What has the back of your phone done for you lately?
Probably not much. There's a lot of unused real estate back there, which makes you wonder why phone makers ---- don't add programmable shortcut buttons. How about one for the flashlight? One to launch the camera? One to speed-dial your significant other?
That's the idea behind Air Button, a programmable shortcut button that sticks to the back of your phone. I spent the last few days programming and pressing one (two, actually), and I must admit it's pretty sweet -- though there are a couple caveats.
Air Button relies on NFC, meaning you need an Android phone that has the technology built in. Sorry,owners: Apple doesn't allow for third-party access to your phones' NFC capabilities. What's cool -- no, amazing -- is that the buttons require no batteries of their own. You literally stick them to the back of your phone and they work.
Exactly where you can stick them depends on where your phone's NFC antenna resides, and there's no way to know that without a little trial and error. Fortunately, before you peel off the adhesive backing, you can test the buttons just by sliding them around the backside and discovering where your presses register.
I tested the dual Air Button with a, and the optimal spot turned out to be just about dead center. This made it easy to accidentally press the side-mounted volume buttons when I was pressing an Air Button, so I had to adjust my grip.
Available in five different colors, the button itself offers a nicely tactile response. That's in contrast to the Dimple, a similar product with decidedly mushier buttons. But a quick-press won't register; by design (to avoid accidental pocket-presses), you need to press and hold the button for a full second.
The Air Button companion app then executes whatever task you've programmed for that button. This can be a function (or series of functions) or a shortcut to a particular app or setting. Function options range from toggling various options on and off (Bluetooth, flashlight, rotation lock and so on) to snapping a photo to checking in on Facebook. Of particular interest, there's an "alert" option that immediately sounds a loud alarm -- a great safety feature.
This is undeniably handy stuff, though with a few limitations. For starters, if your phone rides around in a metal case, the buttons won't work.
That's a minor issue; the major one is that your phone must be unlocked (i.e. screen on, not in standby) for button presses to register. I believe this is true for all NFC operations, such as mobile payments, and it's intended to preserve the battery, but it's still kind of a bummer. If you've programmed a button to, say, launch the camera app, you first have to hit the power button and swipe to unlock your phone. (Of course, on most phones you can accomplish the same thing with the power button and swiping in a particular direction, so you're better off assigning the Air Button to something else anyway.)
Another thing that really bugged me: There's no way to disable the sound effect that's triggered every time Air Button registers a press.
Finally, I'm a bit disappointed by the price: $15 for a single button, $21 for a double, meaning two buttons on one sticker. (Air Button's distributor apparently ships overseas; the US prices convert to £10 and £14, or AU$20 and AU$29.) Just for sake of comparison, the two-button Dimple Mini costs $17. From a "hardware" standpoint, this is the better product -- and I love the convenience. A play/pause button for music apps? A speed-dial for my spouse? Love it! I just think it's a bit overpriced.