Back in July, Jon Bell wrote an excellent piece on why capacitive touch buttons are generally a bad idea–I tend to agree with his statements on this as well.
I recently wrote about my experience with Android in exhaustive detail, and I had similar frustrations with the capacitive touch buttons on that Nexus S. This is a serious problem with these devices, and the problem is only compounded by the non-standard placement of these buttons on various Android devices.
I no longer have that Nexus S, and have upgraded to a Samsung Infuse 4G. Bizarrely, Samsung chose to switch around some of the buttons, so they’re in a different order than on the Nexus S. It’s not just Android devices that have this problem though. Samsung seems to really like these capacitive touch buttons, so much in fact that they have decided to use them on other major consumer appliances like their line of LCD TVs.
This week I picked up a Samsung 550, a 40″ LED backlit LCD TV. It’s a great TV with excellent picture and build quality, except for one major usability issue. Yes, you guessed correctly, capacitive touch buttons. Apparently these don’t just irritate geeks like me, but seemingly normal people like my girlfriend as well. Well, to be fair, my girlfriend is a geek.
The TV is unboxed and setup in the living room, so both of us were really excited to turn it on and play some games and watch movies on Netflix streaming. The first thing I noticed was my girlfriend fiddling around trying to figure out how to turn the damn thing on. She then realized after closely examining the bottom right of the panel that there were capacitive touch buttons. The panel is black, and so these buttons were almost impossible to see in even reasonable lighting. This mean fumbling around trying to figure out which button was the power button. Our living room has excellent ambient lighting at night, which is perfect for watching movies. At this point, we had to turn on all the lights in the room to simply turn the TV on. The sad part is that even with bright lighting, you still have to look carefully at what buttons to touch. All in all, this was a terrible user experience which also sparked a conversation between us about physical vs capacitive touch buttons.
Since the TV does ship with a remote, this will be less of an issue since you are more than likely to interact with that, rather than walk up to your TV. Going back to Android and other smartphones that have capacitive touch buttons, since you spend spend so much of your time holding these devices and interacting with them, these problems are infuriatingly obvious.
There’s a reason why the iPhone still has a single physical home button. The tactile feel and simplicity of a single button means there’s no room for confusion by the user. Some speculate whether or not Apple will ditch the physical home button in a future iPhone, however I think this is shortsighted. If anything, Apple is more than likely to make that button even higher quality than it is right now on the iPhone 4.