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Adding physical buttons to Fitbit’s next-gen devices is a smart idea

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To button or not to button? When it comes to wearable devices, the answer is that you should always go for physical buttons. And while they’re abundant on smartwatches, fitness trackers tend to favor touchscreens and capacitive buttons. But there seems to be good news for fans of physical buttons. A new leaked photo of the Fitbit Versa 4 shows that the side button is back, baby.

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The photo comes from 9to5Googleand for the most part it looks nearly identical to the Versa 3 – except if you focus on the right side, where you can see a tiny raised button.

It may not look like it, but it’s actually a significant design change. Previous versions of the Versa – one of Fitbit’s most popular devices – had a physical side button. Then, with the Versa 3 in 2020, Fitbit removed it in favor of smooth indentation. It was technically a “button”, but it wasn’t something you could actually press in a traditional sense. Instead, when you pressed it properly, the Versa 3 vibrated. The Fitbit Sense, released the same year, also shared the same design.

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You can see a tiny button on the right side of this alleged Fitbit Versa 4.
Picture: 9to5Google

On the surface, that seemed reasonable. In theory, no buttons meant no accidental presses and a sleeker profile. In reality, it created a shitty user experience.

If you press the Sense or Versa 3 button too little, it won’t do anything. And if you use too much pressure, it may not do anything. Or, instead of waking up the screen like you wanted, you might end up triggering the long-press shortcut instead. For some reason, the top half of the button tended to be more responsive than the bottom. If you scour the Fitbit forums and Reddit, you’ll find plenty of customers hooking up and sharing tips on how to get this button to work.

This problem is not new. There are many fitness trackers that don’t have any kind of button or crown. Instead, they rely entirely on touchscreens. For example, with the Garmin Vivosmart 3 and Vivosmart 4, you had to tap the screen to confirm your choices. That meant nailing the perfect cadence and pressure every time. If you didn’t master it, that meant a simple two-second task could take several minutes to figure out. And while Garmin Vivosmart devices are the example I’m using here, there are several touchscreen-only fitness bands out there with the same issues.

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This button on the Garmin Vivosmart 5 took a good product and made it great.
Photo by Victoria Song/The Verge

Sweaty fingers are also a problem. Touchscreens often don’t register wet fingers and they also make it harder to use capacitive buttons. The irony is that these are devices meant to be worn during exercise, so they effectively become harder to use 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 at your watch. A physical button doesn’t care about sweating your fingers. He will always do his job.

I recently reviewed the Garmin Vivosmart 5, and one small tweak ended up being a game-changer in an ever finicky series of trackers. This change ? Added a physical button. The combination of a touch screen and a button was perfect. I could use the touchscreen when it made sense, like when scrolling through menus. But I could also always rely on the button to return to the home screen, previous screen, or end a workout. The addition of the button single-handedly eliminated one of the tracker series’ worst pain points.

That’s the most likely reason why – if this leaked photo is to be believed – Fitbit reverted to an older design. It’s a smart move if so, and it’s further proof that you get the best portable experience when using both a touchscreen and physical buttons.

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