I notice that some devices on the market have a discrete number of volume levels (e.g. the iPad, the Nintendo DS), whereas others have a continuous slider (or so many volume levels that it amounts to the same thing). What are the pros and cons of each approach? How much do users care about actually fine-tuning the controls? How should I decide "how many levels are enough"? To what extent do sliders actually control to users wanting fine-tuned control of the volume, as opposed to just being a convenient way of setting a ballpark?

I know the answer to a lot of those questions is "it depends" - of how much they care about the sound (doorbell vs. home cinema), what kind of interface manipulation you have (touch buttons sort of mean you have to have discrete controls, as does voice command) ... I'm wondering if I'm missing anything, and whether there are studies about the level of control people actually like.

2 Answers 2


When it comes to volume control, a nicely weighted, big physical control (knob or slider) is the gold standard. It provides fast and precise granular control with tactile feedback.

The rest are use-case and packaging driven compromises.

Rocker switch (or two separate buttons/keys)

  1. Compact packaging
  2. circuit can be water/dust proof
  3. tactile feedback
  4. It works better with discrete number of volume levels. (1-12) Not (1-100).
  5. you can hold it down (easier on computer keyboards)

Side volume knob:

  1. Affords much finer number of levels
  2. hard to make it water/dust proof
  3. takes up much more space.
  4. It can theoretically accommodate both continuous and discrete control with 'indented' steps.

Touch screen

  1. Hold+slide allows fine number of levels.
  2. But hold+slide doesn't work so well on resistive touch screen type.
  3. Can build variety of UI feedback mechanism to compensate for lack of tactility. (color change, digits, simulated sticky/indented steps, etc)
  4. You still have to look at the screen to control the volume

With that said, whenever possible, device makers do their best to accommodate more granular level of controls because there is so much variation in people's preference. For example, on iPad, there is a physical rocker switch with a dozen steps of volume level. But you can control volume via touch-screen slider that provides 100 levels of granularity.

In OSX, there is a trick for finer control by holding down shift+option key. Doing so would get you x4 the number of steps, which is great for computers that do not rely on external speakers with dedicated volume control.



Most important factor is how fast one can go loud or quiet.

  • HI Alex, you might want to add more detail to your answer. Why is that the most important factor?
    – msanford
    Jan 30, 2016 at 20:11
  • When I launch a video and it starts at very high volume I'd want to make it quiet fast. Same for the opposite case. Most systems will also have a slider covering the full spectrum. Jan 30, 2016 at 20:31

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