The iPhone Home button: A look at how it has evolved, and where it still needs to go

The Home button is the most used and arguably the most important button on the iPhone. For everyone new to smartphones and to mobile computing, it's an escape hatch that they can press at any time, any where, and immediately be returned to a safe, familiar place. For more experienced users, it's a way to activate everything from Spotlight to Siri, the fast app switcher to the accessibility menu. Because the Home button serves so many purposes, for so many people, the mechanical switch itself is subject to an incredibly high level of use, and potential for wear and tear. That's why, more than any other physical button, the Home button has been a source of problems over the years, for Apple and consumers.

The original iPhone

Original iPhone Home button

The original iPhone debuted in 2007, and it introduced the Home button design, base functionality, and its rounded rectangular icon.

The original iPhone’s Home button was not part of the physical display assembly, but part of the docking assembly. Getting to it was no easy task and made repairing it extremely difficult.

When looking at failure rates, the original iPhone didn’t have nearly as many failure rates as more recent generations of iPhones, but many of the more taxing software features, the ones requiring double and triple taps, had yet to be introduced.

The iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS

iPhone 3GS Home button

The iPhone 3G debuted in 2008 and the 3GS followed in 2009. Both models were extremely similar when it came to the Home button. Rather than being part of the dock connector assembly, as it was in the original iPhone, it was part of the display assembly.

The display assembly in both the iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS is separated into two parts, the frame assembly and the glass assembly. One could be replaced without the other. Considering the iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS opened from the front, the display assembly was extremely easy to remove. Since the Home button was part of the frame on the display, a faulty Home button assembly was also extremely easy to repair.

Apple Retail would simply replace the entire front assembly, including the LCD, which in most cases would restore Home button functionality (unless the fault was with the contact point on the dock underneath).

For the most part, the iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS Home button also didn’t have too many issues when it came to Home button. But again, many of the more Home button intensive features hadn't yet been introduced.

The iPhone 4

iPhone 4 Home button

The iPhone 4, released in the summer of 2010, brought with it a completely redesigned iPhone with a sleeker, slimmer profile. Because of the new design, however, the iPhone 4 had to be opened from the back, once again making the Home button more difficult to replace.

To make matters worse, the iPhone 4 was also the first iPhone with the fast app switcher interface, which was activated by double pressing the Home button. That made Home button usage spike, and saw Home button failures spike along with it.

The iPhone 4 Home button also used a flex cable, which introduced an additional point of failure. Thanks to that cable, in some instances the Home button would stop working complete. In others, double presses would be mis-identified as single presses. That's because the The Home button flex cable in the iPhone 4 relied on the Home button being able to depress and “click” the disc-like metal contact on the cable underneath. Over time, that disc was worn down and became less reliable as a connection point.

It’s an issue we still continue to see today with both the GSM and CDMA variants of the iPhone 4.

The iPhone 4S

iPhone 4S Home button

Overall, not much changed with the iPhone 4-like iPhone 4S. However, did decide to secure the actual Home button to the display assembly with a rubber gasket and some adhesive. The underlying cable went untouched for the most part. It still connected to the dock connector in the same fashion and wove through the midframe to the front where the Home button sat on top of it.

The area that gets depressed and flattens over time was still the same disc mechanism, and thus prone to the same failures as the iPhone 4.

Interestingly, Apple also added Assistive Touch to iOS at the same time, which were meant to allow users with accessibility issues to use on-screen, virtual controls instead of hardware buttons. However, it also helped out-of-warranty owners who'd experienced hardware Home button failures.

The iPhone 5

iPhone 5 Home button

Apple’s current iPhone 5, brought with it an even thinner profile. Not only was the iPhone 5 Home button completely flush to the glass in every unit, it had a different “feel” to it. It was obvious Apple had done some work on it.

Similar to the iPhone 4S, the physical Home button was attached to the screen but with a much stronger and sturdy rubber gasket that left little room for a gap between the glass and button. Apple also took an extra step andput a metal shield down over the gasket.

Unfortunately, underneath the shield is the same, old, troubled ribbon cable. Apple did add some some yellow tape to better pad and secure it, but it remains to be seen how much, if any difference this makes to cable wear and tear over the long term.

A metal disc contact that is pressed time and time again, sometimes for 2 or more years, will wear down, and eventually fail. When you only give users one way to exit apps, multitask, or activate accessibility options, you have to put your hardware where your button presses are. Apple simply isn’t doing this.

