/ Technology

Do you prefer physical buttons over a touchscreen?

Touchscreen

As the iPod Nano and iPod Shuffle are sent to the great Apple Store in the sky, physical buttons are now a thing of the past for the tech giant. But is touchscreen really better?

It’s almost impossible to imagine using a smartphone with an old-fashioned numeric keypad, and for good reason. With all the different apps and screens that our phones process nowadays, a static layout simply wouldn’t work – there’s too much going on.

Touchscreens are more intuitive and, for the most part, quicker. As the technology gets cheaper and our day-to-day lives grow more and more technologically advanced, they’re also working their way onto more devices. Fridges, watches and in-car entertainment systems now all proudly sport touchscreens when physical buttons have happily resided for decades.

Buttons for the better?

Is it always for the best, though? You probably wouldn’t want a touchscreen keyboard, nor would you want a touchscreen TV remote. Sometimes tactile feedback and muscle memory make using a product far easier than the versatility of a touchscreen ever could – I’d argue that the iPod also falls under that category.

Thirteen years on, I still happily use my fourth generation iPod Classic as my day-to-day MP3 player. I have an iPhone with a larger storage capacity, but I find it’s simply not as quick or intuitive to browse as the iPod is. For me, the Click Wheel, with its audio cues and physical buttons, is a better input method for an MP3 player than a touchscreen – even one made by the same company.

Do you prefer physical buttons or touchscreens on your gadgets?

A bit of both (46%, 262 Votes)

Buttons (45%, 257 Votes)

Touchscreen (10%, 56 Votes)

Total Voters: 575

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Is the end nigh?

The iPods Shuffle and Nano may never have been the best MP3 Apple had to offer, but with their long-awaited deaths, we’re witnessing the end of an era.

People may not always agree with it, but when Apple makes a bold design move it isn’t usually long until other companies follow suit. The Sony Walkman already has a touchscreen variant, in addition to its hard-buttoned predecessors – could they soon be on their way out, too?

If you feel the same then you needn’t lose hope just yet. If you own an older iPod model then they’ll still work for the foreseeable future, and if you don’t then you can always head to eBay to pick one up. There are hundreds of them available if you aren’t too picky about which model or colour you want, some are even brand new.

Do you think buttons will always have a place in the tech world, or are they a relic of the past because touchscreens are better?

Comments

Buttons are mechanical and – as with anything mechanical – can fail prematurely. But I suspect we prefer some feedback when activating a function, which is one reason some Apple users have been pressing Apple to introduce Haptic feedback for years.

I can live with touch screens very easily for most things, but for extended periods of writing I use a Tactile Pro mechanical keyboard. Not cheap, but clunky and audible and I like the feedback when I thump a key.

not now

I clicked buttons because I’d far sooner use a system with a keyboard and a mouse (or failing that a trackpad) to something a like a pure tablet or fone.

When I briefly owned a tablet, the first accessory I bought was a keyboard for it. (The only tablet that I now have is a “ruined” one, where the screen glass (and digitiser) are broken “beyond economic repair”, but it is still usable if I plug in a keyboard and mouse.)

I do use a cheap fone – it is acceptable because I don’t need to do loads of typing on it and because I don’t want to pay for a fone that costs as much as a laptop.

I have an ancient phone with a physical keyboard, since my fingers are too clumsy to use the one provided on screen. Other things, like sending messages and moving screens, are bigger actions which I can manage. I have never owned a tablet and don’t know what use I’d make of it. My lap tops are all keyboard and mouse operated. The screen is some distance from me as I type this on a plug in keyboard, so using the lap top as a touch screen would be difficult. I do like the keyboard mouse approach, since this is what I’ve always used and the technique of poking and swiping a screen to make things happen doesn’t appeal. I can do everything remotely and there are no finger mark or nail scratches to worry about. For typing documents, an on screen keyboard would be dreadful and I couldn’t cope with it. I also hate predictive text with a passion. I’ve seen many people texting merrily from their phones, using two thumbs. I can’t be bothered to learn this. When my phone eventually dies, I shall have a prodder to poke the screen and type that way. I suppose this is called getting old, but I can make my computers and phone do what I want them to do without hassle and so am content with what I’ve got.

I’m with you on typing Vynor.

I also cannot type with 2 thumbs. I consider my fingers to be relatively small but I type all manner of rubbish with them on a phone screen and the mind of predictive text is rather different to my mind.

A couple of days ago I sent a text and the sentence had the word ‘fix’ in it. On reading back, it was the only word in capital letters, so I went back and retyped it. It refused to turn into small letters, so in the end I had to send the text as was.

A rubber on the end of pencil works quite well as a prodder though.

