In the past six months, I’ve handled some of the world’s most advanced mobile technology, including BlackBerry’s new Z10 flagship, Nokia’s one-of-a-kind N9 smartphone, and Sony’s super-portable Xperia Tablet Z. And the thing I value most from these experiences isn’t the Z10’s unified messaging hub, or the N9’s one-of-a-kind interface, or even the Tablet Z’s water-resistant nature. Rather, the aspect I love most about these three products is that they all offer a variation on a buttonless unlock.
This revelation might force you to question my priorities, and I acknowledge that idolizing this rather trivial feature is a bit odd. But if you value a convenient, streamlined user interface as I do, you’ll understand just why a key-free screen unlock is a beautiful -and all too rare- feature.
Think of how you unlock your smartphone currently: if it’s a device like an iPhone or a member of Samsung’s Galaxy line, you’re lucky: in addition to pressing the power/unlock key to wake up the screen, you have the option to press the home button below the display – one of the last true advantages of the otherwise-irksome physical home key. If you don’t have one of these smartphones, though, odds are your home key is a capacitive sensor, dark and dormant when the screen is off, and useless until you fiddle around with the phone to maneuver the dinky side- or top-mounted power/standby key beneath your thumb.
If you’ve never used a Z10 or a Tablet Z -or even a BlackBerry PlayBook- that slight inconvenience might seem totally unremarkable. But after even a few hours of exposure to a modern BlackBerry, you quickly become enamored of the simple act of swiping up from the bezel to turn on and unlock a dormant display. In the case of the N9, the gesture required is a double-tap instead – and Sony has ported the same ability to the Tablet Z. BlackBerry’s PlayBook requires you to swipe across the entire screen, bezel-to-bezel, to accomplish an unlock. Microsoft’s Surface RT blends the approaches, retaining a capacitive home key but keeping it active even when the screen is off. There are varied means to the same end, but the common thread is that they’re all much more convenient than hunting down a side button to unlock the device. And what’s more: it’s much more fun.
Opponents will cite the impact such a feature has on battery life, a worry compounded by the fear of inadvertent screen unlocks when the device is carried in a pocket or under an arm. But in my experience, touch-to-unlock technology has had only minimal impact on endurance, and phantom unlocks have been very difficult to accomplish. Moreover, the feature seems to be gaining in popularity, with Nokia promising it for the next major update to its Lumia family. That’s something I’m very much looking forward to, as a truly buttonless smartphone existence seems much more futuristic than the clicky-clacky world of physical keys we currently inhabit.