Back in the old days, gadgets used to be covered in little lumps of plastic which, when you press down on them, caused the gadget to react in some predictable way. Buttons, they were called - and as our phones have morphed into thin sheets of glass, you could perhaps be forgiven for thinking that we don’t need to bother with them any more. But sometimes - you can’t beat a little bit of tactile feedback.
This is the gamble being made by Swedish company Shortcut Labs, which has built Flic, a tiny Bluetooth “smart button” that connects to your phone, and lets you trigger different things on it.
I must admit, I was pretty cynical when I first heard of Flic: Why would I need an external button to do stuff on my phone? What’s the point? Can’t my Apple Watch pause and play my music just fine?
But then, I discovered a problem in my life and realised that Flic might just be the solution. Now brace yourself, this might be one of the ultimate first world problems, but when I play videogames, I also like to listen to podcasts - lest my brain go unstimulated for even one second. With a puzzle game, this works great - but with a game like Watch Dogs 2, every so often the game will launch a cut scene, which sent me scrambling for my phone or flailing my fat fingers at my watch in order to pause the pod and not miss any crucial plot dialogue.
With an on-screen button, I had to wait for the screen to wake, and for my iPhone to realise what app it has open and so on. This meant that I lost seconds of valuable exposition. What if I didn’t know the reasons why I was shooting the baddies on screen?
What I needed was some means to pause my podcast as quickly and efficiently as possible. What I needed… was a physical button.
How It Works
A Flic button is about the same size as a bottle cap - and all you can do is press it. The idea is that it can be customised to meet your needs: Whether that’s pausing and playing your music, switching your lights on or tagging the start of a run - all without the hassle of needing to unlock your phone and navigate to the right app, and so on.
The actual device is super simple - it contains a Bluetooth chip, to communicate with your phone and is all powered by a CR2032 watch battery - which, as far as I can tell, is purported to last months.
Getting set up is completely painless. Once you’ve created your account with Flic on the app just hit the button and your phone will search and lock onto the Bluetooth signal. Once your phone and the device are paired, you can then configure it to do your bidding.
This is done with a fairly straightforward menu system - simply select the action you want, such as play/pause toggle - and it’ll start working. Your phone will let out a loud beep or vibrate when you press the button to let you know that the command has been activated.
And more or less instantly, my life was improved a little bit. It helps that the button is quite satisfying to press.
The best thing about Flic though the relatively wide array of things you can use the button for. First and foremost, you can add up to three different actions on to each button - one for a single press, one for a double press, and one if you hold the button down. For example, single press could be play/pause, double could be skip to the next track, and hold could be to reduce the volume.
The number of actions available is also quite wide-ranging, covering a number of functions on your phone, as well as a range of media player (such as Spotify and Sonos) and connected home apps (such as Philips Hue or Belkin Wemo lights). Heck, you can even send smart lights full circle, by sticking a Flic button onto your wall and using it as a physical lightswitch.
So far, all good, but there is the problem that always worries me when small companies make products: Support. It’s only a small company: Can it really guarantee support for a large number of big name products as time goes on?
Luckily, this is where the developers have done something smart. You can also hook up your Flic to IFTTT - the popular service that lets you thread together different apps. This opens it up to a much larger range of actions, because if whatever gadget you want to control isn’t supported natively, you can then simply cook up an IFTTT recipe to bridge the gap.
Nerds and developers will also be happy to see a tool built in to ping a user-specified web URL. This means you can conceivably write whatever code you want, to do whatever the hell you want - and you can make it work with Flic.
The regular Flic is $34 - or about £30 in British pounds (thanks, Brexit), and can be used for whatever you wish. But the company also sent me Flic’s spin-off: The FlicSingle. This takes the same idea of having a hardware button, but is sold for only one purpose. There are five different types: FlicFind, for finding your phone, FlicLights, for controlling your lights, FlicLocation, for sharing your location, FlicMusic for Music Controls and FlicSelfie, essentially acting as a remote trigger on your camera.
But here’s the thing… there’s no real point to these existing. They’re sold slightly cheaper - for $19.99 (just over £16) and work in exactly the same way. In fact, I’m pretty sure that on the inside they are almost exactly the same. The only problem is that when you pair one with your phone, you can only set it up on apps and services that relate to the button. So if you have use a FlicMusic, you can only use it to control your music.
What’s infuriating about this is that this limitation is surely just a software limitation. Even though exactly the same technology is being used on the hardware side, what you can do with the button has been artificially limited, for no real reason. If they wanted, Shortcut Labs could update the app and grant every Flic owner full access - instantly making their button that much more useful.
So is Flic worth it? The main all-purpose Flic button definitely is: While it probably won’t change your life, it’ll certainly help tackle some of those irritating first world problems.