Smartphones Get Rid Of The Notch In Favor Of Full Screen Displays

Apple is as much an innovator as it is a leader in technology. They are known for their creative and innovative industrial designs, that the rest of the industry soon follows. You see it from the design of the original iPhone, which Samsung has based their smartphone design on. Now we see it more with the iPhone X notch, which was the trend in 2017 and 2018. Apple did not invent the actual concept of a smartphone notch, but paved the way for its adoption. In 2019 things have taken a different turn. Instead of a notch, manufacturers are exploring creative ideas when it comes to design. This is in order to get more screen for the users.

Apple’s notch design is becoming the iconic symbol of the new generation of iPhones. (Source Apple)

The notch was originally designed by Apple, to house a system of sensors along with a front facing camera as part of its True Depth camera system used in Face ID. From a functional perspective, it was necessary to incorporate the notch for that purpose. The engineering challenge faced here is whether to have more bezels on the top of the phone called the “forehead” or to minimize it by allowing more space for the screen on each corner. Apple could not shrink the notch any further it seems, so they came up with their notch design in this manner. As a result you get a sort of “bunny ears” look on the front of the iPhone X. While form follows function for Apple, other smartphone camera vendors just copied the design because it was the trend. It did not have a system as sophisticated as Apple’s Face ID, so consumers were actually just buying a smartphone with a notch design.

The notch on the iPhone XS Max. (Source Apple)

The notch may serve its purpose for Apple’s Face ID, but from an aesthetic design perspective it was rather unattractive looking. It can also be distracting if you frequently think about it. Other than that, there are ways you can make the notch sort of disappear, even temporarily using Apple’s own iPhone settings and even clever wallpaper backgrounds. However, when it comes time to watch a movie at full screen resolution users will notice the notch get in the way.

Watching a movie on the iPhone screen at full resolution with the notch. You may notice how distracting it can be on the left side of the screen. Otherwise, the notch is not a problem.
The Honor Magic2, bezeless screen display without a notch (Source Honor). Compare the difference with the iPhone photo above.

In 2018 many smartphone vendors marketed their own version of the notch introduced in flagship models. There were also different variations of it that look much different from the iPhone design. Consumers were not on board with the idea however, as early as 2018. According to a poll conducted in the UK, out of 50,000 respondents 74% did not like the notch. To further break it down, of the 74%, approximately 38% would not buy a phone with the notch, 23% just don’t like them but can live with them and 13% will only buy one if they could hide the notch.

I am going to discuss some new smartphone camera designs that remove the notch from the display screen. This does not include Samsung’s new “pin hole” or “hole punch” camera design which actually looks much better than the notch. In fact some have totally removed the camera from the screen using some clever techniques. Others have hidden the camera right underneath the display. Let’s take a look at what we have.

Under-Screen Camera

Xiaomi prototype for the under-screen selfie camera. (Source Xiaomi)

The under-screen or under-display camera is now here. This is perhaps the best way to incorporate a front-facing camera. Many of you would probably think this innovation would be first conceptualized by the likes of Apple, Google or even Samsung. Instead the honors go to Xiaomi and their compatriot Oppo. The concept is exactly what it says, “under screen camera”, which is the front-facing camera built underneath the smartphone’s screen display.

While this is a clever idea, it is not tried, true and tested yet compared to the notch. For one thing, the challenge here is getting enough light through the lens with the display in the way. This style will also make its way to OnePlus and Vivo smartphones as well. The benefits of this are more screen real estate with practically no bezels (more screen-to-body ratio) and distracting notches. What you get is full high resolution content on the display screen.

The Pop-Up Camera

The Vivo V15 Pro pop-up camera. (Source Vivo)

Some manufacturers have created a motorized pop-up design for the front-facing camera. It helps create more space on the display without a notch, so there is more screen real estate and less bezels. Vivo sports this feature on their V15 Pro flagship smartphone. This is not the only smartphone using this design. You can count in OnePlus 7 Pro, Oppo F11 Pro and Vivo Nex among them. At the press of a button, your camera pops out from the smartphone ready to take photos. While it is an ingenious design, there are some cons to it.

