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In defense of real buttons on gadgets

Who needs real, physical buttons when touch screens offer so much versatility? Sometimes, a good old mechanical button or switch can be better than a virtual ones.

I like buttons on my devices. Buttons you can press, buttons that click -- not "soft" buttons that only appear on screen.

There's a place for real buttons, and I hope they don't die off.

I don't know if there's an actual trend of physical buttons disappearing. I sure hope that's not the case. But I got to thinking about the benefits of "hard" buttons when I was using my Nexus 7 Android tablet recently. (Hang on, Android fanboys, I'll have some words for Apple about buttons, too.)

In landcape mode, I was typing to compose an e-mail message but kept having the home screen load after every few keystrokes. Why? The soft buttons right under the space bar:

Soft buttons on Nexus 7

When the Galaxy Nexus first came out, I noted this same issue with Android 4. The home button is right under the space bar and, being a soft button, it's easy to hit when typing by mistake. With the Nexus 7, in landscape mode, it's even easier to hit it or one of the other system buttons.

That's one reason I like the iPhone's single hard button. You're not going to accidentally push that, at least not while typing or interacting with your applications:

The iPhone's home button

Then there's the Samsung Galaxy S3, which I've been testing. Like the iPhone, it also has a central hard button. That solves the issue with typing, but there is another issue. The phone also has two soft buttons to either side of the main button that are often essential to apps. In bright sunlight, they can be invisible, hard to see even with the screen brightness turned up:

Oh say can you see the Galaxy S3's soft buttons?

If you have a Galaxy S3 and run into the same trouble, you might try going into "Display," then "Touch Key Light Duration" and setting that to "Always On." It doesn't make the buttons any easier to see in bright light, but at least they're easier to spot in other settings, if you need to get back to them fast after the usual short timeout.

It all makes me miss how things were with my old Samsung Droid Charge:

Real buttons on the Droid Charge

It had four buttons, four real buttons that at first I found odd, even almost archaic. But I also grew to appreciate how these buttons allowed my phone to tap into a third sense beyond sight and sound, that of touch.

If I wanted to search or do a voice action on my Droid Charge, I didn't even have to look at the screen. I'd feel for the search button on the right, hard press then speak what I wanted, such as to launch GPS navigation to a location. I miss that, especially in how Android 4 has relegated the search button to oblivion.

On my iPad, I appreciate the screen rotation lock button. The Kindle Fire and Nexus 7 tablets lack this. Sure, the software lock option works well enough. But having a real button for this on the iPad is nice, saving me from having to pick through the menus.

The third-generation iPod Nano

Then there's my iPod. It's a third-generation iPod Nano, about three or four years old now. I fear the day it might die, because it combines the best parts of the current iPod Nano and the iPod Shuffle in a small device that I love.

I use my iPod when I'm on the move, either inline skating or snowboarding. With either, I can switch songs without a glance at the screen, because there are hard buttons for changing.

If you've ever tried to use a touch screen on ski slopes, you know how impossible they are to control unless you expose your fingers. That means pulling off your gloves or liners. For me, that's why I have no incentive to move to the newest iPod Nano, which depends on a touch screen. With my existing iPod, I can change tracks even with gloves on.

I could move to the iPod Shuffle, which has hard buttons. That would also be useful for when I'm skating and want to change tracks without looking at my device. But the iPod Shuffle lacks a display, so I can't shift to a new playlist or select a particular song.

There are workarounds to these things, of course, such as Apple's headphones that can do some amazing things, if you know how to use them right. Other headphones also double as controls. There are other MP3 players I could turn to. Nor do I have any pressing need to upgrade from what's working fine for me now.

But the bigger point is that there's a place for real buttons on devices. Physical volume buttons are almost universally provided. I'm not looking for overkill, a device with so many buttons that just picking it up causes you to launch things unexpectedly. I've had those type of devices, too, and they're a pain. But buttons do have a place, so let's hope they don't disappear.