Hallelujah! Samsung is finally ditching the old Android Menu button

CES 2014

CES -- a.k.a. the Consumer Electronics Show -- is a whirlwind of tech excess. Companies announce scores of theoretical products, many of which have no prices or release dates and will never actually make it to market.

In these first 24 hours of the show, we've been dazzled with dozens of devices we'll all forget about by tomorrow. One announcement, however, is highly significant -- though not necessarily for the reason its manufacturer intended.

I'm talking about the introduction of Samsung's new Galaxy Note Pro and Galaxy Tab Pro devices during the company's CES news conference this afternoon. Aside from an updated user interface, the tablets are pretty much standard Samsung fare -- new variations on existing products, as the company often releases -- but if you look closely, there's a small detail that's enormously important.

Look carefully:

Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 12.2

See it? Yep -- it's for real: Samsung is finally ditching the old legacy Android Menu button.

The Menu button has actually been phased out of Android for quite a while now: Google removed it from the official design guidelines at the end of 2010's 2.3 Gingerbread era in order to move away from hidden functions and make the platform more intuitive and user-friendly.

Samsung Android Menu Button

Bafflingly, though, Samsung has ignored those guidelines and stubbornly continued to stick capacitive Menu buttons on its Android devices year after year. The result, as I've pointed out in numerous reviews, is an awkward user experience in which functions that should be present on screen remain buried and out of sight -- and thus difficult to discover and unnatural to use.

With these new devices, Samsung is at long last relenting: The tablets swap the outdated Menu button for Android's current Recent Apps button, which allows you to quickly toggle from one app to another. (In past Samsung devices, that function was hidden and accessible only via a long-press of the physical Home key.) Yes, you still have Samsung's awkward physical/capacitive button combo -- and the two capacitive buttons are still arbitrarily reversed from their standard Android configuration -- but one milestone at a time, right?

Android 4.4 KitKat

Interestingly, it was likely Google itself that forced Samsung's hand in the matter: While the presence of a legacy Menu button had been awkward for some time now -- something Samsung had inexplicably ignored -- the launch of Android 4.4 KitKat makes it completely superfluous.

With previous versions of Android, you see, the software would adjust its behavior when it detected a legacy Menu button; it'd hide all on-screen overflow menus so they'd appear only when you pressed the capacitive key. With KitKat, on the other hand, overflow menu icons always show up on the screen, regardless of whether a legacy Menu button is present or not -- so the button becomes redundant and ultimately pointless.

It's pretty clear Google made that shift with the goal of delivering a non-negotiable deathblow. In the company's open-source notes about the change, Android Framework Engineer Adam Powell provided the following (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) explanation:

Always show overflow buttons on action bars

The menu button is not pining, it's passed on! This button is no more! It has ceased to be! It's expired and gone to meet its maker! It's a stiff! Bereft of life, it rests in peace! If you hadn't nailed it to a flagship device it'd be pushing up the daisies!

THIS IS AN EX-BUTTON!!

Android Power Twitter

Yup -- it doesn't get much clearer than that, folks. So mark the day: More than two years after it was technically killed, this is finally the beginning of the end for the pesky little button that refused to die. (Hear that, LG?)

Hey, two years late is better than never.

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