There was once a time when it was obvious what the three buttons on the side of your phone did. One turned the volume up, one turned the volume down, and the final one turned the phone on and off. It was as normal and as natural as using the pedals in a car.
Now imagine buying a new car and finding the accelerator pedal only made the car speed up after it had been mashed into the carpet for three seconds, and if you didn’t it just turned the radio on. Chances are, it’d take some getting used to.
The smartphone industry is doing something like this with the power button on your phone, and it’s very annoying.
It’s a Side Key now
Press what you may think is the power button for a few seconds on many modern phones, and rather than see a power-related menu, a virtual assistant is most likely going to raise its head. To find the power menu, you must remember to press and hold the power button and a volume button at the same time instead. This irritating trend is slowly beginning to spread, and it’s already standard on devices from the world’s most popular manufacturers.
Samsung calls the power button a Side Key on the Galaxy S21 series, and as the name suggests it does not show the power menu. Long press it and the Bixby virtual assistant activates by default. Apple calls it the Side button and again, a long press brings Siri into life. Do the same on a OnePlus phone and Google Assistant slides into view, despite OnePlus still calling it a Power Button.
Not every company repurposes the power button. Press it on a Xiaomi, LG, or Huawei phone, for example, and in a shockingly logical fashion, the power menu appears. However, as the repurposing becomes normalized, how many will also alter the button’s functionality in a future software update?
Yes, it’s possible to alter what the side button does, but it’s all the wrong way around. Leave it as a power button, and then let us remap it to something else. Or, better yet, maybe just include another button entirely.
People turn off their phones?
I know what you’re thinking, you don’t turn your phone off very often, if at all. True, I admit as someone who frequently swaps between phones, I get annoyed by power button inconsistencies more than others. However, think about the times when you have had to restart your phone. I bet it’s when something has stopped working, or you want to cure an issue using the tried and tested, “Have you tried turning it on and off again” advice.
These are frustrating points in phone ownership, and when you just want to access the power menu, hearing, “Hi, I’m Bixby” instead will only compound the annoyance. Then you remember finding the power menu has something to do with pressing a volume button at the same time, so you try that and only manage to take a screenshot of your pain. It’ll be third time lucky when you get it right, with the extra irritation all because the power button is no longer a power button.
Not powering off your phone very often only compounds the problem. Logic guides your finger to the power button, and muscle memory prompts you to hold it down. After all, when you take a new phone out of the box, what’s the first button you press, and what action do you expect it to have? Yep, it’s the power button, and it better turn on the phone or there will be trouble.
Most of us do this because it’s the way we have done so on almost all other devices for years, so any retraining to use the power button for some other purpose is unlikely to stick when we only use the button occasionally.
Google shows the way
Perhaps my annoyance goes against the research carried out by manufacturers, and the power button these days is viewed as an underused resource, and therefore giving it another function makes sense? Of course, I’d rather a new purpose was found instead of removing it entirely, should it suddenly be considered superfluous. However, increasing its usefulness doesn’t have to mean using it to push virtual assistants.
Google shows the way with the multi-function Android 11 power menu, which appears when you long-press the power button on a Pixel phone. In addition to the power menu, it has Google Pay, an emergency call feature, and controls for any Google Home smart accessories too. Google Assistant isn’t included, and if Google isn’t ramming quick-access down your throat, then it indicates very few people are crying out for it as a function in the first place.
This menu is the standard Android 11 action when you press and hold the power button, and it makes the button instantly more useful without sacrificing its core function. It’s good, but it’s not available on Samsung phones, and it’s the alternative to Google Assistant and needs to be manually selected on OnePlus phones.
Stop changing things for the sake of it
Having a multi-function power key is welcome. I’m all for being able to change what the button does when I press or long-press it. However, the default setting should always be the power menu. Companies can rebrand it as a side key as much as they like, seemingly in an effort to make us talk to a virtual assistant more. But to almost everyone, it’ll always be a power button and it should facilitate turning the phone on and off, without having to remember a combination of button presses before it happens.