Last Updated: June 29th, 2012

Ice Cream Sandwich will be the first phone version of Android to support virtual buttons. It seems like a lot of people don’t "get" the whole idea behind them. If used correctly, virtual buttons will be way better than the painted on Back/Home/Menu/Search we have now. So I figured I would lay out the benefits for everyone and hopefully start a nice discussion.

For starters, virtual buttons are much better UI

  • They can change orientation with the phone so they are always in the same place.
  • Situational buttons (like Menu and Search) can disappear when they are unusable. You’ll no longer have to guess if Menu will do something.
  • It’s always consistent. OEMs can’t mess with the button order anymore. In fact, if you want to customize the order because you're used to one or the other, you should now be able to (and if Google won't let us, I'm sure Android developers and root will).
  • They could give you much richer information. Right now, it’s very hard to know what the Back button will do. A bit of text saying what will happen would help immensely. For instance, “Quit” when Back will close an app (or it could turn red or something) or “Inbox” when it will bounce you back to your Gmail inbox. iOS (yes, I know, it'll be OK) has a much friendlier back button in that regard.


Virtual buttons will help out the hardware side of things immensely

  • They’re a big boost to hardware flexibility. Right now, those 4 buttons are a major hurdle to “Can this run Android?” Sure, you could hack Android onto something, but without those 4 buttons, it will be a crappy experience. With virtual buttons, all you need to bring is a touchscreen, and Android will bring the rest. Android is supposed to run on everything, virtual buttons will enable that.
  • More space on the phone gets dedicated to the screen. That means less work for the OEMs and fewer components. Also thinner bezels, sexier looking devices, and bigger screens on the same size phones.
  • Bigger screens on smaller phones. Today, a 4.5-inch phone is pretty large, but having smaller bezels means you can fit a 4.5-inch screen in a much smaller package. For instance, the iPhone and the Atrix are about the same size, but the Atrix packs an extra half inch of screen because the bezel is so much smaller.


  • And most importantly: it’s cool. It gets us a step closer to Tony Stark’s phone.


You’ve also got to hope that the idea of buttonless phones will trigger a bezel thinness race between the OEMs, with them all trying to hide as many front phone components as possible. I know we all have a collective affinity for minimalism. Hopefully this leads to much nicer phone design.

The one bad thing is that, yes, it will steal some pixels (although this will probably be mitigated by the bigger screens and smaller bezels), but that’s nothing autohide can’t fix.

And now - discuss away.

Note: I also posted this on reddit.

Ron Amadeo
Ron loves everything related to technology, design, and Google. He always wants to talk about "the big picture" and what's next for Android, and he's not afraid to get knee-deep in an APK for some details. Expect a good eye for detail, lots of research, and some lamenting about how something isn't designed well enough.
  • Mitch

    That is really weird because I am watching Iron Man on FX right now.

    • mskks64

      too bad thats iron man 2 :P

  • Ron Amadeo

    My first post! What do you guys think? Be nice to the new guy..

    • http://tantrajnaan.com Robert Dunn

      If this is you first post, why is it called an editorial? Great post though. I agree in full.

      • http://www.AndroidPolice.com Artem Russakovskii

        Because that's what it is? What do you think an editorial means?

    • Rhayader

      Good stuff in terms of content, but FYI "hurtle" is a verb -- you meant to say that the requirement for hard buttons is a major *hurdle* for devs porting Android to more devices!

      • http://www.AndroidPolice.com Artem Russakovskii

        Thanks, I'll fix that. I saw it while editing and thought it looked weird, but the spell check didn't light up, so I left it alone.

    • https://plus.google.com/u/0/116131769809111015026/posts mike

      nice job on your first post. But one thing...DONT YOU EVER POST A PHOTO OF AN IPHONE AGAIN!!! lmaooo jk jk but in all serious good write up. I kind of worried about how having virtual buttons would be on a phone but you made a lot a good points...thanks! i now cant wait to get the nexus prime =]

    • Ribbys

      Great piece. Really, I enjoyed it as you supported your opinion with some facts. So many bloggers do not.

    • serge

      Good misleading info. Can't even call it an editorial but only personal opinion. This is exactly the problem, virtual buttons are only handy for noobs or iPhone users. Any advanced user or a developer will tell you they hate these virt buttons.

