What are haptics on the iPhone?

13 May 2020, 05:33

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One of the cellphone industry buzzwords over recent years has been haptic feedback. What is this, and what does it mean for users?

What is haptic feedback on the iPhone?
Cast your mind back to the earliest cellphone you can think of. It’ll probably be a Nokia model, or maybe a Sony Ericsson. These phones had speakers so you could hear ringtones or perhaps even play music. But they also had vibration motors. These are tiny components fixed to the phone’s circuit board, involving a motor and a slightly off-centre weight. When the motor is activated the weight wobbles quickly, producing a strong vibration effect.

This was used to notify you about incoming calls should the phone be switched to silent mode.

These were elementary haptic feedback devices. Let’s pause for a moment to explain what haptic actually means:

From the Oxford English Dictionary: “Haptic: relating to the sense of touch, in particular relating to the perception and manipulation of objects using the senses of touch and proprioception.”

Apple realised that haptic feedback doesn’t have to be limited to just buzzing when calls are received. From the iPhone 6s onwards, phones have used haptic feedback to correlate with things the user does on-screen (something borrowed from the Apple Watch). For example, if you scroll through a list, the phone will give vaguely-realistic physical feedback as if you’re literally flicking through a list. When you reach the end of that list, there’ll be a thud feeling again to emphasise what’s happened.

Because the haptic feedback occurs in response to taps from the user, Apple calls the hardware responsible the Taptic Engine.

What is the Taptic Engine on my iPhone?
Apple’s Taptic Engine is again a component on the phone’s circuit board that, essentially, vibrates when required. But it’s many generations evolved on from the simple buzzing that your old Nokia or Sony Ericsson phone produced.

The Taptic Engine is resonantly tuned to each iPhone it’s fitted in so that it gives a full sensation of haptic feedback to the user across the entirely of the device. Additionally, the Taptic Engine is said to use more precise linear actuator technology so that it can provide a wider range and more sophisticated range of haptic feedback – everything from a quick pulse of haptics, to the prolonged buzzing that remains the phone’s way of indicating you’ve an incoming call should the phone be on silent.

Haptic feedback is a core component of Apple’s Force Touch and 3D Touch technologies. These involve the user either pushing harder on the screen to make something happen (a technology Apple has now abandoned in its recent iPhone models), or tapping and holding on something so that something different happens (compared to a typical quick tap). The haptic feedback is used to communicate to the user that these hard or long taps have done something, making the actions feel more “real”, and more akin to using a physical switch.

But Apple’s use of the Taptic Engine and haptics isn’t just about a better user experience. It also allowed them to abandon a physically-switched home button. This was a common cause of failure on iPhones, in that the home button would break and render the device essentially unusable. With the iPhone 7, Apple switched to a touch-sensitive pad for the circular home button and used haptics to give the same sensation of a physical click you get from a real button. This is so effective that many users don’t even realise their iPhone no longer has an actual button. And, via the benefit haptics delivered, Apple eventually abandoned the home button entirely with its FaceID models, starting with the iPhone X. This allowed more space for the screen area on the iPhone.

Haptics used to negate the need for a physical home button also help with Apple’s goal of making its devices water proof. If there’s no large home button switch, then that’s one less place for water to get into the iPhone.

How do I adjust haptics on my iPhone?
You can adjust haptics on your iPhone although the level of control will depend on what model you have. If your iPhone has a home button you can adjust the haptic feedback—the level of “click” you feel each time—in the Settings app by clicking the General heading, and then the Home Button heading.

On these phones and indeed all other iPhones you can adjust other aspects of haptics by opening the Settings app, selecting the Accessibility option, then tapping the Touch heading. Then select whichever option is relevant. On my iPhone 8, for example, I see an heading that reads 3D & Haptic Touch. On later phones without 3D Touch you might see simply a heading that reads System Haptics.

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