Featured Stories

Your Next Phone May Have a Hole in the Screen

Here’s how the new smartphone tech works

Owen Williams
Feb 6 · 5 min read

Every year, some new smartphone trend rolls around that spawns an army of copycats. Displays that stretched to the edges of a device but still had giant notches defined 2017. Glass-backed phones, wireless charging (sort of), and even more notches landed in 2018.

Now, in 2019, we’re getting a hole.

The “hole-punch” selfie camera has started appearing on a bunch of phones. It’s an alternative to the iconic notch Apple introduced with the iPhone X. Instead of that chunk taken out of the top of the display, these new devices feature a smaller, more elegant circular cutout off to the side.

Honor just introduced the market to the first of these new phones, the View20. Samsung, Huawei, and a number of other manufacturers are planning their own. Leaked images of the Galaxy S10 indicate that its own camera hole-punch will be heavily touted when it launches, with a dedicated (and slightly hilarious) Infinity-O brand to mark the new feature.

Not only does that hole-punch camera look more aesthetically pleasing than a big notch, but it’s more functional, too. It allows for extra screen real estate, delivering a more seamless display.

Google’s Pixel 3 XL included a notch design but didn’t use it to offer much in terms of exclusive features.

While many Android phones cloned the iPhone notch in 2018, most of them weren’t really functional. Instead, it was mostly just marketing spin: manufacturers were racing to make their displays look futuristic without stuffing anything like Apple’s face-unlocking technology into their cutouts.

In the end, the notch was a relatively useless design trend for Android phones, and consumers were left wanting. The hole-punch camera seems to be a better answer. Here’s a new idea that looks genuinely futuristic and hasn’t been pulled off by Apple yet. It’s an admission that Face ID is difficult to clone — a hole-punch won’t include all the fancy sensors required for the most secure facial recognition — but consumers probably don’t care that much, anyway. There’s always a fingerprint sensor, after all.

Though they may not have Face ID gadgetry, hole-punch screens are much more technically challenging to engineer than a notched display because the hole introduces a number of problems. A hole away from the edge of the display, like we’ve seen on the recently-announced Honor smartphone, could suffer from light-leaking or be easier to damage. Notches are connected to the device’s bezel, making them easier to manufacture without significant problems caused by being smack-dab in the middle of the screen.

A phone screen is made up of multiple layers, and all of them need to be modified to accommodate the hole-punch camera’s hardware. This includes the digitizer (aka the touch sensor), the display panel itself, glass substrates, bonding techniques, and much more that would need to accommodate a circular hole rather than a continuous surface.

The big question: Will Apple build an iPhone with a cutout display?

Some manufacturers have literally drilled the hole through the display, sandwiching the glass on top at the end. But Huawei, Honor, and others are using photolithography drilling — lasers, essentially — to make space for the camera lens. By doing this, Honor has said the camera is able to get enough light to function without leaking any into the camera and affecting its quality.

The result speaks for itself: The camera blends in much better than any of the notch spinoffs, and the screen-to-body ratio becomes much higher as a result. It looks great and doesn’t just seem like another iPhone knockoff.

The Honor View20

At this point, you might be wondering why it isn’t possible to fully integrate the camera into the display itself, hiding it away entirely and only dimming the pixels in front of its lens when required. It’s not impossible to pull off, but it’s incredibly unlikely in the short term. Embedding a camera within a display while pixels are able to be displayed on top is an incredible technical challenge.

Not only would display technology need to be re-imagined, but cameras would, too. Displays require a backplane — essentially a circuit board glued to the pixel layer itself that both powers and drives the pixel through direct contact. To embed the camera below that would mean abstracting that away along with finding new ways to drive the pixel, power it, and make it transparent only when desired. The cutout is a simpler, cheaper solution that should last for years to come, even if early patents indicate it is theoretically possible to engineer a seamless screen with a camera built in.

This may be the first time an Android-first trend defines a market on its own.

If you’re not a fan of the notch, you’re in luck, because camera-cutout technology will soon be everywhere. Samsung and LG make almost all of the displays found in phones regardless of the manufacturer (including in the iPhone), and this technology will eventually be available to everyone from Huawei to Apple, should they like to use it.

The big question: Will Apple build an iPhone with a cutout display? History has shown that smartphone trends are driven by Apple, but in this case, it’s hard to imagine. Not only does the flagship Face ID sensor that’s embedded within the notch require a ton of space, but it has a sensor array that would require more than simply a circle to function. So Apple is likely to sit this trend out, despite what sketchy rumors have suggested, in favor of investing in entirely embedded cameras, however long they may take to develop.

This may be the first time an Android-first trend defines a market on its own. Instead of cloning the iPhone notch, manufacturers are building something new and weird: a way to hide away the camera while still extending the body toward the edge, not disrupting the overall shape of the display.

Notches were a trend manufactured out of a need for the smartphone industry to find something “innovative” to drive sales, which are in a slump, relatively speaking. While it worked for a while, they’re clearly not the solution to any real problems for consumers. For Apple, they were a compromise to create Face ID; for Android makers, they were a gimmick.

Hole-punch cameras are about to be everywhere, and this time, it might be Apple left behind, wondering where the industry went without it.

Owen Williams

Written by

I’m a developer that accidentally fell in love with words. I have a Medium column about future tech and the ways it impacts our lives. More: https://char.gd