Moving parts are always risky when it comes to failures. It is just fact that mechanical parts are more likely to break in the long and even short run compared to electronic components. That is just the law of physics. These vendors know that they have to reassure their customers about the durability of these parts, yet there are no guarantees. When the smartphone falls out of our hand while the camera is popped out could lead to damage. Users may also inadvertently damage it if they try to force the camera to go back inside if it gets stuck.

Other accidents that can occur like the pop-up camera hitting an object or the user may lose control of their smartphone, can lead to damage to the exposed pop-up camera. Its not really protected that much when it is popped out to take photos. Other issues are exposure to the elements. Dirt and grime could cause the pop-up camera to malfunction while water and moisture could damage the electronics that operate the mechanical parts. In other words, the pop-up camera design can be a point of failure.

Rotating Camera

The Samsung A80 rotating slider camera (Source Samsung)

Some designs just add more to the features of the pop-up camera, like a rotating mechanism. It is basically the main camera on the back which is then rotated to become the selfie front-facing camera, using a motorized slider that comes up with the camera. Now this takes things to a different level of complexity. An example of this design can be found on the Samsung Galaxy A80. So it just rotates the main camera to become your selfie camera.

There are also rotating pop-up designs. You have to see it to believe it. The Asus Zenfone 6 uses the pop-up and rotating design mechanism. You can see a demo of that here. It is very much like the A80, but the main difference is that it uses a pop-up rather than a slider mechanism. The Zenfone 6 also has a trick up their sleeve with this camera’s features. With the camera you can take photos from different angles as well, so it does have other capabilities to go along with the design.

While these designs are crazy in a genius way, they still have the same issues as pop-up cameras. These smartphone cameras have more motorized moving parts, increasing their complexity and use. This is not going to be an easy repair job if it gets damaged just from the looks of it.

The Slider Camera

The Honor Magic2 smartphone features a slider mechanism for the front camera. (Source Honor)

Other vendors opted for a non-motorized slider mechanism for their front-facing camera. Since this does not require motorized parts, it has less changes of mechanical failure but is nontheless still using moving parts. This certainly gives a full bezeless screen display i.e. “The All Screen Display”. Ideally, this would be the best design. We can find this feature on the Honor Magic2 smartphone. Just having a phone that is more display on screen is truly amazing, especially for high resolution images and video. No notch to distract you from your viewing pleasure. The Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 and Lenovo Z5 Pro have incorporated the slider mechanism as well.

While it may be less prone to mechanical failure, it does not guarantee durability or reliability. Some reviewers, like Unbox Therapy, find it quite addicting. It is like a fidget spinner, once you start sliding the camera it just seems kind of neat and you cannot stop doing it. You keep doing it until you cannot do it anymore, because that is when it breaks. It still has similar issues to the pop-up camera design though less likely to fail since it is not mechanized.

Some Thoughts On These Designs

Although I like their ideas, I am not all too crazy for them except for the first one (under-screen camera). Most of the notchless designs involve moving parts, and that can be a problem. Mechanized moving parts are prone to failure due to dirt, grime and continuous use. Moving parts do have a time of failure and it can happen when you least expect it. The motorized gears can also get damaged due to force or pressure, so be very careful when using pop-up cameras. They can also be slower since it involves moving parts, so don’t expect to take instant selfies all the time. What can be worse is if they suddenly stop working due to glitches or mechanical failures and that can be really frustrating. I don’t see mechanical pop-up or slider cameras as the future. Perhaps slider mechanisms will be more durable for more affordable smartphones that want to prioritize a full screen display. Who knows, if these cameras prove durable and reliable, they will have a longer life in the market.

I am more excited about under-screen cameras like what Xiaomi and Oppo are planning to release. The potential for full bezeless displays are likely without the need to incorporate additional mechanical parts and electronics. Now despite this positive outlook, for battery life I don’t think you can save more power since these systems will have to draw power from the battery in order to operate. Mechanical parts require the most power draw of course, while the under-screen cameras may also draw considerable power from the battery due to its components.

Overall, we do need designs like these. We can’t have the notch forever because there are better things out there and more to come. Smartphone vendors are delivering us full screens without the notch to maximize the screen and this has great potential for games and video as well as AR/VR applications.

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Vincent Tabora

Vincent Tabora

Editor HD-PRO, DevOps Trusterras (Cybersecurity, Blockchain, Software Development, Engineering, Photography, Technology)