Back-mounted volume control is brilliant

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While companies continue to produce phones with impressive specifications, the smartphone market has grown somewhat stale in the last two years. Practically every form factor but the basic candy bar has become extinct. And with the exception of a few pieces of brass trim and varying levels of build quality and size, every phone is virtually cut from the same mold.

It’s boring, monotonous, and we’re all just about ready for the next big thing – no not the Note III or some other cookie-cutter Samsung phone, a legitimate revolutionary change.

It’s difficult to predict how that change will come or what it will be. Some think it will be in the form of wearable computing. Maybe the smartphone aspect will shrink to a pocketable terminal, not unlike desktop machine, that is controlled through a series of peripherals – Glass for the display with a touchpad on the side, a watch for voice-controlled input, or even the ability to hijack nearby monitors for quick access on a larger display.

Others think the wearable computing is a passing fad, that won’t stick and the traditional (read: existing) smartphone is inching towards perfection.

A few years ago, I would have written an editorial about how some drastic change is looming, like a multi-display phone or a smartphone with interchangeable cartridges, such as a game controller, extended battery, or a physical keyboard. (See Microsoft patent.) But I’ve since learned that large tech companies are much more conservative, that the only companies that will attempt to revolutionize the smartphone market are the smaller players: those fighting tooth and nail to regain relevancy, or startups with truly novel ideas and fresh imaginations.

And, for what it’s worth, those two things – a multi-display phone and interchangeable cartridges – are, in fact, looming.

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Enter YotaPhone and the Jolla phone.

Jolla_Corner_titleThese two devices, though vastly different in actual purpose, have one major theme in common. The development teams behind them seek to utilize the biggest waste of real estate on every smartphone – the back.

Jolla phone, not unlike Microsoft’s dual-module phone patent, aims to use the back half of the phone as an interchangeable cartridge. What the so-called “other half” is for, however, is still unknown. Speculations reach as far as one “other half” being a cartridge for personal apps, files, and content, and another “half” back plate being the same for enterprise. We do know one thing: the overall theme of the device changes with respect to the back plate – and orange cover brings an orange hue to the overall interface theme, and a cyan cover would do the same.

There’s not a lot of information detailing the extent of this “other half“, but it has the potential to be groundbreaking, revolutionary. Alas, I won’t hold my breath, and neither should you.

YotaPhone is much more simple and straight forward. It’s a multi-display phone, an LCD panel on the frond and an E Ink display on the back. The rear display has a huge amount of use cases. Reading, for example, would consume much less battery power. It could also provide always-on notifications for a quick glance, though privacy could be of concern.

yotaIn other words, it’s a way of extending functionality and stamina of pocket-sized devices without drastically changing the design, form factor, or specifications of what we’re currently working with.

Sometimes a drastic revolution isn’t what’s needed, though. Sometimes, it’s just a small change – like the placement of a button – that inspires much-needed improvement. And thus we have the LG (Optimus) G2 – or the alleged leaked pictures, that is.

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On the back of most phones is a camera, LED flash, branding, and wasted space.

Most current smartphones reserve the back of the smartphone for just a few things: camera, LED flash, branding, loud speakers, and a removable door, which usually covers a battery, SIM, and microSD card slots. To my knowledge, the only phone to have drastically deviated from the path was the Motorola Backflip, which sported a physical QWERTY keyboard on its backside. And when flipped open, there was a touchpad on the back of the display half.

Pictures of the alleged G2 shows that LG has put some thought into the wasted space on the back of the device. Its answer, apparently, was throwing volume keys to the back of the phone, which is actually quite smart … for some use cases.

Chances are, if you’re on a call and need to adjust the volume, you will need to adjust your grip to toggle the volume up or down. You will either pull the phone from your ear and press with your index or middle finger (or thumb, depending on which hand you use) to adjust the volume. Or you might use your index finger to press the phone against your head to hold the phone in place while you change the volume without removing the phone from your ear.

LG G2 Leak 2With the volume rocker placed in the upper half of the back of the phone, where you index finger usually rests in a call anyway, you likely wouldn’t have to adjust your grip to change the volume while in call. And it would almost completely eradicate those accidental volume toggles during games, watching movies, etc.

But I’m not convinced it’s totally ergonomic. I have no question it would be helpful in-call. But what about in general use? Most of us don’t make near as many voice calls as we once did, and instead use our phones for text messaging, IMing, multimedia, and other things that keep us staring at the display most of the time. If the phone isn’t pressed against your head, unless the volume keys are capacitive, you would have to create some leverage by pressing on the front of the phone to depress the volume keys. (The palm of your hand might cause some leverage, if you use your middle finger and thumb as a pivot point.) In other words, adjusting the volume outside calls would likely be a two-handed job or an inconvenience, i.e., not any easier or better than before.

I do, however, feel the placement is nice, though the nature of the buttons themselves will determine whether it’s a great execution or not. If it were a touch-sensitive volume slider, it could be great, though that would do little to end accidental volume toggles. If, instead, it’s the tactile-less buttons LG is known for, I’ll politely pass.

Either way, it’s nice to see some manufacturers finally start thinking outside the box again and making use of the backside of phones … you know, since the kickstand fad died rather quickly.

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About The Author
Taylor Martin
Based out of Charlotte, NC, Taylor Martin started writing about technology in 2009 while working in wireless retail. He has used BlackBerry off and on for over seven years, Android for nearly four years, iOS for three years, and has experimented with both webOS and Windows Phone. Taylor has reviewed countless smartphones and tablets, and doesn't go anywhere without a couple gadgets in his pockets or "nerd bag." In his free time, Taylor enjoys playing disc golf with friends, rock climbing, and playing video games. He also enjoys the occasional hockey game, and would do unspeakable things for some salmon nigiri. For more on Taylor Martin, checkout his Pocketnow Insider edition.| Google+