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Why The Hardware Camera Button Is Still Important

By Michael Fisher September 10, 2012, 2:45 pm

There's a war on, folks. A war on buttons. And the collateral damage is getting out of hand.

There's a lot to be said for minimalism. Streamlining hardware carries a lot of benefits. A smooth finish, with lines uninterrupted by jutting switches and buttons, can be quite appealing. Reduction or elimination of physical keys also means fewer penetrations in the device casing, which translates into a smaller chance of water or dust intrusion into a smartphone's fragile innards.

Buttons on smartphones are disappearing at an increasing rate, and it's not something we're totally against. We've talked before -more than once- about the battle between physical and virtual keyboards, and we've grown accustomed to tapping out essay-length emails on smooth panes of glass. But some buttons still function better in physical key form. Among these are the power/standby toggle, volume rocker, and home key (though we're not the biggest fans of that, either). A physical contact provides tactile feedback, and the reassurance -sometimes illusory- that the user experience isn't entirely governed by software. Sometimes switches are just better.


The dedicated camera key is one of those instances. But unlike the other examples above, this one is an endangered species. Fewer and fewer phones crossing our review desk carry this convenient addition; writing "unfortunately, there's no dedicated camera key here" has become commonplace. When the Photon 4G LTE came to our door, we were elated to discover it carried a shutter button, but its halfhearted implementation ultimately served as a stark reminder of just how easy it is to muck up such a simple attribute.

Here's three reasons why physical camera buttons on smartphones should be the rule, rather than the exception.

It's A Faster Way To Launch The Camera

One of the biggest arguments for cameras on mobile phones, back when they were still a rare sight, was the "always-there" factor. Even back then, people carried their mobile phones much more often than their cameras, and that holds true today. Even the small delay of reaching into a glove box or a desk drawer for a camera often means the difference between capturing and missing an awesome photo, which is why having a camera on your phone is such an awesome convenience. But that convenience disappears completely if your device's camera app doesn't open fast enough because it's too cumbersome to navigate to the shortcut.

Software has made this a bit easier as smartphone OSes have matured. Almost every platform includes a means of jumping directly into the camera app from the lock screen, and UI skins such as Samsung's latest TouchWiz version have improved on this with accelerometer-based camera-launch shortcuts as well. But these approaches still require the user first to unlock the screen, and then to keep an eye on it in order to manipulate the software. That adds delay to the action, which a press-and-hold on a physical button doesn't; sure, it's only a few seconds' worth, but that can mean the difference between capturing that shot of the dog holding the newspaper in its mouth and not.

Going to IFA means you see weird stuff.

It Doubles As A Shutter Release

We've all had the experience of wanting a photo taken with a friend or spouse, but lacking the company of a third wheel generous friend to take the shot. The more trusting among us sometimes ask a passing stranger to take the photo, which in my experience almost always results in the same conversation:

Stranger: "Sure I'll take your picture!"

Me: "Thanks. The camera's already open."

Stranger: "Okay so how do I—"

Me: "It's the blue button."

Stranger: "On top, or ..."

Me: No; on the screen. To the right."

Stranger: "The one with the house on it?"

Me: "No—"

Stranger: "Oh, wait ... now the camera went away."

Me: ( Sigh )

Stranger: "Did it ... did it take it?"

Okay so ... not everyone is that technologically inept. But some people are. Even folks who know how to work smartphones aren't familiar with every custom camera UI. Wouldn't it be easier just to say, "it's the shutter button on the side, by your finger"? Actually, that's not a real question. Because it is. It is easier. Just ask any Windows Phone user.

Four Words: Half-Press To Focus

Tap-to-focus is awesome, but it's not the best solution for every photo. Sometimes you've only got one hand free. Sometimes you're holding the action figure or pinback button or ... kitten ... whatever you want to photograph. And you want to get focus set before you snap the photo, because Mr. Blurrycam might break news, but he also breaks photographs.

“I get the feeling I’m being photographed. Poorly.”

In those cases, it's very nice to have the double-detent of a physical camera button. Half-press to focus, full-press to take the shot. Bam. You want to do some fancy tilt-shift action? Half-press to focus, then move the camera, then click. Bam again. Sure, you can do this with touch-to-focus, but it's nice to have the option of also doing it with a button.

Ultimately, as with all matters of UI convenience, it's a question of trade-offs. Most manufacturers evidently don't see enough user demand to go to the added trouble of including hardware-camera keys, so they don't. Or they do, but only enable half the above conveniences, hobbling its utility.

OEMs: including the button doesn't mean the on-screen options need to change. Tap-to-focus and on-screen shutter releases are present on phones with the physical button. Microsoft made sure of that with its entire lineup when it made a physical camera button a requirement for all Windows Phone handsets. So my question to other manufacturers is simple: aesthetics aside, why not include it as a standard option?

Readers, if you've got the answer, comment is invited as always. If you need me, I'll be making sure the camera lock-screen shortcuts are in the right place on all my phones.


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