I like functionality of Android’s back button, but the inconsistency needs to be fixed

ics back button - for some reason we don't have an alt tag here

Whenever I pick up an iOS or other non-Android device to test it out, the one feature from Android that I immediately miss is the back button. Sure, with things like iOS the button to return to a previous menu is usually at the top left of the screen, but for some applications it is in different places, and others seem to like to hide it in a way that makes navigation quite difficult. In contrast, Android’s back button is always in the same place in the UI, and usually performs the same function. Unfortunately, I do have to say “usually” for a reason. Although Android’s back key is consistent in placement, it doesn’t always do what you would expect it to.

If you’re not exactly sure what I am talking about, allow me to illustrate with an example. I often use Google Reader to scroll through news stories, and sometimes open links in the browser. As far as I know, the stated function of Android’s back key is to take you back to the screen you were on previously, so one would expect that pressing the back key would return me from the browser to Google Reader. That isn’t always the case. I haven’t been able to get a consistent behavior down, but sometimes pressing the back key in this situation goes back to the previous browser page, sometimes it actually returns to Reader, and sometimes it closes the browser and returns me to the homescreen. So, not only does hitting the back key not do what I expect it to, it seems to do something different every time.

Not only that, when the back button decides to close the browser and show the homescreen eturning to Google Reader at all is something of a chore. If I try to use the recent tasks menu, it actually brings up the browser page I was on because I accessed it through Reader, but if I switch to that task I still can’t return to Reader because the back button doesn’t work properly. It seems that the task switcher is treating the browser and Reader as a single task, so if I can’t access Reader from the browser window then I can’t access it at all. I’ve even had situations where I had to force close and reopen Google Reader in order to get back to reading, and not have the application be stuck in the browser.

Some may blame this on a combination of Google Reader and Chrome beta, but I have also experienced the problem with plenty of other applications. In fact, it has been present since at least Android 2.3 Gingerbread. The problem seems to arise when you transition to one application through another, and the back button can’t decide whether to return you to your previous application or act on the one you have open now. It is a confusing problem, because in some situations you may actually want to go back to the previous application or screen, while in others you may want the back button to act on your current application.

However, thanks to the slight task switching bug, I think it would be best if the back button always returned you to the previous screen you were on, whether that means switching applications or not. I would assume that the behavior is inconsistent because the back action is supposed to adapt to different situations, but until it can do so properly a consistent result is what I am looking for. Of course, this problem may only bother me because of the way I use Android, so let me know in the comments if you’ve seen any odd behavior with the back button with your Android device.

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Aaron Orquia

Aaron Orquia is an associate editor at Pocketables. He has been using Android and Linux since he bought his first computer years ago, and his interest in technology, software, and tweaking both to work just right has only grown stronger since then. His current gadgets include a OnePlus One, a Pebble smartwatch, and an Acer C720 Chromebook.

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6 thoughts on “I like functionality of Android’s back button, but the inconsistency needs to be fixed

  • Avatar of John Freml

    I totally get where you’re coming from, but it’s not a big deal to me. I’ve noticed that, if I click a link in Google Reader for example, and it opens in Chrome, pressing back usually will take me to the previous web page I was one. In the stock browser, it takes me back to reader. Maybe we just need to get used to the multi-tasking button?

    • Seems like both Chrome and Reader might be at fault the multi tasking or task switching menu is awesome imo (can’t believe some would rather have menu on their ROMs!) but it’s not a panacea, sometimes apps get stuck in a state where the link in that menu points to a different app as Aaron described… I’ve never run into a situation where I need to force close an app tho, at worst I just jump right bank into the app’s main screen thru the app drawer.

  • Avatar of Andreas Ødegård

    This annoys the living tarzan out of me too. Especially when you switch back to an app (like a “now playing” screen in a music player) from another app and that “resets” what Android thinks is the “root level” of the app, so that pressing back doesn’t bring you back to the previous menu but exits the app. Frankly, the back button shouldn’t be able to close apps. When did a web browser’s back button ever close it? Well, it does on Android…

    • Avatar of Aaron Orquia

      I’ve actually had nearly the same problem with music players. If there’s something playing, and I access the player through the notification and not through the app icon or multitasking menu, then the back button closes or exits the app instead of going back one screen. This is especially annoying when I try to open the music app through the notification to pick another album, but when I hit back to return to the album list the app closes instead.

  • Back button was always MEANT to close apps when you’re at the root level tho…

    I agree that it’s inconsistent but it happens to an extent on WP7 too even tho they have a simpler multi tasking scheme… It’s not terribly easy to solve because back functionality within individual apps is governed by them so… They’re usually the cause of any inconsistency.

  • Avatar of JRDemaskus

    I have learned to expect where the back button is going to take me, and it works well, for me.
    When I hit a link in the browser, and then hit back, it sometimes takes me back to the top of the page, not the point where I hit the link. This I do not like as I have to search the page to get back where I was when I left.


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