HP has showed off at CES 2012 their latest laptop HP Envy 14 Spectre.
It seems (from the picture) the laptop has a real physical volume wheel. I am so happy to see people use dials/wheels for the volume control in laptops again. To control the sound volume, nothing beats physical dials/wheels. My first ever laptop, a Toshiba Satellite (year 1999), has a real volume wheel on the left side. The wheel is intuitive and easy to use. Even it has been more than 10 years, I think I can now reach that volume wheel blindfold. However, all computer makers (including Apple) since then switched to use the up/down button design.
To control sound volume, the volume dial/wheel is superior to any kind of up/down buttons. It all comes down to the muscle memory; with a knob/dial/wheel you can “feel” how much loud or quiet you want, and you can do it as quick or as slow as you want. I hoped that some companies such as Apple would pay attention to this detail, but HP Envy 14 Spectre has been the only laptop with a physical volume wheel I have seen after my Toshiba Satellite.
Worse, most of volume buttons nowadays are software-controlled. It means the feedback is slow; also it means the volume levels are discrete, in some laptops you have only five or six volume levels. It is unnatural to map a continuous concept (sound volume) to a discrete domain. Software-controlled also means you only can affect the volume after the laptop fully boots up. Even worse, the volume buttons are usually combined with function keys (F1-F12), for example, on my current laptop I have to press Fn+F8 and Fn+F9 to control volume.
Imagine that in a meeting, you open the laptop and Windows starts playing the infamous windows startup sound (it is very annoying when you left the volume maximum), you just want to quickly turn off the sound. With volume buttons you have to press the Fn key then looking for the volume down button among F1-F12 keys, you have to do all these things in dim light. I hope computer makers would pay more attention to usability and ergonomics as it seems laptop design is getting prettier but not better.