black plastic and glass that's 95% screen, there's very little a manufacturer can do to make it's phone look different from the competition. And when the manufacturer has bet hundreds of millions of dollars on the success of the phone they're going to do everything they can to make it stand out. So: wacky buttons.
posted by Ookseer at 11:08 AM on June 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

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