The Pixel 2 is a phone that is almost five years old, but it has introduced a feature that I have missed more and more with each passing year. It used to be called Active Edge, and it lets you invoke the Google Assistant with just a tap on your phone. In some ways, it’s an unusual idea. But it actually gave you something afternoons that modern phones lack: a way to physically interact with the phone to get something. he did.
Looking at the sides of the Pixel 2 and 2 XL, you won’t see anything to indicate you have anything special. Sure, there’s a power button and volume switch, but other than that, the sides are sparse. However, give the bare edges of the phone a good squeeze, and a subtle vibration and motion will play as Google Assistant pops up from the bottom of the screen, ready to start listening to you. You don’t have to wake the phone, long press any physical or virtual buttons, or tap on the screen. You press and start talking.
We’ll talk about how useful this is in a second, but I don’t want to hide how amazing that feels. Phones are solid bodies made of metal and plastic, however, the Pixel can tell when I press more than I just do. According to the old iFixit technology, this is made possible by a few pressure gauges installed inside the phone that can detect the very slight bend in your phone case when pressed. For the record, that’s a change my human nervous system can’t keep up with; I can’t say the phone bends at all.
Whether you found Active Edge useful is probably down to whether you liked using the Google Assistant, as shown in this Reddit thread. Personally, the only time I used a voice assistant on a daily basis was when I had a Pixel 2 because it literally came in handy. the thing that made it So Convenient is that pressure basically always works. Even if you’re in an app that hides the navigation buttons or your phone screen is completely disabled, Active Edge still does its job.
While that made it very useful for finding fun facts or making quick calculations and conversions, I would argue that Active Edge would have been more useful if you could remap it. I enjoyed having the Assistant, but if I could turn my flashlight on by pressing I would have instant access to my phone’s most important features no matter what.
This version of the feature already exists. The HTC U11, which was released a few months before the Pixel 2, has a similar but more customizable feature called Edge Sense. The two companies worked together on the Pixel and Pixel 2, which explains how it ended up on Google devices. In the same year, Google bought HTC’s mobile division team.
Active Edge wasn’t Google’s first attempt to provide an alternative to using the touch screen or physical buttons to control your phone either. A few years before the Pixel 2, Motorola would allow you to open the camera by twisting your phone and turning on the flashlight with the karate chop — unlike the way you mix music on the 2008 iPod Nano. The camera shortcut appeared within the relatively short time Google owned Motorola.
Over time, though, phone manufacturers have moved away from being able to access some basic features through a physical procedure. Take my daily driver, the iPhone 12 Mini, for example. To turn Siri on, I have to press and hold the power button, which has become overburdened since Apple got rid of the home button. To turn on the flashlight, something I do several times a day, I have to get up on the screen and press and hold the button in the left corner. The camera is somewhat more convenient, accessed with a swipe left on the lock screen, but the screen still needs to be turned on for this to work. And if you actually Use Phone, the easiest way to access the flashlight or camera is through the Control Center, which involves swiping down from the top-right corner and trying to pick one specific icon from the network.
In other words, if I look from my phone and notice my cat is doing something cute, it might have turned off completely by the time I actually open the camera. It’s not that it’s difficult to turn on the camera or turn on the flashlight – it just could be more convenient if there was a dedicated button or pressing gesture. Apple even acknowledged this briefly when they made a battery cover for the iPhone that contained a button to turn on the camera. A few seconds saved here or there adds up to the life of the phone.
Just to prove the point, here’s how fast the camera is on my iPhone versus the Samsung Galaxy S22, where you can double-click the power button to launch the camera:
Neither phone handles screen recording and camera preview well, but the S22 opens its camera app before I hit the camera icon on the iPhone.
Unfortunately, even Google phones are not immune to the disappearance of physical buttons. Active Edge stopped showing up on Pixels with the 4A and 5 in 2020. Samsung also got rid of the button it once inserted to summon a virtual assistant (which tragically happened to be Bixby).
There have been attempts to add virtual buttons that you activate by interacting with the device. Apple, for example, has an accessibility feature that lets you tap on the back of your phone to start actions or even your little programs in the form of Shortcuts, and Google has added a similar feature to the Pixels. But to be completely honest, I didn’t find it reliable enough. The default button that barely works at all is not a great button. Active Edge worked pretty much every time for me, despite the fact that I had a fat OtterBox on my phone.
It’s not that the physical controls on phones are completely gone. As I mentioned before, Apple lets you launch things like Apple Pay and Siri with a series of taps or press the power button, and there’s no shortage of Android phones that let you launch the camera or other apps by double-pressing the power buttons.
But I would argue that one or two shortcuts dedicated to one button cannot give us easy access to everything we should Easy to access. To be clear, I’m not asking to cover my entire phone with buttons, but I think the big makers should take a cue from phones of the past (and yes, from smaller phone makers – I see you Sony fans) and bring back at least one or two physical shortcuts. As Google points out, this doesn’t necessarily require the addition of an additional physical switch that has to be waterproof. It could be something as simple as pressing a button that allows users to quickly access features they consider essential — or in the case of the Pixel, Google.