In their quest for a bezel-less, all-screen smartphone, manufacturers have struggled for a spot to put the front camera. This meant that in 2018 almost every phone had a notch up front. The notch on the Pixel 3 XL is narrower than the one seen on the iPhone XS and OnePlus 6T has a relatively smaller notch. Even then the notch on the Pixel 3 XL is not the same as the one of the iPhone XS or the OnePlus 6T. But whatever their size or shape, there is no denying the fact that in 2018 notches became an integral part of smartphone design.
Research firm Counterpoint had anticipated that over 300 million smartphones with “notch displays” will be sold by end of 2018. By the end of the year, the notch has ended up in phones priced even under Rs 10,000.
The trend of a cutout at the top of the smartphone display was started by Essential with its Phone PH-1 in May 2017. However, it was Apple which made the notched display “mainstream” with the iPhone X, launched towards the end of last year. Now, almost every manufacturer offers smartphones with the notch.
The notch is a design compromise, not a marketing tool
When Apple chose to add the notch over the iPhone X’s display, criticism came from every corner. Some even called it a marketing stunt, but you know that’s not true. In the introduction video of the iPhone X, Apple’s Jonathan Ive described the device as part of the decade-long goal of creating an “iPhone that is all-display”. Simply put, there was no other way in front of Apple but to include the notch in order to create an edge-to-edge screen on the iPhone X.
Ive is right. Apple is not glorifying the notch, unlike other brands. The notch is a clear design flaw and let’s admit it. But the notch on the iPhone X serves some purpose, at least. The notch houses the phone’s top earpiece speaker and the camera and sensors needed for Face ID.
Others simply copied the iPhone X notch without adding the FaceID functionality. Take the case of Google Pixel 3 XL. Notches allowed all the sensors and the front-facing camera to house at the top of the device, so that the bezels can shrink further. But, the Pixel 3 XL appears to be odd from a design point of view. Not only does it have a large notch, but a huge bottom bezel as well. The rationale behind the notch seems unrealistic.
The notch gets the mainstream status
Whether you like it or not, the notch has now become an industry trend. This entire past year, we saw hundreds of phones that had the notched display. Asus, Huawei, Oppo, Vivo, Honor, HMD Global (Nokia), Xiaomi and other brands flooded the market with phones having a small notch in the screen.
At MWC 2018, Asus launched the new ZenFone 5Z and the ZenFone 5. The two phones offer all-screen displays with a 90 per cent screen-to-body ratio. Both featured notched displays. A few months later we saw the Huawei P20 and P20 Pro. The premium, camera-centric smartphones were pitched as rivals to the iPhone X and Galaxy S9. Once again they had notched displays, though the notch was smaller in size.
During the middle of the year, OnePlus 6 and LG G7 ThinQ made their debut. Both had the notches, but they were not as deep or wide as the iPhone notch.
Things veered to a different path when Oppo introduced its F9 smartphone with a waterdrop-stye notch design. Rather than blatantly copying the iPhone X, Oppo opted for an unusual notch design. It’s small, rounded cut-out that gave the impression that there was no notch in the screen.
Vivo and OnePlus too launched a number of smartphones with a waterdrop-style notch design. OnePlus 6T, Oppo R17, and Vivo V11 Pro all feature the same style of the notch.
The year of wild experimentation
Soon manufacturers realised that they had to come out with phones with edge-to-edge displays, but without a screen notch. Each manufacturer had their own vision to create a notchless smartphone. Some opted for pop-up selfie cameras to maximise screen-to-body ratio, while others went with a slider phone form factor.
The Chinese smartphone maker Vivo leads the race with the NEX, the world’s first phone a pop-up selfie camera. It features an impressive 91.24 per cent screen-to-body ratio. But how did it manage to offer a bezel-less smartphone? Well, the selfie camera is inside a module that pops-up from the device. It’s an interesting phone, but we also need to remember that the pop-up camera mechanism is not perfect. It also raises questions about the device’s durability, something you can’t ignore.
Oppo too launched a bezel-less phone in the form of the Find X. It came with a 93.8 per cent screen-to-body ratio, thanks to Oppo’s clever engineering tactics. So, where’s the selfie camera? When you launch the camera app, the entire top face of the Find X rises up. Yes, the cameras are hidden and a motorised mechanism pops up from the top of the phone at the touch of a button.
Xiaomi, Honor, and Lenovo are also not far behind. All three companies launched smartphones with a slider form factor. The Xiaomi Mi Mix 3, Honor Magic 2 and Lenovo Z5 Pro have tried to reimagine the slider phone. But here’s the core issue: the mechanical moving parts in these phones may cause an issue in the long run. Sure, the slider phone form factor is less gimmicky but again, it’s not a perfect way to create a notch-free smartphone.
It’s not easy to get rid of the notch entirely yet. You have to accommodate key components like selfie cameras, sensors and infrared face unlock arrays somewhere over the bezel-less screen. The only way now is to make these components smaller in size, which automatically reduces the size of a screen notch.
It’s not that manufacturers aren’t ready for it. Huawei and Samsung seem to think that a hole in the screen will solve the notch problem. Both Nova 4 and Galaxy A8s are pitched as notch-less phones where the camera hole on the display houses the front-facing camera. We are not sure how this so-called “hole punch” camera cut-out is a better way to increase the screen real estate. Will this punch hole display become the standard in 2019? Only time will tell.