In a similar state to you, Vynor – plus I can’t read what’s on my iPhone’s screen without a magnifying glass! Hence, I use an old desktop as my mainstay, an old Nokia 3330 as my mobile and the iPhone only as a ‘going away’ tablet. I also have a Tesco Hudl 2 – shame they’ve been discontinued – Tesco’s current offering is nothing like as good. However, the Hudl has Bluetooth (as do most tablets), so a cheap Bluetooth keyboard from Lidl gets round most of the typing problems – plus many keyboard shortcuts like CNTL-C for cut and CNTL-V for paste work as on a PC. Can’t deny that the tablet is always ready and waiting (unless its battery is flat!), so it’s great for instant answers from Google (no need for encyclopaedias or printed train timetables any more), whereas the desktop takes several minutes to wake up. But for anything serious, like writing letters or, in my case, maintaining websites, a touch-screen just isn’t up to the job, and never will be.

alfa – I’m surprised the rubber on the end of a pencil works on touchscreens. You can get dedicated prodders from many Poundshops, which are short lengths of aluminium tubing with a squidgy rubber end that emulates a finger. Poundland usually has two sizes in a pack for a quid, the smaller of which is telescopic and has a dummy plug on a lanyard to put in the headphone socket for safe stowage. Can’t use that with an iPhone 7, though… I wouldn’t be able to use my (earlier) iPhone without it. These double-jointed kids using their thumbs for texting are asking for RSI problems….

I prefer not to an early adopter of new technology. My suggestion is to try products belonging to friends and family, who are often happy to point out good and bad points that might not otherwise be obvious.

The success of smartphones and tablets is evidence that many of us are happy with touchscreens. Add a keyboard and the screen area has to become smaller or the device larger. BlackBerry still produces phones with a small keyboard but I was not surprised when touchscreen models became available.

For me the trackpad on a MacBook Pro is superb, though having turned off some of the features for novices I can see that it does take a bit of getting used to. I don’t recall having used a mouse on an Apple laptop, though I sometimes use one on the desktop for graphics work.

I don’t think the computer keyboard is likely to disappear because it’s not very easy to input pages of text on a touch screen, though I’m amazed how well some do on their tablets.

Here is video parodying Apple design. It dates from 2009, but I still enjoy it: http://www.theonion.com/video/apple-introduces-revolutionary-new-laptop-with-no–14299

I loved the line ‘Anything you want is just a few hundred clicks away…’. Superb.

Many thanks for that wavechange.

I had to authorise about a million cookies to get it to run 🙂

It was worth it though, not least for “It remains to be seen whether or not the MacBookWheel will catch on it the business world, where computers are used for actual work and not just messing around.”

(Typed from my Lenovo X201 keyboard.)

I doubt what people want has much to do with anything when it comes to design decisions that are highly cost effective. Perhaps a good time to point out that Apple have form when it comes to paying attention to regulation and what people want.

Replaceable batteries …. No

Touch-screens have caused one or two legal wrangles, notably the ‘slide-to-unlock’ battle between Apple and Samsung – for which consumers ultimately foot the bill.

The great advantage of a touch screen is that what the icons on the screen can have any number of functions. It was impressive to see how the keys on the Sinclair ZX Spectrum were used to perform various functions according to context. It is a pity they were horrid rubber keys and the physical design of the computer was not very good, but designers of products with buttons might learn something by playing with a 35 year old Spectrum.

Why have keyboard or touchscreen? Just talk to the dam thing !
“I’m sorry Dave, I can’t do that”

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A touch screen in a car is hazardous because you have to look at it to operate it. First you have to locate the right icon, then you have to keep looking at it in order to tap it accurately as your tapping finger moves around with the motion of the car. Your eyes can be off the road for several seconds. Which? should investigate the safety issues of these screens.

Campbell says:
12 August 2017

I agree. Touch screens in a car is positively dangerous. Personally, I have enough trouble finding the right switch by touch so I’d be a menace working a touch screen.

On a different tack, I have a touch screen, “waterproof”, smart phone with GPS and a mapping app. When do I really need to know where I am out in the hills? When it’s misty, cloudy, wet, or in a winter white-out. When does the touch scree fail to control the phone? When it gets wet – rain, mist, condensation. So my touch screen GPS is for serious purposes a waste of space.

Please, Which, make sure any “Best Buy” touch screens work properly when they are wet — especially if the thing is supposed to be “waterproof”!

This may be a simple matter of better technology – to provide some sort of feedback that your finger is not over just one button, but there are still the thousands of touch screens out there already to consider. It’s a little obvious that driving over rougher roads – around road works, or temporary parking for example, looking down at a touch screen would be a serious distraction, which could be dangerous in extreme cases.

For a transport vehicle, I should say that critical controls should be controlled by a reliable, physical object – a button, a steering wheel or a switch.

We had a US rental car with touch-screen controls, and as the driver I couldn’t use it at all. It was all menu driven and you cannot safely drive and work your way through menus with up to maybe 10 choices at the same time.

