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What Is a Soft Key?

By C. Mitchell
Updated May 16, 2024
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A soft key is a key on a computer or cell phone that can be programmed to perform multiple different functions of the user’s choosing. Most keys, including letters on computer keyboards and numbers on cell phones, are considered “hard keys” because they cannot be reprogrammed. Striking the “K” key will always type that letter, for instance, just as punching “7” on a phone will dial that number. Soft keys are keys whose function is up to the discretion of the user.

On most computer keyboards, the “function,” or “F-keys,” have the button flexibility required to be soft keys. Users can usually program this sort of key through the control panel or desktop preferences settings of their computers. Common commands for these keys include opening certain applications, launching a web browser, ejecting disks or other external devices, and saving content entered into either a word processing or web template.

There are rarely any restrictions on what keys can be programmed to do. These keys can usually duplicate the commands of other shortcut keys and can be updated at any time. The main goal is to promote control and ease of use.

Programming is never permanent, either. Users can usually change the key’s function repeatedly. The computer keeps track of these updates and changes in its internal logger.

Soft keys on cell phones work in much the same way. Traditional cell phones — that is, cell phones that are not smartphones, or are based around a traditional numeric keypad rather than a keyboard — usually have two soft keys directly under the screen, one on the right and one on the left. Most of the time, each key comes with a function when it arrives from the manufacturer. These keys often start out launching the phone’s menu or opening the phone book. Users can reprogram them in order to suit their own individual needs.

Depending on the phone, even the numeric keys may be able to function as semi-soft keys. A numeral key is not a true soft key, since its number memory can never be taken away. Most cell phones are designed to recognize differences in short taps and long pushes, however, which creates more options.

On most cell phones, the first three numerals — 1, 2, and 3 — are programmable as speed dial keys. Pushing the keys briefly will enter the numeral into the dialing frame, but holding down on the numeral key for a longer span of time will trigger the phone to dial a pre-programmed number. In this instance, the numeral key is acting as a soft key because it has been programmed by the user to perform a specific task.

The term has a slightly different meaning on smartphones with touch screen keyboards or keyboards that appear graphically on the screen’s display device, rather than being fixed buttons. Many manufacturers refer to these sorts of keyboards as “soft key keyboards.” This relates more to the physical nature of the keyboards than to their function: the keys are soft to the touch, but may not necessarily be reprogrammable.

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