Google Pixel’s push for Assistant was a buttonless button

The Pixel 2 is an almost five-year-old phone, but it introduced a feature that I miss more and more every year. It was called Active Edge and let you summon Google Assistant just by squeezing your phone. In some ways this is an unusual idea. But it effectively gave you something sorely lacking in modern phones: a way to physically interact with the phone to get something done. Finished.

Looking at the sides of the Pixel 2 and 2 XL, you won’t see anything that indicates you’re holding anything special. Sure, there’s a power button and volume rocker, but otherwise the sides are sparse. Give the phone’s bare edges a good squeeze, though, and a subtle vibration and animation will play, as Google Assistant pops up from the bottom of the screen, ready to start listening to you. You don’t need to wake the phone, long press any physical or virtual buttons or tap the screen. You squeeze and start talking.

Looking at the sides of the Pixel 2, you’d never guess it’s actually a button.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales/The Verge

We’ll talk about how useful this is in a second, but I don’t want to gloss over how cool it is. Phones are rigid metal and plastic objects, and yet the Pixel can tell when I’m applying more pressure than holding it. Based on an old iFixit teardown, this is made possible by a few strain gauges mounted inside the phone that can detect the slightest bend in your phone’s case when you squeeze it. For the record, this is a change that my human nervous system is unable to pick up; I can’t say the phone bends at all.

If you found Active Edge useful, it probably depends on whether you enjoyed using Google Assistant, as exemplified by this Reddit thread. Personally, the only time I really used a voice assistant on a day-to-day basis was when I had the Pixel 2 because it was literally at my fingertips. The thing that did it then practice is that pressure has always worked. Even if you were in an app that hid the navigation buttons or your phone screen was completely blank, Active Edge still did its job.

While that makes it extremely useful for finding fun facts or doing quick calculations and conversions, I’d say Active Edge could have been so much more useful if you could have remapped it. I liked having the assistant, but if I could have turned on my flashlight with a single tap, I would have had instant access to my phone’s most important features no matter what.

This version of the feature actually existed. HTC’s U11, released a few months before the Pixel 2, had a similar but more customizable feature called Edge Sense. The two companies worked together on the Pixel and Pixel 2, which is how it ended up on Google’s devices. That same year, Google bought HTC’s mobile division team.

Active Edge was not Google’s first attempt to provide an alternative to using the touchscreen or physical buttons to control your phone. A few years before the Pixel 2, Motorola let you open the camera by turning your phone and turn on the flashlight with a karate chop – kinda like you mixed music on a 2008 iPod Nano. The camera shortcut appeared during the relatively short period when Google owned Motorola.

Over time, however, phone makers have moved away from being able to access a few essential features with physical action. Take my daily driver, an iPhone 12 Mini, for example. To launch Siri, I have to press and hold the power button, which has burden oneself with responsibilities since Apple got rid of the home button. To turn on the flashlight, which I do several times a day, I have to wake up the screen and long press the button in the left corner. The camera is slightly more convenient, being accessible with a swipe left on the lock screen, but the screen still needs to be on for it to work. And if I’m actually using the phone, the easiest way to access the flashlight or camera is through Control Center, which involves swiping down from the top right corner and trying to select an icon specific in a grid.

In other words, if I look up from my phone and notice my cat doing something cute, it may very well have stopped by the time I open the camera. It’s not that it’s difficult to launch the camera or turn on the flashlight – it’s just that it could be so much more convenient if there was a dedicated button or a squeeze gesture. Apple even briefly acknowledged this when it made a battery case for the iPhone that had a button to launch the camera. A few seconds saved here or there add up over the life of a phone.

Just to prove the point, here’s the camera launch speed on my iPhone compared to the Samsung Galaxy S22, where you can double-click the power button to launch the camera:

Gif showing the camera of an iPhone launched with the Control Center shortcut and the camera of a Samsung S22 launched by pressing a button.  The S22 launches its camera a second or two faster than the iPhone.

There’s less thinking when you can just press a button to launch the camera.

Neither phone handles screen recording and camera preview very well, but the S22 opens its camera app before I even tap the camera icon on the Iphone.

Unfortunately, even Google’s phones aren’t immune to the disappearance of physical buttons. Active Edge stopped appearing on Pixels with the 4A and 5 in 2020. Samsung also removed a button it once included to summon a virtual assistant (which, tragically, it happened to be Bixby).

There have been attempts to add virtual buttons that you activate by interacting with the device. Apple, for example, has an accessibility feature that lets you press the back of your phone to launch actions or even your own mini programs as shortcutsand Google added a feature similar to Pixels. But to be perfectly honest, I just didn’t find them reliable enough. A virtual button that almost never works is not a good button. Active Edge has worked just about every time for me, despite having a beefy OtterBox on my phone.

It’s not that physical controls on phones are completely gone. As I’ve mentioned before, Apple lets you launch things like Apple Pay and Siri via a series of taps or power button presses, and there’s no shortage of Android phones that will let you allow you to launch the camera or other applications by pressing the power button twice. button.

I would say though that one or two shortcuts assigned to a single button cannot give us easy access to everything we should have easy access. To be clear, I don’t require my phone to be absolutely button-covered, but I think big manufacturers should take inspiration from phones of the past (and, yes, smaller phone manufacturers – I see you Sony fans ) and bring back at least one or two physical shortcuts. As Google has shown, this does not necessarily require the addition of an additional physical key which must be waterproof. Something as simple as a press can be a button that gives users quick access to features they – or in the case of the Pixel, Google – deem essential.

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