The case for killing off the Bixby button

Even when Bixby Voice eventually arrives, there's no reason to keep the annoying, user-hostile hardware button.

This week there was at least some good news around Bixby, Samsung's maligned AI thing from the Galaxy S8. Two months after launch, Samsung announced that Bixby Voice would finally be arriving... in the form of a beta program, in one country, the United States.

On one hand, the glacial pace of Bixby's development is understandable. It's far more complex in scope than most traditional voice assistants — in supported apps, Bixby needs to be able to support any function you could otherwise access via touch, and navigate the labyrinthine mess of verbal communication to get there.

Still, we're months into the (very finite) lifespan of this phone, and outside of Korea, Bixby Voice only exists in beta form for U.S. English. That's not great.

We could be well into 2018 before many non-English languages get Bixby Voice.

Other flavors of the English language will have to wait even longer, to say nothing of other tongues with large addressable audiences, like German, Spanish and Mandarin Chinese. Earlier in the year, the ETA for German was Q4 2017. The Samsung support page stating that timeframe now 404's, and in light of other delays I wouldn't be surprised if we were well into 2018 before Bixby Voice had any real non-English Western language support.

In some territories where the local language isn't a big priority for Samsung, a Galaxy S8 owner might go most or all of its supported lifespan with the Bixby button just opening Hello Bixby. If I were a GS8 owner in somewhere like the Netherlands, Romania or Japan... well, I wouldn't be holding my breath.

And even then that's for the initial rollout of Bixby Voice features in a handful of Samsung applications. Support in other third-party apps will take even longer to build out.

It's not a good look considering how central Bixby — and Bixby Voice in particular — was to Samsung's messaging around the GS8 launch back in March. Now, this delay wouldn't be such a big deal were Bixby not permanently, unchangeably mapped to a physical hardware button on the phone's left border. (A button which The Verge's Dieter Bohn correctly calls a monument to the company's inability to ship a feature on time.)

You might think the Bixby button would be easy enough to ignore. That's what I and others on the AC team have tried to do over the past couple of months. But through a combination of its placement, precariously close to the volume rocker, and the fact that it automatically overrides all other input, it's become a perpetual annoyance.

The most irksome scenario is something Daniel Bader and I have experienced over and over again. When you double-tap the power key to launch the camera, there's a non-zero chance that you'll brush the Bixby button at the same time. Maybe not every time, but a statistically significant number. And when you do so, the phone... well, derps.

The Bixby button will launch Hello Bixby over the top of whatever's running, including the camera. So in the case of the camera shortcut, the GS8 will lag as it attempts to load both at the same time, first giving you a second or so of lockscreen, then a second or so of viewfinder, then whatever useless info Hello Bixby decides to conjure up.

The Bixby button also bypasses the lock screen — a feature which can't be turned off — and that's led to another common annoyance for GS8 owners on the AC team. Once again, you brush the Bixby button as you're taking the phone out of your pocket, and once again, first thing you see is Hello Bixby, as opposed to anything useful.

Samsung has preemptively tanked any goodwill Bixby might have been able to earn.

The sum of all these annoyances is, for me, a sense of antipathy towards Bixby in general. I don't care that it might do something useful eventually. Until such time as it does, it's an unnecessary burden on an otherwise great phone. For regular users, I suspect Samsung might have preemptively tanked any goodwill Bixby might have been able to earn. Right now it's a feature which deserves to be ignored, and yet the hardware button, through its placement and its behavior, makes it impossible to ignore.

Samsung's vision for Bixby Voice sounds great. If it actually works, it'll take us one step closer to Star Trek "computer"-like natural language interaction. But the button needs to go. There are countless other ways for Samsung to activate Bixby Voice, even when the phone is off. A double-tap of volume up, for instance, is less likely to trigger accidental presses. Or something along the navigation bar — a virtual button would allow Samsung to telegraph when Bixby Voice can spring to life, avoiding user disappointment in unsupported apps.

At best, the current Bixby button placement and behavior is premature. At worst, it's a reason against buying the next Samsung phone.


Some other odds and ends for a working Sunday:

  • We're heading into OnePlus 5 launch week, and needless to say you'll want to watch Android Central pretty closely this Tuesday. (We've arleady gotten a sneaky look at the full chassis, front and back, in a TV spot in India.)
  • I've been getting to grips with the HTC U11 this past week. Between lackluster battery life and a pretty lousy display, I wasn't a massive fan of the HTC 10, and the 10 Evo — the Euro version of the Bolt — flew under my radar. But the U11 is a huge improvement across the board. More next week, but I'm tempted to say HTC is back on track. Battery life in particular is awesome for a 3,000mAh device.
  • Oh, and in a stupid but fantastic move, UK review units come bundled with an actual juicer for you to squeeze!
  • The Honor 9 is on the way, earlier this year than in previous release cycles. Given the (likely) more expensive price point of the OnePlus 5 this year, I'm curious to see what Huawei's online sub-brand can do around the $400 mark. Check out our preview for more!
  • Finally, if you want some great wallpaper for your new OnePlus 5, or any other AMOLED phone, check out this phenomenal shot of Jupiter from NASA's JunoCam.

That's it for this week. I'll leave you with a note that as much as Bixby annoys me, the Galaxy S8 still ranks as our best overall Android phone.



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