      • m4nc1n1

        God forbid android devs will have to actually code now. Lol

  • Collin

    I think this will be an awesome Os... Landscape. Will actually be greater. Due to autohide aaaaand the fact someone will throw a mod out to where we can. Adjust. The virtual button size... Cant wait!

  • Tony

    While I'm equally excited for virtual buttons. I think you really need to lower you expectations a bit, there's prob only room for a Back, Home, Multitask, and Notifications button. Any more and that'd be too small of a button to press. Sure they'll have the old fashion Menu button have to be duplicated on old apps but either they'll squeeze a fifth button on there or make the app vertically shorter and have a Menu button above the system bar. I just don't see a Search button happening, but again don't let me put a damper on your parade there's a bazillion reasons why virtual buttons are a good idea and I for one can't wait to get my Nexus Prime/whatev it's called :)

    • Ravrahn

      I have five buttons in my Launcher's dock. I can use them fine.
      I'm guessing there'll be be 4 buttons, with multitask replacing the search. Status bar will almost certainly stay up top on phones - they can't make that big a change, it's the most recognisable feature (besides the four buttons) of the entire OS!

  • Ken Masters

    My only concern with the lack of our beloved buttons is what will we do when Android locks up? We'll have no buttons to spam in panic!

    • Ron Amadeo

      Button responsiveness won't change any. The capacitive buttons we have now are part of the touchscreen sensor. Virtual buttons will still be part of the touchscreen sensor. Nothing is changing in that regard.

      • http://www.psycho.ziggy471.com psycho_maniac_

        Yeah I noticed this too! Also another thing that will be cool with virtual buttons is you don't have to worry about the main buttons being switched around when you go from moto to htc or htc to samsung

    • http://www.AndroidPolice.com Artem Russakovskii

      I have the EVO, and when it locks up, the buttons don't work anyway. It's pretty much the same as having on-screen buttons, as Ron said.

  • zepplin76

    I love being rooted for a different reason then most. I don't Use tethering. I do overclock but the main reason is...I am a lefty and do the 270 & 180 rotate and stock doesn't comply as nice. So on screen buttons might bring me to stock since Google didn't add it default so OEMs could keep it or lose leftys... I really wish this was more of a concern for the minority

    • Hary Ayala

      i don't see how being a lefty is any problem at all, i'm not one, but i do use my phone with my left hand about half the time because i hold food on the right one, and I've never had an issue with any phone, android or otherwise...

  • http://thefarmerslife.wordpress.com Brian

    You're really going to make me wait for the Nexus/Droid Prime aren't you? Hope this original Droid doesn't act up too much before then or I might get the Bionic.

  • Jason

    This would be something for the Samsung Continuum (remember the Galaxy S with the ticker) If it didn't have buttons between, the ticker could be a dedicated button pad, and the screen be the screen

  • Joe

    I love the android for its customisation, unlike the control freaks over at Apple. The launcher themes are what make Android look pretty and cool, so I can only imagine the types of themes and mods that dev teams will come up with. I'm all for it!

    Only concern is battery consumption, I just hope it's not too heavy in that department, bigger screen = more drain

  • PhineasJW

    Spot on analysis.

    If you look at the iPhone, nearly 1/3 of the vertical real estate is wasted space. There's absolutely no doubt that Apple will eventually put some marketing buzzword around a thin bezel design so they can re-invent it for all of us, probably with the iPhone 6.

    Matias Duarte is ahead of the curve, and software buttons are superior for all the reasons you enumerated.

  • ArunaSena

    Ron, that's a very insightful post you have provided to the skeptics.

    Totally agree with what you have said about both the usefullness of the on screen buttons as well as the inital scare of button responsiveness during lock up.

    With ICS, I am predicting porting Andy into other touchscreen devices would be a breeze.

    Android for World Dominion?

  • http://www.pretentiousname.com Leo Davidson

    Totally agree, at least if it's a choice between fixed function touch sensitive buttons and extending the screen into the buttons.

    Some might want physical buttons, but touch sensitive ones work fine for this purpose, and why not make it so their icons can change in different contexts, and so the space they're in can be used for full-screen video, or whatever?

    It makes me wonder why Android isn't like that already.

  • ocdtrekkie

    We have no confirmation that ICS will give phones virtual buttons, unless I missed a major announcement...

