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

To tie or not to knot? When it comes to wearables, the answer is that you should always opt for physical buttons. And while they abound on smartwatches, fitness trackers prefer touchscreens and capacitive buttons. But it looks like there’s some good news for fans of physical buttons. A new leaked photo of the Fitbit Versa 4 shows the side button is back, baby.

The photo is from 9to5Googleand for the most part it looks almost identical to the Versa 3 – except if you zoom in to the right, where you can see a tiny raised button.

It may not seem like it, but this is actually a major design change. Earlier versions of the Versa – one of Fitbit’s most popular devices – had a physical side button. Then, with the Versa 3 in 2020, Fitbit did away with it in favor of a smooth notch. This was technically a ‘button’, but it wasn’t something you could press in the traditional sense. Instead, the Versa 3 vibrated when you squeezed it properly. The Fitbit Sense, which came out in the same year, also had the same design.

You’ll see a small button on the right side of this alleged Fitbit Versa 4.
Image: 9to5Google

At first glance, this seemed sensible. In theory, no buttons meant no accidental presses and a slimmer profile. In reality, it made for a crappy user experience.

If you put too little pressure on the button of the Sense or Versa 3, it will do nothing. And if you apply too much pressure, it still can’t do anything. Or, instead of waking the screen as you intended, you could activate the long-press hotkey instead. For whatever reason, the top half of the button responded faster than the bottom. If you peruse Fitbit and Reddit forums, you’ll find that many customers are complaining and sharing tips on how to make this button work.

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

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 do not register moist fingers and also make the use of capacitive buttons more difficult. The irony is that these are devices that are meant to be worn while exercising, so they get 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 feel like it, you can program handy shortcuts — like pausing your music — and never look down on your watch. A physical button doesn’t matter how sweaty your fingers are. It will always do its job.

I recently reviewed the Garmin Vivosmart 5 and a small change ended up being a game-changer in a tracker series that was always finicky. That change? Add a physical button. The combination of a touchscreen and a button was perfect. I could use the touchscreen when it made sense, such as when scrolling through menus. But I could also always rely on the button to take me back to the home screen, 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 why – if we are to believe this leaked photo – Fitbit backed down to an older design. It’s a smart decision if so, and it’s further proof that you get the best wearable experience when you use both a touchscreen and physical buttons.

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