There was a time when Android smartphone makers used to unabashedly copy the iPhone, often considered as the gold standard in smartphones. From shamelessly copying the design to stealing the signature features like the infamous notch, Android smartphones were simply iPhone knockoffs.
But in recent months we have seen evidence of how Android smartphone makers are coming out of the shadow of Apple. The notch seems to be disappearing from smartphones and a new generation of truly bezel-less devices have started to hit the market.
OnePlus, Realme and Asus this week launched smartphones that are completely bezel-less, headlined by unique mechanical cameras. Whether it is the OnePlus 7 Pro, Realme X or the Zenfone 6, these mainstream smartphones provide an example of an emerging trend that’s likely to become common in the coming months, as more phone makers start to sell devices with a full-screen design with no notches or punch holes.
‘The notch’ was the beginning
The Zenfone 5 was a blatant copy of the iPhone X and so was the LG G7. The common thing between the three phones was a notch, a dark cutout in the top of the screen that houses the front-facing camera, earpiece and other sensors.
Apple’s iPhone X popularised the concept of shrinking bezels and a notch on smartphones. Other Android phone makers soon followed, with major manufacturers like Huawei, Xiaomi, Google, OnePlus flooding the market with smartphones that look like a copy of the iPhone X. The notch suddenly started to become the design “trend” of the season.
In case of the iPhone X, Apple wanted the display to extend from corner-to-corner with minimal, symmetrical bezels all around it. The company was left with no choice but to accommodate the front-facing camera, the speaker, and the sensors into the notch. The iPhone X’s notch has a TrueDepth camera that makes secure facial recognition on phones a reality and has no rival in the Android ecosystem. The goal of the notch is to increase available screen real estate, and that’s what Apple did.
Other smartphone manufacturers could have easily accommodated the front-facing camera and the other important sensors, say, on the bottom bezel of the phone. Most Android phones still have chins at the bottom. Instead, we saw Android phone makers quickly copying the notch for merely aesthetic reasons.
If you analyse this trend closely, you will find out that there was no real need to add a notch on a phone. No one really showed interest to answer as to what made them embrace a notch in the first place. The notch was never considered a clever design; it was clearly a design compromise.
Mechanical cameras take centerstage
Android phone makers soon realised that they need to come up with unique solutions to push the smartphone design to the next level. The solution from the tech companies: kill the notch.
In recent months, we have seen evidence that seemingly suggests how Chinese phone makers are experimenting with notch-free smartphone designs. Look, people want smartphones with edge-to-edge displays, and right now mechanical cameras (be it a pop-up selfie camera, a rotating camera system, or a flip camera) are the best possible available solution.
Vivo, for example, last year released a phone called the Nex with an impressive 91.24 per cent screen-to-body ratio. To achieve a bezel-free design, it used a mechanical selfie camera that pops up from inside the phone’s housing.
Oppo, another Chinese brand, launched a bezel-less phone called the Find X. Similar to the Nex, the Find X uses a unique elevating module to house its front-facing selfie camera, thus eliminating the need for a notch.
But on close inspection, you will realise the entire top face of the Find X lifts (which includes a 25MP selfie shooter and a dual-camera system on the back) at the touch of a button. This sliding module is far more sophisticated than the motorised selfie camera on Vivo’s Nex.
The release of the Vivo Nex and Find X started a new design trend of truly bezel-less phones. It just shows that smartphone makers are taking risks by investing in fresh designs and new display technologies. One prominent example is OnePlus, a leading Android phone maker perhaps best-known for making premium smartphones at competitive prices.
It recently took a swing at the ultra-premium smartphone market with its OnePlus 7 Pro that comes with a 16MP selfie camera that automatically pops up from the top of the phone. The company says it tested the pop-up mechanism more than 300,000 times – or about 150 times a day for five-and-and-a-half years. Many analysts believe OnePlus 7 Pro has the potential to make mechanical pop-up cameras mainstream.
Ben Stanton, senior analyst at Canalys, says mechanical camera sliders show that the display is by far the most important feature of a smartphone.
“OnePlus 7 is not the first device in this category, as we have already seen the likes of OPPO and Xiaomi launch these designs. But critically for OnePlus, it can bring these technologies to markets were other Chinese vendors are not established, such as the US. This technology will not be “mainstream” until it comes to devices under $400, but OnePlus 7 is definitely pushing the market in the right direction,” Stanton told indianexpress.com by email.
Stanton agrees that the mechanical camera is currently the best solution to maximise screen-to-body ratio, although several vendors are investing heavily in R&D to explore the possibility of a camera located behind the display.
Everyone’s working on phones with mechanical cameras
Anyone who follows the smartphone industry knows that trends play a big role in the adoption of new phone designs and technologies. That’s exactly what is happening right now. Every big and small phone maker is working on all-screen smartphones that use a mechanical camera system to avoid the notch. Some are turning to the more premium experience, others want a push the technology to cater to the lower-end of the market.
“Just like the notch was the headlining design ethic for 2018, the mechanical cameras are the one for 2019,” explains Prabhu Ram, Head Industry Intelligence Group, CMR. “Across price tiers, we would see mechanical cameras getting pervasive as brands search for differentiators in a tough market.”
Realme, a company that was originally spun out of Chinese smartphone maker Oppo, has outpaced its rivals by launching the Realme X with a pop-up selfie camera at a starting price of 1,499 Yuan (or approx Rs 15,400). This is the most aggressive price point we have seen for a phone with no notch and a pop-up selfie camera. Smartphones with the pop-up camera are priced anywhere between Rs 21,990 and Rs 59,999.
Not surprisingly, Huawei too has embraced the trend by launching the P Smart Z, the company’s first phone to feature a pop-up selfie camera. At 279 Euros (or approx Rs 21,000), Huawei P Smart Z’s price alone is enough to catch your attention.
Even the South Korean giant Samsung is looking forward to boosting its market share in the mid-range smartphone market with the Galaxy A80, a phone with a triple-camera system that pops up from the back of the phone and rotates. This is Samsung’s first mainstream smartphone with a rotating design.
Similarly, the flagship Zenfone 6 which Asus announced on Thursday, uses a flip mechanism that turns the rear cameras to the front. While the Zenfone 6 is pitched as a flagship smartphone, it will be sold for 499 Euros (or approx Rs 39,000) which is half the cost of the iPhone XS.
Then there are phones like the Xiaomi Mi Mix 3, Honor Magic 2 and Lenovo Z5 Pro GT that solves the problem of the notch with mechanical sliding designs. We don’t know whether the sliding design is the future, but it is definitely an alternative way to create phones that have more screen real estate and less bezel.
Mechanical cameras are not perfect
But here’s the problem: phones with mechanical pop-up cameras aren’t perfect in implementation. For one, these phones are bulkier and more cumbersome to carry. Second, they rely on moving parts which means there is a higher chance of malfunction. Durability is something a big concern with all phones that have mechanical cameras. Once the pop-up mechanism fails, the phone will become pretty useless.
“The disadvantages are that it makes waterproofing a phone near-impossible, and it is challenging to pack advanced camera hardware (such as 3D face scanning) into the front-facing camera,” adds Stanton.
The all-screen dream
The race to make the ultimate all-screen smartphone is still on. Different brands have different solutions to make a truly all-screen smartphone. There is no standard that tells how a phone with shrunken bezels looks like. Instead, it’s an empty canvas where manufacturers can use different techniques to create smartphones that’s all screen. But experiments like the Find X, Zenfone 6 and Galaxy A80 show that smartphone makers are aware of the challenges they face, and are actively trying to innovate to rise to the occasion.