    Every indication from Honeycomb indicated it would fully adapt back to a traditional Gingerbread-ish style on a phone, and the screenshots of ICS we saw didn't seem to have these buttons virtualized either.

    • http://www.AndroidPolice.com Artem Russakovskii

      The screenshots were taken on an existing Nexus device, which already has hardware buttons.

      • Rob

        The screen shots were fake...

      • ocdtrekkie

        But do we have any evidence they intend to have devices without hardware buttons for ICS?

        This editorial is written as if it is a sure thing, where as in fact, it is mere speculation, and to be honest, something I think is on the less likely end of the spectrum.

  • http://droidsamurai.blogspot.com PixelSlave

    >> It’s always consistent. OEMs can’t mess with the button order anymore.

    You are just WAYYYY too optimistic. We must understand how much the OEMs LOVE to mess with the base OS ... they are skinning the OS anyway, changing the button order is easy like picking their noses.

    • Rhayader

      True, but at least in that case you can root and load custom ROMs. There's no rooting your way around a phone with hard keys that put the menu and home buttons in the reverse order from what you've grown used to.

    • Vivec

      They probably will, but unlike the hardware buttons, on-screen buttons can be rearranged. If ICS itself doesn't support it, our awesome devs will find a way to hack it.

  • Erik I Graul

    The only problem i see with no buttons is knowing witch side is up from time to time when the screen is off... the buttons are at the bottom letting me know thats the bottom of the phone...

    • Ron Amadeo

      If only we had a good way to make the screen turn on without a physical power button (shake it, squeeze it, a heat sensor, very low power touch bezel). You could have an orientation-less device. How cool would that be?

    • nerdshowandtell

      orientation won't mater if the ui rotates with you.. and if your concerned about the ear speaker, pretty sure you can see how the phone is orientated by the physical ear speaker..

      • Ron Amadeo

        I totally forgot about the speaker and microphone. Shows you how often I make phone calls. =P

    • Hary Ayala

      with no buttons you don't need a bottom side anymore... android phones have gravity sensors, the display will always be in the correct rotation angle for you to see it.

      the only reason this doesn't happen in stock roms (you can enable it in cyanogenmod) is because the buttons force the concept of a bottom onto the phone.

  • Rhayader

    One way around the pixel hit would be to make a second "screen" for the button row. This would obviously pin the row to one place, but the main screen could be displayed without interference.

    HTC showed a glimpse of the idea behind this with the auto-rotating capacitive buttons on the Incredible 2. Those were LEDs and not an actual screen panel, but it seems like the same basic process (contextual, software-driven button customization).

    • Hary Ayala

      why would you want the buttons always in the same place when you can have them adjust to whatever way you happen to want to hold your phone?

      • Rhayader

        Well it's a trade-off -- either there is a static button row, or on-screen buttons. In the first case, the button row is in a static location, but the actual phone screen can be displayed without making room for virtual buttons.

        In the second case, the buttons can go anywhere, but as the author mentioned that involves taking up valuable screen pixels for buttons.

        • http://www.AndroidPolice.com Artem Russakovskii

          Having buttons on the same screen would increase the viewing area when you want it to - I think that's a far better way to go personally.

        • Rob

          No trade off at all...

          If you have a 4" screen with buttons below, then you have 4" w/ buttons. If you have 4.3" with on screen buttons then you can have the same 4" with buttons (.3") or 4.3" when the buttons aren't needed.

          Software buttons make more sense. And if ICS adds them, I see no reason for any phone to need physical keys again...

      • Victor

        the problem with the buttons moving is on landscape mode. We already are limited on landscape having more screen real estate taken would just destroy landscape

    • http://twitter.com/#!/brandonjnunn bjn714

      The dinc2 rotating buttons appear to be led backlit monochrome mini LCDs. They look like little screens if you examine them closely. Plus the digitizer actually runs completely through all the buttons (hoping for a dev to give us swipe gestures across the buttons). At least until we get no buttons.

  • J

    I'm def' a go for the extra screen size... I came from an iPhone 3G to a Droid X... I recently had to use my iPhone due to some tech issues with the DX and damn, forgot how small that thing was....

    I also could dig the orientation changing.... It can be difficult to hit the right button if they're on the side.... And would LOVE to have it change to let me know if I'm going back a screen or exiting the app completely if I hit the back button, or the option button to disappear if there's no options, etc... Though it might be difficult to work out the changing button position to keep everything looking nice....

