There’s still a lot of fascination over the iPhone X’s “notch,” the little piece of bezel hanging down from the top of the display housing the camera, microphone, and facial recognition system. There shouldn’t be.
The latest round of chatter came when a spate of Android phone makers announced devices at Mobile World Congress that incorporate the notch. A new LG phone is rumored to do the same, as is the upcoming OnePlus 6.
The dominant opinion is that those companies copied Apple’s notch. But it’s not that simple and it’s not that interesting. The truth is that the advent of edge-to-edge OLED displays on smartphones made the notch inevitable.
To support both an edge-to-edge display and provide a place for the front-facing camera and other components, phone designers have two main choices. They can leave a stripe of bezel across the top of the phone, or they can carve space out of the screen–the section in the middle, the notch.
The advantage of the full stripe is a cleaner look. The downside is the wasted bezel space and the loss of display space.
The advantage of the notch is the ability to preserve the display space on either side of it (aka the “ears”). “With a notch, manufacturers can claim a larger diagonal display size as Apple does,” points out Moor Insights & Strategy analyst Patrick Moorhead. The downside of the notch is that it’s an interruption of the clean line at the top of the interface, something that probably made Apple designers cringe.
To say those Android phone makers “copied” the notch from Apple doesn’t ring true. (As far as I know Apple owns no patent on the design element, although I’ve asked Apple to confirm that.) They simply found themselves in the same obvious design predicament as Apple, and opted for a similar solution. And Essential shipped a phone with a notch–albeit a small one–before the iPhone X arrived.
“Given there are only two ways to accomplish edge to edge display, the criticism seems unfair,” Moorhead says. “It’s ironic you don’t hear Apple fans criticizing Apple for coming late with edge to edge display, given Samsung had begun the process years earlier with the Galaxy Edge +.”
You could say, however, that Apple made the world safe for the notch. “Apple couldn’t hide the notch this time out, so it embraced it,” IDC analyst Tom Mainelli told me. “And that gives the rest of the market cover to do the same, as Apple design is held in high regard, even by the competition.”
“It’s similar but slightly different to the industry’s response to Apple removing the headphone jack,” Mainelli adds. “The ones who hadn’t yet done the same mocked the decision, and then followed suit a year later.”
Why Apple Notched
The notch was less an innovation than a necessity, a source with knowledge tells me. Had Apple had a choice it probably would have hidden the componentry now housed by the notch underneath the display glass. But the technology just wasn’t ready yet when Apple was readying the iPhone X.
Because Apple was committed to an edge-to-edge display, its engineers tried for months to hide a new type of Touch ID fingerprint sensor underneath the display of the X. But the approach ultimately didn’t work reliably, so Apple took a different tack, deciding last summer to replace Touch ID with a new facial recognition system–Face ID–for authentication. And the lasers and sensors for that system, it knew, would have to reside somewhere on the front of the phone. That somewhere would be the notch.
Had Apple been successful putting Touch ID under the display, there may have been no notch at all. Apple engineers may have been able to squeeze the conventional front-facing camera along the top or elsewhere on the device. We’ll never know for sure.
But the vision for future iPhones is very likely an uninterrupted black bar of a phone with all display on its front. No interrupted lines. No notches.
“In all things design, you have to make trade-offs,” Mainelli says. “I imagine internally they can’t wait to ditch the notch.” Apple has been awarded a patent for hiding elements behind a touchscreen which could eventually help it do just that.
Meanwhile, I won’t say that the Android phones trotted out at MWC didn’t copy any design elements from the iPhone X. But I disagree strongly with the idea that these phone makers tried to soak up some of Apple’s mojo by including a notch in their design.
People won’t buy a smartphone because of its notch. What they really want is an edge-to-edge display, and right now the notch design is the best way to get something close to that.