In the early days, Android phones had give and take buttons. A full QWERTY keyboard, call button, home, menu, back, hang up, search … Over time they ended up being simplified into three: back, home and menu (later converted into “recent”) and finally the physical navigation buttons have practically disappeared to become the navigation bar.
For those who have been with Android for a long time, it is obvious what each button is for, although for those who are released on smartphones or come from iOS, these buttons and the navigation bar can be somewhat more enigmatic. Here we focus on this second case, explaining what each button is for.
On-screen or physical buttons
Throughout the history of Android there have been mobiles with all kinds of configurations for the physical navigation buttons, but basically they are summarized in two: the mobiles with physical buttons and those that include the screen navigation.
Until a few years ago, most Android phones included capacitive navigation buttons under the display. The design and location of the same could vary from one manufacturer to another, but generally there were three with few exceptions in the beginning.
The window of the physical buttons is that they do not cover the screen, but in return they are less flexible when turning the terminal, they are less customizable and require a chin in the terminal to stay, against the latest trends of taking the screen to the extreme.
On the other hand is the navigation bar, the predominant mode nowadays, in which buttons are included within the screen itself. As virtual elements they allow greater customization although in return they slightly reduce the usable space of the same.
What is each button for
Now that we know who is who, it is time to learn what each button is for. Here we must emphasize again that the appearance and position of the buttons may vary from one manufacturer to another, although in general they are always the same three buttons, only with a slightly different appearance.
The first button, at least in the purest Android implementations, for example Samsung usually includes it on the right, is the back button. It is generally represented by an arrow and a triangle whose design may vary slightly.
The return button is the most intuitive of the three, because as its name indicates, its objective is to take you back to the screen you were on before. Not to be confused with the up button, which is also an arrow pointing to the left (and not up, as the name might suggest), and which is displayed in the action bar of many applications.
The back button and the up button have a similar but not identical function. Pressing return you go back chronologically to all the windows you went through until you reach the current one, while the button above opens the window in a higher hierarchy. For example, in the screenshot above, in the Google messages application, the button above would open the messages view, even if you had not passed through that window before.
Home and Wizard
The Start button is generally represented by a circle and in this case it is usually always included in the middle of the navigation bar. As its name suggests, its main function is open the home screen, that is, the application launcher. Technically, it could be said that it is used to exit an application, although in truth, rather than exit, what it does is leave it on pause.
Since Google started activating the Assistant function on most Android phones a year ago, the home button has also been used to launch the Wizard. In this case, it should be a long touch until the Google Assistant window (or another Assistant that is available on your mobile) overlaps.
Last is the recent button, commonly represented by a square. This button opens the recent applications view so that you can switch from one open application to another, which is something like the equivalent of pressing Alt + Tab on a computer.
The actual design of the recent window may vary from one mobile to another. Some are vertical, others horizontal, others do not include a preview … but in essence they all serve the same purpose: allow you switch from one application to another.
A normal tap on the button opens the recent apps view, but with a double tap it alternates between the last two applications that have been opened in the system, being very useful to quickly switch between apps.