Smartphones are touchscreen-centric marvels that make navigation, typing and interactions so much easier than actual keys.
A lot of functionality is even accessible without touch at all — from gestures to movement sensing.
But those hardware buttons are still super handy, especially when operating by feel. They are also often faster to reach when already holding the phone by its sides. But for many phones, the physical buttons can be underutilised.
Fortunately, there are a range of ways to put them to work and improve your Android experience.
Existing Button Uses
The default version of Android (as well as manufacturers’ custom versions) is slowly getting better at using buttons, and recent updates have further improved the situation.
But not all the options are readily apparent, so let’s briefly recap the hardware button uses you should already be using.
On the Nexus 5 or newer Google phones (Android version 6.0.1), double tapping the power button launches the camera. It works at any time, including when the phone is locked, and vibrates to let you know what’s going on.
Some users find this annoying due to accidental activations, but it can be disabled. Simply navigate to Display setting, and turn the option off.
Using Android Marshmallow (with the phone on), the volume button adjusts the ring volume, down to vibrate-only mode. Pressing the down volume button again activates ‘do not disturb’ mode, while volume up goes back to vibrate.
With the default camera app open, pressing either volume button snaps a picture.
Android 4.0 users and higher can take screenshots easily at any time. Simply hold down the power button and volume down button at the same time.
A more commonly known use is to hold down the power button (when the phone is on) to bring up the power menu, with options such as shutdown, reboot and aeroplane and kid modes, depending on device.
For those users who want to be true Android button masters, there are a range of apps available that can give extra functionality.
For those with older versions of Android, third-party apps provide an equivalent to the latest features without waiting for updates.
You don’t need root access either, and it’s very easy to get started. Many options are totally customisable, letting you tweak and create a personal experience.
A free app, QuickClick is one of our favourite options for remapping Android buttons. There is also a premium version for $3.53, which removes the ads.
The app can only remap your volume buttons, not power, but is still super handy.
After installing the app, setup is as simple as selecting the function to activate, and the combination of up or down volume button presses to do it.
For example, double tapping the volume up key could turn on (and then back off) the flashlight. Volume up, then down could launch the camera, while other combinations can be used at the same time for other apps.
Up to six button presses in a row can be used.
Aside from launching individual apps, QuickClick can also snap a picture (without keeping the camera open) or record a video or audio. All the quality and duration settings can be configured beforehand as well.
One handy option is the ability to quickly turn Wi-Fi or Bluetooth on and off without opening the settings.
QuickClick can also be used to send an emergency text or make a call to a specific contact. This can be used as a security measure, to alert someone if there is a problem, without having to actually turn on the phone.
Other options include controlling a music app, activating Tasker tasks, bringing up a google search or playing a sound.
The downside to the app is that it can use a fair bit of extra battery life if always ‘listening’ for key presses, even when the phone is off. A better option (available through the settings) is to have it only listen when the phone is on, or unlocked.
The app can be set to be disabled during calls, and will take actions such as making sure sound levels are returned to normal after button clicks.
Various standalone camera apps can use keys for things like zooming, or snapping a pic.
Oops! Applock can use the buttons to add some extra security to your smartphone. You simple select an app to protect, then create a ‘password’ with up down volume button pushes.
To unsuspecting users, the app does not appear to be locked — it simply freezes until it gets the right code.
Free apps, Power Button to Volume Button and Volume Unlock Power Button Fix can be used (without root) to remap a broken power key to a volume button instead. The downside is that it can use a fair bit of battery power.
Gravity Screen replaces a power button with your phone’s sensors, automatically waking up when it’s picked up.
Button Savior (Non Root) creates virtual touchscreen versions of all your hardware buttons.
The setup and positioning is totally customisable, and it can even replace onscreen touch buttons.
There are also other ways to add extra hardware ‘buttons’, for extra functionality. Many phones can sense a flip style case being opened and closed, and automatically turn on and off.
Using Bluetooth, it’s possible have a remote camera button, or even connect up a full hardware keyboard and mouse.