Love it or hate it, the display notch was a short-lived trend that Android will take down sooner than Apple

It won’t be long until smartphone users will look down on an iPhone and manufacturers will stop following the trends popularised by the brand.

Back at the Mobile World Congress this year, we witnessed a flurry of Android smartphones announced, all of which appeared to ape Apple’s full-screen iPhone X. And in that full-screen pursuit, we saw many Android smartphone manufacturers ‘bend the knee’ (to quote from Game of Thrones) and hail Apple as their one true king.

The notch on the iPhone X. Image: tech2/ Rehan Hooda

The notch on the iPhone X. Image: tech2/ Rehan Hooda

Some manufacturers like Asus and Huawei openly claimed at their respective announcements that their designs were inspired by the “fruit company”.

The result of this pursuit was not to launch smartphones with a display notch, but to basically expand the area of the display to make their products look as good as the iPhone. Few like OnePlus came close to success, while most of them failed.

Apple had to use a display notch, to accommodate a new authentication system and did so practically because it wanted to deliver a front face free of bezels.

Android copycats simply registered the notch in mind and completely forgot about the rest, which is why we have a number of notch-happy smartphones manufactured by Huawei, OnePlus, Vivo, Oppo and more recently, Xiaomi who have a notch up top, but also a noticeable chin at the base, defeating the purpose of having a bezel-free display.

Apple iPhone X OLED display bends below the bottom edge, removing the need to sport a chin at the bottom end.

Apple iPhone X OLED display bends below the bottom edge, removing the need to sport a chin at the bottom end.

They forgot that Apple simply wanted to provide more display real estate on the front and had to do so, in a footprint of a smartphone that would fit in regular-sized hands. Apple pulled off the edge-to-edge display in the most graceful way possible, by folding the flexible OLED display under the display itself at the bottom, so that connectors can continue from there instead of the usual way, where the connectors ended at the bottom resulting in a chin like any other regular smartphone.

Obviously this also meant wasting the folded part of the display, but the result was beautiful and it seemed almost perfect, save for the notch at the top, which given today’s technology still has to be in place because of the all-important selfie camera (yeah, you could blame the ‘selfie’ for being a roadblock in the smartphone’s design evolution).

Huawei P20 Pro comes with a 6.1-inch AMOLED display with a notch up top. Image: tech2/Rehan Hooda

Display notch+software navigation bar+Chin= bezel-less nonsense. Image: tech2/Rehan Hooda

It was also expensive, which is why many Android manufacturers now adopt both the notch at the top along with the chin at the bottom (for the display connectors), which is also why they don’t make much sense.

Today we have every new Android smartphone looking like an iPhone X wannabe, from budget to mid-range and the premium segment launching with a display notch (which is like the iPhone) and a chin at the bottom (unlike the iPhone X) and the virtual navigation bar sitting right above it (again unlike the iPhone X).

Yeah! When you check out the space that the notch, the virtual navigation buttons and the bottom chin take up, you will see why the notch on Android smartphones make little sense, but more on this later.

Smartphone identity

So in mid-2018, there are just three smartphone manufacturers that have their own identity when it comes to smartphones: Apple, its arch-rival Samsung and the survivor that we all call Sony.

Apple has the display notch as its identity, Samsung has its Infinity Display with curved edges and Sony has thick bezels that are now accompanied by a curved back (we get fresh new designs from them year on year though).

The old design still looks good enough for 2018. Image: Tech2/Rehan Hooda

This is Samsung's identity. Image: Tech2/Rehan Hooda

The smartphone manufacturer who started the trend, however, has yet to see its smartphones being shipped worldwide. The massive notch at the top of the Essential Phone’s display started the trend, but now that I look at it, it honestly does not make much sense when I notice that massive black chin below the display.

While the edge-to-edge display with the notch has worked wonders for the iPhone design (and sales), it software approach to the notch still seems lacking. So yes, all is not lost to the notch and Android has not lost to Apple just yet!

Not a tough choice to make

The iPhone 8, iPhone X and the iPhone 8 Plus seen side-by-side. Image: tech2/Rehan Hooda

Look Ma! No bezels! Image: tech2/Rehan Hooda

Apple iPhone users have no choice but to accept the notch because that’s the way forward for Apple to its all screen dream.

After years of being bonded to thick bezels above and below the display, it’s no wonder that every iPhone user out there craves for an iPhone X. It’s got no bezels! Which is why it made perfect sense for every full-blooded iPhone fan to buy one even if they have to sell both kidneys.

Add to that a new gesture-based navigation system without the need to press down on a Home button and it made perfect sense. Face ID may not have been on everyone’s list, but its super convenient to register and Apple claims it’s secure.

There you go! I just sold you an iPhone X in 5 sentences.

The notch is more Android-friendly than you think

Truth be told, Apple simply steered clear of the UI problems because it had to make the notch user-friendly.