    My only "I dunno" is that I use the home button to wake the phone up. I guess its a carry-over from using the home (/only) button to wake the iPhone... I know the power button will wake it.... So it'll just take a little getting use to pressing a different button on a different area of the phone...

    But I suppose the benefits out way the loss, so....

  • L boogie

    Hey Ron, awesome first post on android and its infinite possibilities. Virtual buttons is going to be one of many aspects of ICS that takes mobile evolution to the next plateau and no need to add any input that hasn't been covered by various commenters. Now just counting down till ICS official arrives and i get my hands on prime (droid/ nexus) and future smartphones.

  • Tee

    Talking about buttonless phones, N9 was just something else, I must say..

  • iSlackerz

    I love the idea of losing the buttons personally. I've used the Atrix and held it numerous times, it's very nice and compact. Without the buttons I imagine Motorola could easily squeeze a 4.3" screen in the same space.

    For me, I like phones about the size of the Evo 3D/Sensation. They're a much better fit for my large hands. I would think HTC could easily put a 4.5" - 4.7" screen in a Sensation chassis if they lost the buttons.

    Bigger screens in the same phones sounds great to me... bring it on!

  • Eric

    I hope they do something similiar to Windows 8. If you swipe up, you get the settings bar. Otherwise it's hidden. Do the same for android. Swipe up to get virtual buttons. If they do that, I'm happy.

    At the very least, they need to make sure that the buttons are always on the narrow portion of your phone. If you use it in landscape, and the buttons move to the bottom, they will take up about 2x the pixels as they would on the narrow edge.

  • Coco hime

    Interesting article. Definitely something I never really gave much thought and you bring up many very good points.

    I'm having trouble imagining how auto hiding the buttons would work though. I mean what would trigger them to become hidden/unhidden. I could see a side button being used but I think that kinda defeats the point a little bit of removing physical buttons. I don't see how like something on the touchscreen like a gesture would work though especially in like a game where the whole screen is taken up and there's no way back out but the back button.

    It's a nice suggestion but it seems like it would need a really creative solution to work ideally.

    • Ron Amadeo

      Hopefully swiping up from the bezel would bring them up, and swiping down could hide them.

  • http://www.abhiroopbasu.com Abhiroop Basu

    A few virtual buttons are useful. I don't think the "home" button needs to be on the front of the device necessarily, but having the "home" button is immensely useful as you can always just press that to stop/exit whatever you are doing. It's almost like a ctrl+alt+del to quickly leave a non-functioning app.

    Great job on your first post Ron!

  • Maturin

    Morning all
    I totally agree with the "hardware buttons bad" idea. I don't like the feel of the buttons on my X10 so had a bit of a dig and found Button Savior on the Market (requires root). Bingo - haven't had to use the hardware buttons for a couple of months :)

  • SilverEagle

    Or they can simply put more buttons on the side (like camera/search/back). Home button can simply be emulated with 3 or 5 touches on the screen

  • Rob

    Have any of you actually used honeycomb then? The bar the buttons are on is ALWAYS there. You can't get rid of it (OK, unless you're rooted) so it actually means you lose screen space, not gain it. and as Eric says, because it follows the orientation of the device, when you're using it in landscape, you lose even more of the screen. It's particularly annoying when you're watching video, because it reduces what's displayed there to small dots (does that count as your "autohide"?) but you've still lost that whole row.

    As others have said, we have no reason yet to believe this will be how it is in ICS, but if it is, we equally have no reason to believe that it won't follow Honeycomb's precedent...

  • jaamgans

    My transformer already has this to a degree - the buttons don't change etc, but they can and do disappear when watching movies etc to increase screen space.

    The really aren't that different from the ones on my DHD and find them easy to use and work with on the Transformer so have no issues about this becoming the standard going forward.

    It would be nice if they provided an option so you could keep them on the short side for example, even if going into landscape mode - perhaps the buttons can be reworked so they line up one below each other- now that would be great.

    • Rob

      hm, no, the transformer doesn't have anything special in this respect. they change to little dots when you're watching movies, but they're still there, and the amount of space you lose is still just the same... unless you've rooted and hacked it.