Home buttons of the future

We are now six years into the iPhone product cycle and quickly approaching a seventh iteration, yet Apple keeps repeating the same mistake when it comes to the Home button. It’s too early to tell if a metal shield and a bit of yellow tape will solve past woes caused by the Home button when it comes to the iPhone 5, but my gut tells me that the answer will be no. In the mean time, iPhone 4S Home button issues are starting to rear their ugly heads.

It begs the question, is there really a logical hardware solution? Cables and components will fail over time. No physical hardware put into packages as thin and small as Apple insists on making are rugged enough, and have redundancies enough, to last. While I think Apple could be trying harder when it comes to Home button issues, I’m skeptical as to whether it's a problem that can be solved by hardware alone.

There's only one real solution -- software.

Features like Assistive Touch show that Apple has experimented with virtual gestures to replace hardware functionality. The iPad version of iOS even comes with a fairly good set of gesture-based navigation controls, including 4-finger swipes between apps and to reveal the fast app switcher, and a four finger pinch to return to the Home screen. Minimal as they are, they remove a lot of the navigational burden from the Home button, especially from power users who are most likely to know of, and use those features.

Apple, however, doesn't currently offer similar gesture controls on the iPhone. In order to get anything like that, you need to jailbreak and install Zephyr. (And some people jailbreak just to install Zephyr, just because of hardware Home button failure.

This year may or may not bring a lot in terms of iPhone hardware revisions, but we are certainly hoping that some major changes to iOS and iCloud are in store.

The Home button controls a lot of the software actions we use every day in iOS and it becomes frustrating when the hardware lets us down. So perhaps it's time that the iPhone, like the iPad before it, has the same -- or hopefully even better -- gesture-based navigation options to share duty with the Home button.

That would let mainstream users keep pressing an easy to find, easy to understand hardware Home button, but also allow more advanced, more sophisticated users to enjoy a more advanced, more sophisticated form of navigation as well. The iPhone would get to stay less stressful for the mainstream, but become more useful and more reliable for power users.

It would also start introducing the concept of a gestures to a larger audience, in case one day Apple decides to introduce an iPhone -- or smaller device -- that doesn't have room or need for a physical Home button.

Allyson Kazmucha

iMore senior editor from 2011 to 2015.

