Loving edge-to-edge screens? Get used to buttons on the back


We’ve been begging for it for quite some time: screens that span the entire front of our phones. The hated “bezel” used to be a place where we could hold on to our devices without accidentally touching the screen, and there was a point in time when the bezel was a necessary component to actually hold our screens in place, with the screen and digitizer both recessed behind it.

Fast-forward to today and our phones have a single slab of glass that occupies most of the front of the device. The bezel is now an area of black around the screen that taunts us. We want that area filled with pixels. We want them to run all the way to the edge of the device. And as consumers, we’re not alone.

Manufactures are aiming for that objective, too, though possibly for different reasons. Our phones are already quite large (and this from a guy who has remarkably big hands), so increasing the viewable size of the phone means one of two things: making our phones even bigger, or making their bezels smaller. Right now they’re doing both.

I think we’ll all agree that bigger screens without the necessity of a bigger phone is generally a good thing. Spreading the screen wider to take advantage of the space already available under the glass is also a good thing. But there’s something that you probably haven’t considered when talking about the bezel…

That’s where your buttons live

Like icebergs, when you look at a button you’re only seeing the very top — there’s a whole lot more hiding under the surface. Buttons are physical components that are made up of more that what you can see on the top. There’s even more to them sitting just inside the phone. There’s some type of “spring” mechanism to return the button to the “unpressed” state, and there’s an electrical switch sitting inside as well. When you push the button, it travels some distance inside your phone, until it finally closes the electrical circuit, which the operating system registers as a “button push”.

As a rule of thumb, the width of your bezel can be assumed to be the space that your buttons need to function without scraping across the back of the screen. There are many ways to mitigate all the real estate that buttons take up inside your phone, but it’s easier to simply put all their innards inside the bezel. Thus defeating the nirvana of edge-to-edge screens.

Motorola XOOM

Buttons on the back are nothing new to the Motorola Xoom.

There is a solution

Manufacturers are making their screens and digitizers thinner, and some of them are making their buttons thinner, too. The combination of the two allows for thin buttons to sit behind thin screens, thus keeping them in the same locations that we’ve gotten used to over the years. Some people don’t like these super-skinny buttons, and they’re not terribly easy for manufacturers to make.

The other solution is to put buttons on the back of our devices. I know, it sounds crazy, but it can work. Our hands are already wrapped around our phones when we’re holding them, so putting volume and power buttons on the back, right where our fingers would naturally fall makes a lot of sense! Motorola tried something similar with its XOOM tablet. The power button on the XOOM was on the back, right under your left index finger. It was perfect. It felt great. It worked great. It was right where it needed to be.

People hated it.

Perhaps they hated the tiny volume up/down buttons that were on the left edge, near the power button and were just taking their frustration out on the power button because of its proximity. Who’s to say.

In any event, as screens get wider and bezels get smaller, if you don’t want thick-backed phones or buttons as thin as razor blades, eventually you’re going to have to come to terms with buttons on the back of your smartphone. Will you be ready?

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About The Author
Joe Levi
Joe graduated from Weber State University with two degrees in Information Systems and Technologies. He has carried mobile devices with him for more than a decade, including Apple's Newton, Microsoft's Handheld and Palm Sized PCs, and is Pocketnow's "Android Guy". By day you'll find Joe coding web pages, tweaking for SEO, and leveraging social media to spread the word. By night you'll probably find him writing technology and "prepping" articles, as well as shooting video. Read more about Joe Levi here.