Back when I owned my very first smartphone, I never paid any attention to the placement of any of the buttons or ports. But that quickly changed as the smartphone itself evolved and as I noticed how different button and port configurations affected how I used each device.
On the Moto Q, the call and end buttons were exactly where you would expect them to be – on the face of the device, flanking a d-pad in the center. The end key doubled as the power key. There was no manual standby function we now associate with the power key.
The Curve 8330 I later owned, however, did have this function. Along the top edge, it had mute button that doubled as a standby key. It was small enough to palm quite easily and the standby key was seemingly perfectly placed for either my right index finger or thumb to bump it before I dropped it in my pocket.
For whatever reason, though, the top edge became a very popular location for the standby button across all types of mobile hardware. Even today, you can find smartphones and tablets with standby/power buttons located on the top edge of the device.
At first, this wasn’t much of an issue for me. It still isn’t for most. But as the primary purpose of a smartphone began to evolve – from a mobile communicator to a mobile means of high-quality multimedia consumption – so did the basic size and shape of the smartphone. As I noted in The evolution of the smartphone earlier this week, the average size of the modern smartphone display grew from roughly 3.5-inches to somewhere between 4.7- and 5.5-inches. Obviously, the physical footprint of smartphones also drastically changed.
Ever since, I’ve been paying close attention to the placement of buttons and the associated ergonomics of various handhelds. It doesn’t take an expert in ergonomics to understand that most phones nowadays are roughly the size of the average human hand, meaning to reach the far corners or poorly placed buttons requires a grip adjustment. This has led several manufacturers bring the power/standby key down from the top edge to the side of the phone. Practically all Samsung smartphones feature the power button approximately where the right thumb should fall along the right edge of the phone while the volume rocker should fall right beneath the index and middle fingers on the left edge.
If we’re to believe leaks, even Apple, who has remained persistent in its top edge power button, will soon bring the power/standby key to the right edge of the rumored larger iPhone 6.
Despite the increase in size, however, some OEMs continue to resort to the top edge. HTC’s One M7 and One M8, for instance, feature top-mounted power buttons. But at the very least, these buttons are dual-purpose and have a logical reason for their positioning. The power buttons on the M7 and M8 double as IR blasters. It wouldn’t make much sense for this to be anywhere but the top edge of the phone.
Still, at least one manufacturer is set on doing things differently.
Last year, LG announced the G2 with what it called “a new perspective in smartphone design”. That fancy marketing speak translated to little more than the power and volume keys being located on the back of the phone, just below the camera. No, it wasn’t the first time a manufacturer had the idea of taking advantage of the mostly underused backside of a cell phone by placing some buttons there. But this time it at least seemed more logical than before.
LG’s reason behind moving its buttons to the back is multifaceted. On one hand, the increase in size does make it difficult to reach said buttons without getting a better grip on the phone. On the other hand, bezels (read: wasted space around the display) also make gripping phones increasingly difficult as smartphone sizes increase. By moving the buttons to the back LG was effectively killing two birds with one stone – making the buttons easier to reach with a natural grip and slimming down the bezels on the side of the phone.
At first, I was marginally impressed with LG’s take on solving one of the problems I’ve had with most modern smartphones. But the minute I got my hands on the G2, it became very clear the concept didn’t hold up so well in practice. The buttons were difficult to locate blindly. To adjust volume with the phone on the table, you either had to pick it up or double-tap the display to turn it on (which only worked about half the time), unlock it, pull down the notification shade, and adjust the volume through an on-screen slider.
I had to train my brain to stop sliding my finger along the edge of the phone to find the volume rocker, and feel for the buttons on the back to change the volume. In practice, the rear buttons of the G2 were more of a hassle and gimmick than a truly useful and progressive innovation.
However, a few weeks ago (and again last week), I was sent a G3 for review. I figured I could give the rear buttons another chance.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that I really liked the G3. It’s a pretty phone with some killer specifications, and the software is fathoms better than last year. Like with the Moto X, the slim bezels make you feel like you’re getting away with something. The camera isn’t half bad (it isn’t terribly impressive either), the battery life could be far worse, and the QHD display is gorgeous (though a little warm and washed-out).
I thought maybe I could learn to like the buttons because, frankly, I would like to carry the G3 as my personal phone.
Nope. I’m not quite a week in with the AT&T LG G3. I’ve been using it off and on as I work on content and tinker in the afternoons, and I can confidently say the rear-mounted buttons on the G3 are easily one of its weakest points. I still have to adjust my grip to tap the power button. I have to pick up the phone to adjust the volume because, for whatever reason, AT&T decided to remove the brightness and volume sliders in the notification shade. (Sure, they took up a fair amount of space, but I’d rather deal with a little notification clutter and be able to adjust volume without picking the phone up.) And taking a screen shot with the G3 is one of the most awkward and uncomfortable things, since you have to hold the power and volume down buttons simultaneously.
I know vehemently hating the rear-mounted buttons puts me in the minority. And I don’t think they’d keep me from buying the G3 for my personal phone or recommending it to others. But seriously, LG, the rear buttons aren’t working out. They’re not innovative, useful, natural to use, or beneficial in any other way than trimming down the bezels.
Tell me, readers. Do you hate LG’s rear-mounted buttons as much as I do? Or do you actually like them? Sound off below!