"The playground is open."

That's the declaration attached to every piece of Nexus 7 advertising on the internet. The point Google's trying to get across is that the Nexus 7 is, first and foremost, a media device. Reading, watching, listening, and gaming - those are the use cases Google had in mind when they designed the N7.

The result is that the Nexus 7 is not just a new device, it's a new type of device, at least as far as the Android UI is concerned. When Google set out to design a 7 inch tablet from the ground up, they completely blew up the standard Android tablet conventions. The N7 UI is not quite phone, not quite tablet - it's a crazy mix of both.

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Before the N7, Android gave you two different system bar layouts: The 2 bar layout (left), which has the button bar on the bottom, centered buttons, and a status bar on the top; and the 1 bar layout (right), which has a combined button and status bar on the bottom, with left aligned buttons. Conventional wisdom said the 2 bar layout was for phones, and the 1 bar layout was for tablets.

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Their rotating behavior is different too. For the 2 bar  layout, the button bar does not move with orientation (usually), and the status bar does. This means, in portrait, the buttons are at the bottom with the status bar on the top; and, in landscape (left), the buttons are on the right, and the status bar is on the top. The 1 bar layout (right) is much simpler, the single bar moves with the orientation, so everything is always on the bottom.

Until a few weeks ago, the left examples, above, were how phones worked, and the right ones were how tablets worked. When the Nexus 7 was unveiled, this clean phone/tablet division came crashing down:


This is the Nexus 7's system UI. It's a third style of device - a phone/tablet hybrid. The dual-bar, centered button layout of a phone, and the all-orientations-are-equal rotation of a tablet.

This seems like the most logical rotation style for the dual bar UI, but things don't work this way on phones. The reason being, in landscape, vertical space is at a premium, and 2 horizontal bars would suck up too much screen real estate. On a bigger device like the N7, however, you've got more breathing room, so Google opted for consistent button locations - they're always on the bottom.

It turns out, this is a great boost to gaming usability. With bottom centered buttons, you are much less likely to accidentally hit a system button while blowing stuff up. Observe:


Consider the typical "touchscreen game pad" control scheme, like in Dead Trigger. On the Galaxy Nexus, your right thumb is precariously close to Back and Home. One errant finger movement and your gaming session is over. The same is true with a regular tablet layout, except this time, it's your left thumb that could accidentally end your good time, thanks to the left-aligned system buttons.


On an N7, however, the system buttons are at the bottom-center of the screen, and safely out of the way. No matter how heated your gaming gets, you'd have a hard time accidentally hitting Back or Home. The positioning is even reminiscent of the centered "start/select" buttons on a real controller. In fact, hold an Xbox 360 controller up to the Nexus 7 and you'll see a startling resemblance:


The Xbox's and N7's system buttons are in a near-identical location!

While hidable buttons would, of course, be ideal, this is a good compromise between accidentally hitting the system buttons and the "where did my buttons go?" problem a hidden bar would create. Phones don't have the vertical space to accommodate a layout like this, but I'd be interested to see what happens to the 10 inch tablet layout in the future. It too could benefit from something like this.

The Nexus 7 is pitched as a great media consumption device, and for good reason. Little tweaks like this make all the difference. Matias Duarte, the head of Android UX, even confirmed the button placement gaming considerations in a Google+ thread. The N7's weight and size make it a great device to game on, and this new button layout is just icing on the cake. It's not just ad copy, folks, the N7 really is designed for fun.

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.
  • http://trevorsullivan.net/ Trevor Sullivan

    The Nexus 7 is fabulous for gaming.

  • Merlin Wizard

    the xbox comparison .. are you apple

    • ericl5112

      I don't even know what that's supposed to mean...

      • Merlin Wizard

        u know.... u knowww

        • Lee

          no we don't...xbox was made by MICROSOFT...smh

    • Ron Amadeo

      I am apple.

    • FrillArtist

      You're an idiot.

  • AndrewNeo

    Those buttons are hidable, see video applications that go fullscreen. For some reason nobody makes it happen (lack of a screen zone in games to make them appear?)

    • Aaron Berlin

      But in the case of video apps, the on-screen controls surface the moment you touch the screen. That obviously won't work for games. What we need is some kind of smart gesture, like swiping from the bottom of the screen, no matter what orientation you're in, but that unfortunately runs counter to the ICS+ design philosophy of surfacing functionality rather than hiding it. I don't really know how to square the two.

      • AndrewNeo

        Yeah, that's what I was referring to. I don't think it should be a universal gesture though (at least not system-wide, it could be in the guidelines or commonly agreed upon) as the application should handle how it chooses to show/hide the bar. In some custom ROMs (like the one I'm using for the Kindle Fire) you can show/hide the bar in the power menu, which makes sense to me, but probably not for baseline Android.

