Why the lack of physical buttons on the Samsung Galaxy S8 could be an issue

The Samsung Galaxy S8 probably won't have a physical home button on front. That could be a problem.

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Credit: Ann Singer

You’re fumbling around in the dark trying to find your phone, and you’re in a hurry. It’s cold and in you’re in the car. You finally discover the phone under a seat, but which way are you holding it? On the Samsung Galaxy S8, which will come out in April, there’s only one way of knowing -- by fishing around even more on the back. According to this report from today that shows images of the phone, there’s no physical home button on the front.

See here:

— Evan Blass (@evleaks) January 26, 2017

Worse yet, there are no physical buttons for navigating like there has been on previous phones. It means you have to use the touchscreen for going back in an app or controlling other functions. You definitely have to look at the screen. There won't be an area below the screen from what I can tell, because the screen goes to the edge.

I hate the idea. I like to fish my phone out of my pocket without looking (even when it is not dark out) and hit home and navigate to other options without always looking. Plus, judging from the success of software buttons on phones that use haptics, not having a physical button means using a phone is a little less reliable, especially for the "back" option.

My guess is that the edge-to-edge screen will have a software home button and nav buttons that use haptics, and maybe we’ll get used to this paradigm eventually, but the same issue comes up in my car testing quite a bit. There’s a precedence for the frustration that usually occurs. On some Ford and GM models, you have to activate the touch-screen first, then adjust the climate controls. Not to go old school on this topic, but I prefer the actual buttons for cranking up the heat.

The problem is that, with all software buttons, the software for navigating has to work perfectly. With the large home button on the iPhone 7 Plus, for example, you know without a doubt that one tap on that button will activate the screen every single time. I’ve also tested the Google Pixel thoroughly and like being able to reliably press the button on the back to turn the phone on, but I prefer actual buttons for nav.

What’s I’m picturing with the S8 is a tap, tap, tap on the screen or the rear home button to get the phone to turn on. If the phone is totally dead, I won’t know if I’m tapping too lightly. If I’m freezing cold, maybe my tap won’t register. If the phone is too cold, maybe it won’t turn on with a tap. At least with a physical button below the screen, you know you are tapping and can instantly start fishing around for your charge cable. I know how this usually pans out. When it’s dark and cold, or I’m tired, or the phone is dead, or something isn't quite right with the software, or an app is using too much memory -- nothing.

Then there’s the usability issue. New users like hardware buttons, especially for navigating. They are obvious, they are easy, and they are reliable. I’ve used a connected thermostat that has mostly software buttons and one subtle button on the side, and every single person who has every tried to use it has been confused. They don’t know how to turn it on. With the S8, do you tap the screen? Do you tap the side? Do you talk to it? Do you single tap or double tap? Do you shake it? No one will know.

One solution is to make two different phones, one with a physical button for home and nav and one without. I realize the manufacturing process, already a little sketchy with Samsung phones, would become twice as complicated, but giving users the option means some people can choose the model without a physical button. Maybe we’ll find out once and for all if the software button is a good way to go.

For now, there’s a reason most phones have a physical button. It’s a matter of user expectations. With the S8, it’s possible that’s the first frustration to overcome.

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