So yes, I agree with ColinB and Campbell, in cars, they are downright dangerous.

Julia says:
12 August 2017

With my RSI I find a touchscreen is much better for me than most keyboards. However I can cope with the keyboard provided with the Surface Pro as I don’t have to apply too much pressure.
The problems with touchscreens are that they obscure a large part of the screen and don’t tend to work with gloves (which I use when I have applied eczema cream). It is also harder to move the cursor where I want it.

Young people type with their thumbs only. Fine for them. Oldies like me probably learned to type, and used mechanical typewriters for years, graduating to electric ones. Now we type with a qwerty keyboard into a screen. BUT, we ten-fingered type!

So I would deplore the loss of the query ten-fingered board. However, what I really want is a computer qwerty board which has on each key the resistance, and the travel, of an old typewriter. For the computer qwerty boards are too sensitive, and as the (wrong) finger brushes the wrong letter, touch typing is rendered inaccurate. Then I start to look at the qwerty board, which is fatal, and destroys the ability to touch type fast.

But no-one makes such a keyboard at a reasonable price, and one doesn’t see them in any computer shop. Shame!

By the way, I detest touch screens. Stupid things – which scroll uncontrollably when I want to select, and vice versa – and show things which the computer wants to show, not what I want. But that is probably the point of the darned things.

The ‘qwerty’ keyboard was reputedly designed to slow down typists to prevent the type bars jamming. I recall efforts to move on in the early 80s but we seem stuck with qwerty as the standard.

There used to be a huge difference between different computer keyboards and maybe there still is. It might be a case of try before you buy and accept that a suitable keyboard may have to come from a specialist shop with a price to match.

I learned to touch-type in my early 20s on an electric portable. I cannot conceive of how anyone managed to use a mechanical typewriter, never mind type fast – where the keys have to be depressed a considerable distance.

It was nine fingers when I learned to touch-type and now I can correct errors as fast as I can type. Even if errors remain they can be corrected very easily. Before the computer, corrections involved using Tipp-Ex or Snopake unless you had a posh typewriter with a correcting ribbon.

What should I have been doing with the thumb of my left hand all these years?

One day I might manage to use both thumbs on a touch screen.

Give me buttons any day of the week especially when it comes to controls within vehicles. Somewhere down the line we’re going to have great 2nd hand cars that are mechanically sound but you’ll need to spend a small fortune to repair a faulty touch screen within it.

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I take issue with the opening line of this article: “As the iPod Nano and iPod Shuffle are sent to the great Apple Store in the sky, physical buttons are now a thing of the past for the tech giant”.
Which Best Buy laptop, Apple’s 13″ MacBook Air (which scored 92%, released June and reviewed literally last month) has the same ~80 buttons as previous models: https://www.which.co.uk/reviews/laptops/apple-macbook-air-13inch-2017

Subs? It’s not like Which to be quite this inaccurate.

I am trying to cut down on housework, so having to clean smeary fingerprints from computer monitors and TV screens is a job I can do without

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Tony Lambton says:
14 August 2017

Please remember the OAPs & people with impaired hand control. We can manage a keyboard – the bigger the better – but its a torture using a smartphone touchscreen, even with a stylus. KEEP THE KEYBOARDS.

David Thornton says:
14 August 2017

Touchscreen isn’t much good for blind people. I think the technology companies should give more attention to the disabled user.

At last – the buttons v touchscreen debate! I’ve decided on a career change, becoming an interior designer for new cars as I really should be winding down. Just stick a radio in, maybe a couple of air vents – and then just stick a sodding i pad (other makes of tablet are available!) on top of the dashboard a la BMW, Audi and Mercedes (and the professional car critics proclaim these motors as having high quality interiors!!!). How can anyone seriously claim these are high quality interiors – there’s absolutely no design effort gone into them whatsoever: give me a nice chunky dashboard full of buttons and dials any day. Funnily enough I was in the Audi dealer recently and gave the sales guy my spec – the most important being pre the introduction of the appalling new interior design. ‘Funnily enough’ he said, ‘customers are very split on the new interiors: some dislike them whilst others absolutely hate them’. And he sells Audi’s! If we must go over to touchscreens wholesale then at least have the decency to make an effort to incorporate it into the dash.

Jo Winfield says:
15 August 2017

Well said, Tony Lambton and David Thornton. I have Parkinsons and a touch-screen is impossible to use, as I discovered when I bought a Kindle.

I’d be very sad if devices with tactile buttons disappear – I’ve been carrying around a Sony MP3 Walkman for years and it’s so easy to switch radio stations, adjust volume etc while it’s in your pocket without having to take it out to look at it as you would if it were a touchscreen. Touchscreens are no good for frequent track-skipping and channel surfing!