      • grellanl

        Precisely what I was thinking, it's annoying to lose that thick black strip across the bottom of the screen, so it would make sense to allow games to hide the buttons the way videos can, and to have a universal swipe-up-from-bottom gesture that displays the softkeys no matter where you are. That way you only need to lose a 1-pixel strip across the bottom.

        Also, people are going to get more used to those types of gestures with Win8 coming out (or webOS or RIM's PlayBook OS, but fewer will have used those).

      • Awesome Sauce

        All games have settings/options/pause buttons in the game. Make the navi buttons appear in the pause menu. Go fullscreen when unpaused. I think that would be the easiest way.

    • AwesomeSauce

      All games have settings/options/pause buttons in the game. Make the navi buttons appear in the pause menu. Go fullscreen when unpaused.

  • ericl5112

    I still manage to launch Google Now while selecting units in Auralux. I bet consistency was more the guiding factor than gaming on this however. Simple simple simple seems to be Duarte's mantra. Still, this is the first case I've actually agreed with. I still find it a tad difficult to hit the home button in landscape, but I hadn't considered the gaming implications.

  • Perry Ahern

    In general the Nexus 7 button bar works well except for one thing - the forced orientation on the main screens. I'll often flip my N7 while it's plugged in so the charging cable isn't in the way at the bottom and this works fine for most things, but if I back out of an app to the main screen I'm suddenly staring at an upside down screen. Hopefully an update will fix this to match the actual orientation of the device.

  • Loren Cogar

    That game is unplayable with on screen controls! Awesome with a gamepad though.

  • NickAVV

    I've been playing Dead Trigger on my N7, and while I'm typically not a fan of hardcore gaming with on-screen controls, I can't honestly say I've had problems playing it. The tablet is the perfect size, and the buttons are in the perfect spot

  • GazaIan

    You know now that you say it, my left hand is always hitting back or home while I'm playing Dead Trigger on my Galaxy Tab 10.1.

  • GazaIan

    You know now that you say it, my left hand is always hitting back or home while I'm playing Dead Trigger on my Galaxy Tab 10.1.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rob.mahon Robert Mahon

    These make for ok defaults, but really should be overridable. Galaxy Nexus phone, /really/ need to be carefull to not hit home when clicking space. Tablets, that huge bar at the bottom is horrible wasteful if you don't also have the time/notification screen there.
    Looks like there's all sorts of ways to set this up, but there really should be a method to lock/force/edit the functionality for this in a settings page.

  • Dinofan01

    So the N7 is great for gaming but is it great for reading? I really want a tablet for reading but I'm not sure if I should hold off on a 10" tablet to read in a portrait mode with the dual page scheme or just have the N7 with a single page landscape view. Any input on people with N7s?

    • Sean Lumly

      IMO, 7" is really ideal for reading typical books as well as consuming most media. For large format (ie. academic papers, pdfs, magazines) I would guess that a 10" would be better, but 7" is far more portable, comfortable, and more likely to be used. At the very least, try both sizes out before you make a decision!

    • Andreas

      Yes, but not on the beach or in the sun, having a glossy screen etc.. For that the kindle still beats it.

  • popomano

    Now we just need more games for android... it is a barren playground

  • Jenny Key Nguyen

    I always manage hit one of those three buttons when playing Final Fantasy III though...

  • http://codytoombs.wordpress.com/ Cody Toombs

    I agree with the logic, I like the point, and I think it had to have been a real goal. I just hate that the back button (in landscape mode) requires a relative stretch to reach it. This feels like a fix that makes one use case far better, and many others slightly worse. While I agree with @ericl5112:disqus about consistency, and this suggestion flies in the face of that, I'd have preferred game developers decide which location the soft buttons are in. I know it would be weird to see those buttons move around when a game loads or closes, but so many other apps (like web browsers) would be better with the back button aligned to the left.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002743458418 Colton Clark

    it'd be cool if there was a switch on the side of the phone/tablet (like a HOLD button on iPod Touch/ Phone)...flip it to make the navbar go away/ come back

  • xpert

    I play a game called chaos helicopter simulater and I hit the home button almost every game is there a way to lock the home button and maybe unlock it by holding your finger on it for like 5 or 10 seconds to unlock it that would be nice cause I hate it being there I'm about to sell my n7 and go back to iPad mini... Ggrrrrr

  • DavidMoreau

    Sorry, but buttons on the bottom are not at all out of the way. Not all games are the same, and a lot of games are compromised by software buttons at the bottom. This is often disastrous for competitive real-time games.