It asked developers to steer clear of the notch, so everything apart from video or photos would clearly avoid using or adapting to it.

The results are good enough for every iPhone user out there but it will come to bite Apple in the near future. This is because Apple simply replaced its hardware bezels with software ones to fill up the gaps created by its edge-to-edge display.

Fire up an app, and it’s easy to see how much of that screen real estate (that Apple has convinced you to pay for) is actually used by the interface. Your text and content remain in centre with massive chunks of empty space at the top and the bottom (basically virtual bezels).

The only time when you want to appreciate that edge-to-edge display is also the time iPhone users will actually notice that notch because Apple encourages developers to include the notch when viewing video content and photos, which is the only time the entire display is being used. So much for “courage”.

On Android, manufacturers have found a workaround to the display notch and their makeshift full-screen displays. Huawei and OnePlus, for example, have the ability to hide the notch when viewing video content. This ensures that you get the complete picture (which is produced in 16:9 ratio to begin with) on a 19:9 ratio display.

The notch when adapted well works beautifully like on the OnePlus 6. The notch ends where the status bar ends and the content sits below it, giving every pixel of the app its well-deserved space on the screen. In short, there’s no waste of space if done right. Google too, will soon be adding official support for display notches (of all sizes) with Android P…whenever it arrives. It almost seems like the pace of Android hardware innovation is more than often slowed down by Google because it’s always late to the party.

Nobody likes the notch

Human beings tend to like symmetrical designs, so it’s unlikely that any of us like the notch. But its popularity is growing and Chinese smartphone makers are including one in every new release is a clear-cut indicator of our strange affair with display notches.

I would always ask someone who claims to love the notch whether they would buy a TV with a display notch? The quick answer without any hesitation is “No”.

And the disease is spreading to other gadgets as well. Need a bezel less display on a laptop? Well, Huawei tried something new with its MateBook and included a web cam inside one of the keys on the keyboard. The results were not too great with the camera looking at your crotch when placed on your lap or inside your nose when placed on a work desk.

This is the first laptop with a pop-up webcam

The Huawei MateBook is the first laptop with a pop-up webcam and hopefully the last.

Similar workarounds are in progress in the smartphone world as well. Vivo finally launched a production variant of its concept smartphone called the Vivo Nex. It does away with the whole “selfie problem” by placing a pop-up camera at the top side of the device. And this is just the beginning of our fight against the display notch or as I would call it, our pursuit for an all-screen display.

May be Apple’s working on its first MacBook with a display notch as I write this article. While I’d rather have Apple work on its problematic MacBook Pro keyboard instead, only Apple can afford to pull off and sell such radical designs that fans will buy.

Our path to notch-less goodness

We first had tiny displays in heavy smartphones, then we had bigger displays in heavier smartphones, today we have bigger displays in smaller smartphones with greater processing power and close to DSLR like portrait image quality (Pixel 2), which is all a sign of progress.

And just like the 3.5 mm headphone jack, those thick bezels, the notch too will soon be a thing of the past as the dream of an all-screen smartphone lives on.

In fact, the notch is one of shortest smartphone trends we have seen, with it barely surfacing for about 6 months and Chinese smartphone makers like Vivo already killing it. If someone manages to pull it off successfully, it could indeed mark the beginning of a new trend where manufacturers look up to notch-less displays and the iPhone X, (iPhone X Plus and whatever new notched device that Apple throws at us this year) become smartphones of the past.

The Vivo Nex

The Vivo Nex

Times are changing and if Samsung has finally found its own following and identity (after designing disasters like the Galaxy S5), there’s nothing stopping anybody else to find their own (just like Vivo did).

It won’t be long until smartphone users will look down on an iPhone and manufacturers will stop following the trends popularised by the brand. Android camera phones have already moved ahead of the iPhone. If you take a look at its rankings, the iPhone X (the best that Apple has on offer) sits at number 7 with a sizeable number of Android smartphones above it performing a lot better according to DxO Mark Mobile.

DxOMark Mobile rankings as of June 2018.

DxOMark Mobile rankings as of June 2018.

There are now under-display fingerprint readers available in Android devices and even though they are not perfect, everyone knows that it is the next big hardware feature.

So yes, Android smartphones manufacturers or should I say, smartphone manufacturers apart from Apple are ahead of the fruit company in terms of hardware in some aspects. Of course, most of them will still be aping what Apple does. But it's good to see some of them breaking away from the mould and trying out new radical designs. Whether it will work or not, is something only time will tell. But considering the iPhone X design refresh came after four generations of iterating on the same design language from iPhone 6 to iPhone 8, Android has certainly seen a lot many experiments.

Essential started the trend of the display notch and Apple popularised it. But if the Vivo NEX's bezel-less bet works, there's nothing stopping Android smartphone makers from killing the notch trend. Some Android manufacturers have started creating waves and stopped riding on them.

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