  • http://commonsware.com Mark Murphy

    "Ice Cream Sandwich will be the first phone version of Android to support virtual buttons." -- and your proof of this is, what, exactly? Comments from Google engineers suggest to me that phones will retain their existing 2.x-style status bar and that HOME, BACK, etc. will be off-screen, as Android 1.x and 2.x devices have. The system bar with "virtual buttons" would be a tablet thing.

    • Ron Amadeo

      ICS will support virtual buttons. It has to for tablets. Whether an OEM uses them or not is up for debate, but I don't see how you claim ICS won't support them.

      • Rob

        surely people have already demonstrated that honeycomb has the "old" homescreen/buttons if you change the DPI? it's perfectly possible (likely?) to have ICS with different support for tablets than for phones. surely that makes a lot of sense? it certainly makes a lot of sense to vary based on the considerable differences in screensize.

  • Phil

    If Android phones lose all buttons how then will Apple be able to say they are copying. This just wont work lol.

  • TomRowly


    I think this should be it!
    Obviously menu and back buttons incorporated within apps, iOS-like.

  • http://schpydurx.livejournal.com ProfessorTom

    Great article for the n00b!

    Unfortunately, this is old news. Allow me to quote from an even in 2007:

    Now, we're going to start with a revolutionary user interface. It is the result of years of research and development, and of course, it's an interplay of hardware and software. Now, why do we need a revolutionary user interface. Here's four smart phone, right? Motorola Q, the BlackBerry, Palm Treo, Nokia E62 -- the usual suspects. And, what's wrong with their user interfaces? Well, the problem with them is really sort of in the bottom 40 there. It's this stuff right there. They all have these keyboards that are there whether or not you need them to be there. And they all have these control buttons that are fixed in plastic and are the same for every application. Well, every application wants a slightly different user interface, a slightly optimized set of buttons, just for it. And what happens if you think of a great idea six months from now? You can't run around and add a button to these things. They're already shipped. So what do you do? It doesn't work because the buttons and the controls can't change. They can't change for each application, and they can't change down the road if you think of another great idea you want to add to this product.

    Well, how do you solve this? Hmm. It turns out, we have solved it! We solved in computers 20 years ago. We solved it with a bit-mapped screen that could display anything we want. Put any user interface up. And a pointing device. We solved it with the mouse. We solved this problem. So how are we going to take this to a mobile device? What we're going to do is get rid of all these buttons and just make a giant screen. Now, how are we going to communicate this? We don't want to carry around a mouse, right? So what are we going to do? Oh, a stylus, right? We're going to use a stylus. No. Who wants a stylus. You have to get em and put em away, and you lose em. Yuck. Nobody wants a stylus. So let's not use a stylus. We're going to use the best pointing device in the world. We're going to use a pointing device that we're all born with -- born with ten of them. We're going to use our fingers. We're going to touch this with our fingers. And we have invented a new technology called multi-touch, which is phenomenal. It works like magic. You don't need a stylus. It's far more accurate than any touch display that's ever been shipped. It ignores unintended touches, it's super-smart. You can do multi-finger gestures on it. And boy, have we patented it.
    -- Steve Jobs, Macworld 2007

    • http://www.podoco.net zach

      y u no make sense tom? this isn't an article about touch screens, it's an article about moving the hardware buttons to on screen buttons.

      • http://schpydurx.livejournal.com ProfessorTom

        Yes, exactly.

        The hardware buttons are becoming software buttons for the flexibility that Steve Jobs talked about during his keynote address at Macword 2007. Android has finally caught up to what he was going on about four years later.

        • NotAProfessorChris

          Wow!! It's lucky for you and old Steve that the iPhone doesn't have a hardware home button, isn't it?

          Google put out a tablet OS that has software buttons...yet Steve Jobs kind of talking about it is better somehow?

  • Ghostwan

    I don't think it is a good idea. I have a asus eee pad transformer without physical buttons. There are 3 problems about it:
    - When you watch a film in landscape, the film is not in full screen and because of the luminosity of your screen, you have a discomfort to watch your film when you look at the status bar .
    - When you play game for example, sometimes you touch the virtual button and it's disturbing
    - Because they remove the call physical button it's hard to pick up a call when you wear gloves.

  • http://wheeqo.web.id Bambang

    I want that Tony Stark's phone!