Something fun and useful to press
Fact checked by Jerri Ledford
Rumors suggest the next iPhone will have an action button.
The iPhone’s mute switch may be transformed into an action button.
An action button would help users quickly navigate iOS.
The long-lost action buttons on phones may be on their way back.
"Smartphones started out with an action button but then pulled them after a certain point," wireless industry analyst Jeff Kagan told Lifewire in an email interview. "Users loved action buttons, so I am not sure why smartphone makers moved away from them. The reason stated at the time was it meant the screen could be larger. That may have made sense at the time, but not so much today since there are so many different size devices."
Press and Play
The next iPhone reportedly will see the mute switch converted into an action button, similar to the button found on the Apple Watch Ultra. The new button could summon various iPhone-specific features and settings.
The current virtual action button moves around the screen, compared to the physical action button, which is in one place and is an actual button, Kagan said, adding that "there are no real right or wrong solutions here. It's all about personal preference. And device makers try to make the majority happy."
Many phone makers have transitioned to software-only action buttons. A solid-state controller, often referred to as a haptic touch button or force-sensitive button operates differently from traditional mechanical buttons as it does not physically depress. Rather than relying on a movable part, this type of button utilizes haptic feedback to detect a press.
Phones in the past relied on action buttons because they give users a quick and convenient way to access frequently used features or apps, Steven Athwal, the managing director of The Big Phone Store, said in an email interview with Lifewire. He noted that the action button on the Phone 15 Pro will be able to perform nine different tasks, including voice memos, accessibility, shortcuts, silent mode, camera, flashlight, focus, and magnifier.
"The keyword for an action button is speed—power-users now have quick access to these features without having to go through screens or menus," he added.
Buttons May Be More Practical
Some observers say that doing away with the phone action button was a mistake driven more by the desire for a clean look rather than practical considerations.
"I remember when the Apple iPhone started tinkering with the action button," Kagan said. "First, they moved away from an actual click to a touch-only button. The click feel was created by software and vibration technology. Then they finally got rid of the button to make the screens larger."
Athwal contends that action buttons might no longer be on some phones due to design decisions surrounding their multi-functionality.
"If a single button can have a wide range of uses, then users might opt for finding the function that they want in the interface of whatever app they are using, to make sure that they trigger the function that they actually wanted," he said. "If a large number of users use their phones in this way, then it might not seem worthwhile to consider how to best include an action button."
Most currently-existing action buttons can be found on Android phones, and their functionality can be wildly different between devices, Athwal noted. Action buttons are also often on hands-free kits and headsets, which allow the user to play music, pause, activate google assistant, answer or decline calls, and more, all by pressing the same single button in different ways.
"Most phones with action buttons call them a 'programmable button'—giving users control over which features they most want immediate access to," he said. "And phones designed for a specific purpose can have the action button programmed in a very specific way, such as the dedicated emergency-call button on Doro's phones for the elderly."
Gadget lovers who remember the button-festooned devices of yore might have reason to rejoice if action buttons make a comeback. Think of them as fidget toys for tech.