  • Nice history and summary. I'm hoping for the security features, like the rumored print scanner under the home button, which would require at least a few different solutions. I'm not holding my breath it'll be ready come 5S time. My 4S is holding strong, no issues. Actually my old 3G passed along to the older brother is still solid as far as hardware issues. Knock on wood I never have to read a DIY article, but if I do need to swap something out, I know where to turn for guidance.
  • I guess it wasnt a rumor after all lol
  • I've had home buttons with my earlier iPhone 3Gs. After having moved to the iPhone 4 (about 2 years ago) - I try to minimise the use of the home button. In fact - I would fall into the group of users that have jail-broken their phones only to find a gesture based replacement for the home button. Although, the current set-up makes it quite troublesome for me to update iOS.
  • Once multitasking came into play, that poor button has been taxed past its breaking point. My 3G's home button was ok...but multiple iPhone 4s in our house failed, and my current iPhone 5 is starting to show signs of not responding now, as well, with occasional button presses not registering. There is a limit to how strong Apple can make the hardware, but, as long as they are going to tie virtually every function into that one button, they have to do better.
  • just use like nexus. on screen button or something/
  • Great overview of the iPhone button. I guess we really have notice the changes, but can see the progression from the article. Great article!
  • Not to be "That guy", but Android's solution of on screen button eliminates this problem entirely.
  • No. I completely and utterly agree.
  • I found them kind of annoying at times. When playing games I'd accidentally hit back or home throwing me out of my game. I prefer physical buttons now.
  • I could see this issue as well but I think it could be solved with good code.
  • Sorry about your iphone (pos)problem, had my galaxy 3 since it came out and the galaxy 2 before problem with the home button. Seems to me that mayb just mayb you spent your$500-600 on a device that you have
    to upgrade everyyear bc of faulty design. I have am ipad 2. Great tab....button failure...yes....why does my samsung products have no problem with the single home button....but nothing but problems with iphone and ipad.....
  • 'Sorry about your............', don't be a shortsighted fool. For every person like you there is one like myself who has no issues, (bought my iPhone4 on release day). These problems cannot have one end all solution because hardware and software fail in different ways and one is there to pick up when the other goes down. This is why Apple have assistive touch.
    ALL software has bugs, and ALL hardware has QC issues. Your post makes you sound like a 15 year old doofus.
  • LOL, I always like it how Android and Samsung Fans like to rub the iPhone. And haven't seen much iPhone users even bothered to go to their Site to troll.
  • Besides the trolls that pop up on here (like the moron OP), I've noticed that on a few of the more popular Android & tech blogs they have started to fight with themselves about which is the best hardware manufacturer. In some cases it gets even more heated than most iOS/Android arguments I've seen thru the past few years......quite amusing.
  • Dear Ally, thank you for finally addressing this issue as what it is, a problem. And It is a problem that only plagues the iPhone, the buttons on my iPads and iPods have absolutely no problem, and some are quite older than my iPhone 4. On my iPhone after 6 months the home button started misbehaving, and every time I brought it up with friends, everybody told me I had a lemmon, that their home buttons were perfect, worked every time, even though I knew one of them already had his button replaced on a repair shop. I guess Apple fans get in a bit of a denial about iPhone problems, especially on the iPhone 4, with its bad antenna, the bluish spot on indoor pics, weak home button and vibrator motor. I need to replace the last two and my phone is barely 18 months old. I was hoping Apple went with a completely different design on the iPhone 5, but I see it was not the case. Please tell me if it is just my impression or the home button on the iPad is a different and more resistant design.
  • This is also an issue in iPods. Especially the 4th gen touch. We fix many a week. The iPad isn't as bad but the gasket and bracket are different. You also have gestures on the iPad to fall back on. The iPhone is just used more regularly. But the problem is there with iPods as well
  • Indeed. In fact, my 5th Gen just started glitching out on me yesterday, but only in one corner.
  • As you rightly mentioned, most of us dont face this problem on the ipad due to the availability of gestures. (Gestures are multi finger pinch to close an app and multi finger push screen up to reveal open apps)
  • Just retain the Home Button. It's classic..
  • Thankfully, there is no need to use the home button on the iPad. The five touch zoom out gesture to close apps and four touch drag up to reveal the multitasking bar means that the home button is left virtually untouched. :)
  • Assistive touch is great, but it would be better if it was invisible until a two finger tap, or similar to activate it's use. It seems no matter where I put it on the screen, it can accidentally pop up when I did not need it.
  • I think we need new and innovative hardware design to make the Home Button last much much longer and also stand our over abusive power when using it. And while doing that we also need to figure how to have software or other design that uses much less of the Home Button. I am not entirely sure if the solution is really to do with the Home Button at all. I still believe there is a use and feel that belongs solely to a physical mechanical button.
  • I like the home button on the iPhone. The iPad doesn't need it in my mind though.
  • I think iPad still needs a home button. For consistency with other iOS devices, and as a lifesaver for total newbies. But I try to use the home button as little as possible on my iPad mini. I use 4-finger left-right swipe to navigate between apps instead of the double-click on the home button. And I use the 5-finger "pinch" gesture to get back to the home screen.
  • Has Apple ever given a reason to not support gestures on the iphone and ipod touch? I mean at the very least we should have 5 finger pinches to close apps out. My iphone 4 home button was broken for 4-5 months before I upgraded to the iphone 5. Zephyr was a lifesaver, an official implementation would be nice so we don't have to rely on a jailbreak to fix a hardware failure that never should have happened in the first place. Apple is constantly fixing jailbreak vulnerabilities so where does that leave the end user with defective hardware?
