It’s a smart idea to add physical buttons to Fitbit’s next-gen devices

To fasten or not to fasten? When it comes to wearables, the answer is that you should always choose physical buttons. And while they’re plentiful in smartwatches, fitness trackers tend to favor touchscreens and capacitive buttons. However, it looks like there could be some good news for fans of physical buttons. A new leaked photo of the Fitbit Versa 4 indicates the side button is back, honey.

The photo is taken from 9do5Googleand for the most part it looks almost identical to the Versa 3 – except if you zero in on the right side where you can see a tiny little raised button.

It may not seem like it, but it’s actually a significant 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 abandoned it in favor of a smooth indentation. It was technically a “button”, but not something you could press in the traditional sense. Instead, when properly squeezed, the Versa 3 vibrates. The Fitbit Sense, which came out the same year, also had the same design.

You can see a little little button on the right side of this purported Fitbit Versa 4.
Image: 9do5Google

At first glance, it seemed reasonable. In theory, no buttons means no accidental presses and a sleeker profile. In fact, it provided a poor user experience.

If you put too little pressure on the Sense or Versa 3 button, it won’t do anything. And if you use too much pressure, it still might not do anything. Or, instead of waking the screen as intended, you can invoke a long shortcut instead. For some reason, the top half of the button felt more responsive than the bottom half. If you browse the Fitbit and Reddit forums, you will find many customers sharing their tips on how to make this button work.

This is not a new problem. There are a lot of fitness trackers that are not available everyone a type of button or crown. Instead, they rely entirely on touch screens. For example, on the Garmin Vivosmart 3 and Vivosmart 4, you had to tap the screen to confirm your selection. It meant achieving the perfect cadence and pressure every time. If you didn’t master it, it meant that it might take a few minutes to figure out a simple two-second task. And while the Garmin Vivosmart devices are the example I’m using here, there are quite a few touchscreen fitness bands with the same issues.

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

Sweaty fingers are also a problem. Touch screens often fail to register wet fingers, and they also make it difficult to use the capacitive buttons. The irony is that they are devices designed to be worn while exercising, so they effectively become more difficult to use just 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 it and it does what you want. If you want to think up, you can program clever shortcuts – pausing music, for example – and you never have to look at your watch. The physical button doesn’t care how sweaty your fingers are. It will always do its job.

I recently reviewed the Garmin Vivosmart 5 and one small tweak ended up changing the game over a tracker series that has always been a picky eater. This change? Adding a physical button. The combination of the touchscreen and the button was perfect. I was able to use the touchscreen when it made sense, such as when scrolling through menus. But I could also always rely on a button to go back to the home screen, previous screen or finish training. The single button addition eliminated one of the worst pain points in the tracker series.

This is the most likely reason why – if you believe this leaked photo – Fitbit backed off into an older project. It’s a wise decision if so, and it’s further proof that the best wearing experience can be obtained when you use both a touchscreen and physical buttons.

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