On the iPhone 7 Home Button

How about a "real" button on the iPhone 7? 

How about a "real" button on the iPhone 7? 

I've had one of the newer MacBook Pro's for about 6-months now and those laptops have a new trackpad that is no longer a physical button. The trackpads on these laptops are just a non-moving slightly recessed piece of aluminum (or Al-U-MEN-E-UM as Jonny Ive likes so say). But these track pads have a bit of magic to them. When the MacBook Pro is powered on and you press down on the trackpad you would swear the trackpad moved down and "clicks" just like the old mechanical trackpads would do. I tried this with my kids and they all thought I was messing with them. But then I shut the MacBook Pro off and had them press the trackpad and sure enough it didn't move. This "fake click" is called haptic feedback. It is essentially a very short and sharp vibration that is triggered each time you press down on the trackpad to mimic the old mechanical action of the trackpad...and it is extremely convincing.

Fast forward to the iPhone 7. One of the changes to the iPhone this time around was that they changed the home button from the physical button that it has always been to just a slightly recessed pressure sensitive circular area...it is no longer a physical button. Apple did this for a couple of reasons. The main reason was so that they could make the phone more "waterproof." The other reason is that physical buttons wear out over time, so this is just one less thing that people need to worry about breaking on their iPhone. Believe it or not this is actually a "thing" outside of the U.S. So much so, in fact, that people in other countries would use some of Apple's accessibility features as a way to avoid pressing the home button on their iPhones as a way to ensure the button would not break.

So what's it like to actually use the new iPhone 7 now that Apple has killed the physical home button? Well...its different. If you handed someone the iPhone 7 and they had never heard of an iPhone or touched one before (maybe someone from Mars?) they might mistake the home button for just a very stiff non-responsive physical button, but I doubt it. The new iPhone 7 home button is no MacBook Pro trackpad. It is very obviously not a button anymore. That being said, if you put aside the initial negative reaction to the change there are some positives. For one, the response from pressing the home button is very crisp and is exactly the same every time. With some of my past iPhones the button would sometimes not feel the same every time I pressed it. I would certainly feel the difference between my iPhone and someone else's. It always gave me the impression that the button was flimsy or changing over time, even though through the 9 years of using various iPhones I have NEVER had a home button fail on me. I also really appreciate having an iPhone that is more waterproof. I live in Florida and it is not unheard of to get caught in a brief downpour that comes out of nowhere. If you are out on a walk when this happens with your iPhone it could mean the death of your $1000 phone. That is no longer a concern anymore.

The negative aspects of the button change are the following:

  • It doesn't feel like a button. The haptic feedback just isn't very convincing. Maybe Apple will be able to improve this over time but they aren't fooling anyone right now.
  • If you aren't holding your iPhone (its sitting on a table or being held in stand or car holder) the haptic feedback is not very strong so there isn't a lot of response when you press down on the home "button-like thing" (can we really still call this a button?)
  • When your iPhone is powered off or the operating system is not responding the home "button" doesn't work. In fact, in order to do a hard restart of your iPhone you now have to press the on/off button and the volume down button at the same time (this used to be the on/off button and the home button). Not a big deal, but if you don't know the new button combination and you need to restart your phone it can be a problem.

Overall, I really like the change. I like the firm and crisp response I get from having a non-physical button. But I realize this is not for everyone. I have more of an industrial taste with things...sleek and streamlined. So I like eliminating a mechanical item on my iPhone that has the potential to break or allow water into my device. The haptic response could definitely use some improvement, but it does the job and I suspect I and many other people will get used to it over time. I also think Apple will improve the haptic response feel (with some improvement simply from a software upgrade). In a few years people won't even remember a time when Apple used physical buttons on their iPhones. But make no mistake, this is big change from having a physical button. For many people this is going to seem like a downgrade. If you think you may be one of those people I highly suggest you try out an iPhone 7 in a store or play with a friend's phone before purchasing one yourself. The iPhone is a very personal device. As an iPhone user you will probably end up pressing that home "button" hundreds of times a day and if that becomes a negative experience for you it might be wise to delay switching to the new button design until Apple is able to improve the haptic feedback and make it feel more like a physical button. For the rest of you, enjoy the crisp non-mechanical response of the new button and the improved waterproof characteristics of your iPhone 7.

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