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Adding physical buttons to Fitbit's next-generation devices is a smart idea

Adding physical buttons to Fitbit's next-generation devices is a smart idea

To button, or not to button? When it comes to wearables, the answer is that you should always opt for physical buttons. And while they abound on smartwatches, fitness trackers tend to favor touchscreens and capacitive buttons. But it looks like there may be some good news for physical button enthusiasts. A newly leaked photo of the Fitbit Versa 4 indicates that the side button is back, baby.

The photo comes from 9to5Google, and for the most part, it looks almost identical to the Versa 3 - except if you zero in on the right, where you can see a tiny raised button.

It may not seem like it, but it is actually a significant design change. Earlier iterations of the Versa—one of Fitbit's most popular devices—had a physical side button. Then, with the Versa 3 in 2020, Fitbit ditched it in favor of a smooth indentation. It was technically a "button," but it wasn't something you could really press in the traditional sense. Instead, the Versa 3 will vibrate when you squeeze it correctly. Fitbit Sense, which came out the same year, shared the same design.

On the surface, it seemed sensible. In principle, none of the buttons meant accidental presses and a sleek profile. In fact, it made for a crappy user experience.

If you use too little pressure on the buttons on the Sense or Versa 3, it will do nothing. And even if you use too much pressure, it still can't do anything. Or, instead of waking up the screen as you wish, you can trigger a long-press shortcut instead. For whatever reason, the top half of the button is more responsive than the bottom. If you peruse the Fitbit and Reddit forums, you'll find plenty of customers sharing and sharing tips on how to make this button work.

This is not a new problem. There are many fitness trackers that don't have buttons or crowns of any kind. Instead, they rely entirely on the touchscreen. For example, with the Garmin Vivosmart 3 and Vivosmart 4, you have to tap the screen to confirm your choice. That means creating the right rapport and pressure every time. If you don't master it, it means that a simple two-second task can take several minutes to grasp. And while the Garmin Vivosmart devices are the example I'm using here, there are several touchscreen-only fitness bands with similar problems.

Sweating from fingers is also a problem. Touchscreens often don't register moist fingers, and they also make it difficult to use capacitive buttons. Ironically, these are devices that are meant to be worn while exercising, so it can be hard to use them effectively when you need them most.

A well designed physical button is a simple solution to all these problems. When you see a physical button, you don't need to learn how to use it. You just press and it does what you want. If you want to get fancy, you can program nifty shortcuts—like pausing your music—and never have to look down at your clock. A physical button doesn't care how sweaty your fingers are. It will always do its job.

I recently reviewed the Garmin Vivosmart 5, and one small change culminated as a game-changer in a tracker series that was always finicky. that change? Adding a physical button. The combination of touchscreen and buttons was perfect. I could use the touchscreen when it made sense, such as when scrolling through menus. But I could always rely on the homescreen, buttons to bring back to the previous screen, or end a workout. Adding the button single-handedly eliminated one of the tracker series' worst pain points.

This is the most likely reason - if this leaked photo is to be believed - that Fitbit favored an older design. If so it's a smart decision, and it's further proof that you get the best wearable experience when you use both the touchscreen and the physical buttons.

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