Smartphones

Rotatable Scroll Wheels Are the Best New Phone Trend in Over a Decade

I am so here for making phones weird and fun again.

Person holding a modern, portable audio recording device with a digital display, controls visible, i...
Light

The time has come for phones to get weird again. Nothing kicked off the return of fun-designed gadgets with eye-catching transparent aesthetics and an LED “Glyph” system with the Phone 1, then the Phone 2 and Phone 2a, and now more phone makers are daring to break the unibody glass slab status quo.

The latest phone trend that I am 100 percent here for: scroll wheels. Yes, honest to god, tactile discs you can rotate around and around and around.

Earlier this week, boutique phone maker Light announced the Light Phone III. The third-generation minimalist phone, designed as a distraction-free alternative to iPhones and Android, addresses many of the complaints people had about the Light Phone II. It lost the previous model’s E Ink display, but modern features like an OLED screen, a camera, USB-C, 5G, a fingerprint reader, NFC, and a flashlight are present.

Look at the big, beefy clickable wheel on the Light Phone III!

Light

But it’s the Light Phone III’s “clickable wheel” that caught my attention. Light says the wheel can be used to control the phone’s screen brightness and clicking it opens the flashlight. As far as I can tell, those are the only two functions for the wheel; I hope Light can make it customizable like the Action button on the iPhone 15 Pros, or add functions.

The Light Phone III’s wheel is no joke.

Light

The wheel brings back memories of old PDAs, BlackBerrys, and Sidekicks that had scroll wheels or “jog dials” to navigate around the software. (I had a Sony Clié PDA, and I absolutely loved using the wheel to scroll through primitive documents and early ebooks.)

The Light Phone III isn’t the only phone bringing back tactile scroll wheels. CMF, the budget-oriented sub-brand by Nothing, has been teasing a smartphone called the CMF Phone 1 with, well, a wheel.

The wheel on the CMF Phone 1 (here’s a leaked image of the whole phone) is located in the corner, which makes me wonder what it’ll be used for. It’s an odd place for a wheel that you might use to scroll through websites or ebooks. CMF’s official X account posted this teaser, suggesting it’s “reinventing the wheel.” We also see the CMF Phone 1 in a black or gray colorway that’s not the bright orange that the sub-brand is known for.

Always the hype man, Nothing co-founder and CEO Carl Pei said this about the CMF Phone 1 teaser:

We’re looking forward to what happens when we apply these skills to a new market segment. If Phone (2a) shook up the mid-range market, I expect the CMF Phone 1 to do even bigger things to the budget segment.

Wheels have always been part of CMF’s DNA. For example, the company’s Neckband Pro wireless headphones have a rotatable wheel for adjusting the volume.

All I can say is that the wheel better do something. Some users on Reddit are speculating that the wheel could be used to control settings such as volume (makes sense) or maybe even the camera zoom (also makes sense, but seems less likely). So long as the wheel has actual utility and doesn’t do nothing like turning the digital crown on the OnePlus Watch 2, it could shake things up in the very stale smartphone scene.

The Rabbit R1 has an analog scroll wheel, too.

Photograph by Raymond Wong

And it’s not only phone makers who are feeling nostalgic for the analog wheel. Rabbit’s R1, to the chagrin of many consumers, uses a scroll wheel for navigating around its rabbitOS.

As somebody who’s incredibly bored of today’s clean, symmetrical phone design, I welcome the return of scroll wheels. Phones should be fun again, and what’s more satisfying than hardware that leans into physical inputs such as buttons and scroll wheels? Scroll wheels are back! For the sake of gadget diversity, let’s never let them go ever again.

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