  • The iPhone / iPod touch screen size is, IMHO, simply too small to support gestures with more than 2 fingers. I'm sure there are JB-enabled apps that allow up to 5-finger gestures, but they would be terribly awkward. And Apple doesn't do "terribly awkward." Oh, yeah, there's also Siri. As in "Open Safari." And right now, Siri requires the home button.
  • Agreed, def way too small for anything more than 2 finger gestures. I would love to see them implement a "swipe up" type gesture with 1 finger from just below the screen (maybe where the home button starts) to bring up the app switcher. Similar to the iPad gesture, but with only 1 finger & can only be activated if the user starts from either the right or left of the button. It would have to be a hardware implementation, using sensors on the bottom bezel. Just a thought.......
  • I think a little less of the blindingly obvious "history" of the button and a little more analysis would have made this a much better article. For instance, you don't do any research on physical buttons, or let us know what (if any) options there are *besides* the metal disc that you apparently hate so much. Also, articles like this that are overly focussed on one tiny detail need to be framed within a more realistic context. The article makes it sound like the home button is horrible, that everyone hates it, that there are obvious ways to fix it but that Apple just refuses to do it, etc. None of this is actually true though. I see hundreds and hundreds of iPhones in my daily work and have since they first appeared in 2007 and while the odd one has had a home button problem, it's far from a scourge, and really quite a rare thing in my experience for it to fail. I get the impression that Allyson has spent many hours repairing these home buttons and has a real "thing" about it, but I don't know anyone else who thinks similarly. The whole article comes across as a grudge and would be far more interesting with both more background and more actual analysis.
  • Great post Ally! I wonder if and where Apple will put the rumored thumbprint scanner in some future iPhone. If it's in the home button, that button would become more complex and expensive (and probably larger, to get a bigger scan of your thumbprint.) But if the scanner isn't in the home button, Apple would need to put some visual indication around it. Which would be confusing and ugly. And Apple has worked relentlessly, for decades, to eliminate "confusing" and "ugly." So maybe there isn't any option. The thumbprint scanner might need to be in the home button after all. If there is a thumbprint scanner at all. Apple might decide to use the FaceTime camera for 3d face recognition instead of 2d fingerprint scanning. Or maybe even a combination of both.
  • i think if they change the home button for a one that you just touch, i think it will be the best thing ever, cause the currently home button have a lot of problem and it can get broken really easy, by the way nice review, thumbs up :)
  • That might be the only way to put a thumbprint scanner into the home button. By making it a virtual button under the front glass. It wouldn't require the extra depth required for physically pushing it down until it clicks, there would be no way for debris to get into the gap around the button, and it wouldn't ever wear out. One problem: it would require constant power or power at least every half second or so, to maintain instant responsiveness. And that would tend to drain the battery faster than a mechanical button.
  • I used an iPhone 4 for about 2 years and the home button was fine in it. No issues otherwise too. Even I had dropped a few times, spilled tea all over it once (accidentally of course). Now I have the iPhone 5, got it December of last year and the home button is fine (knock on wood). Although I had to get a replacement because of the faulty sleep/wake button on the one I got first.
  • coming from webOS I welcome Gestures in the meantime I get by using the Assistive Touch
  • simple combo solution. Click, for one click. Click and hold for 2 sec's, two clicks. Click and hold for 3 secs, Siri. That would eliminate at least 33% of the clicks. Now, somebody smarter than me, come up with the proper form of this, and that solves some of the issues. Yeah, I understand the objections for Assistive Touch, as it shows up when you don't want it. Thats an issue I have with the thin bezeled iPad mini. (and the rumor is, the newer 10 inch iPads) No bezel, means its too easy to bring up something in the middle of something else. Another solution? A button in place of the physical button, thats its own touchscreen. Why not copy an android type button but actually in a separate physical place, in place of the previous mechanical button.
  • I agree with the suggestion for some kind of Capacitive button. With the button recessed as it is now, but with no moving parts. As long as it could be included without interfering with the screen and the screen's system. It might also be able to include rkevwill's ^ idea about holding down for a certain amount of seconds representative of the number of "clicks", which would mean people wouldn't have to completely remove their finger from the button to activate the next "click"
  • Blackberry got the right solution on the Playbook and Z10: swipe up to wake the device and minimize apps. I have seen android phones with other screen options as well. I love my iPhone but its time to lay the home button to rest an move on. I use Zephyr combined with Auxo and for me it is the way to go.
  • Good article! I have all my iDevices jailbroken and use Activator as a replacement for all hardware buttons - not because they are broken, but because I want to extend their lifespan as much as possible. There is just one thing I can't yet do without a hardware button - wake the device up.
  • There is very good alternative to home button use .Goto SETTINGS - GENERAL - ACCESSIBILITY-ASSISTIVE TOUCH - MAKE IT ON .
    a home screen icon will be visible on your phone screen . start using it . even you can personalize few gestures . Excellent alternative to physical home button and i twill reduce the wear and tear of the home button .
  • Actually not all iPhone 5's have flush home buttons, my original one was recessed in the glass by a lot and then my sleep/wake button broke so they gave me a new one and it still isn't flush, it's a shame because I like the flush feeling :/