The smartphone notch has been the cause of a lot of debate for nearly two years. Some love the notch, others hate it. Regardless, it’s a design trend that has caught on among smartphone manufacturers and consumers around the world.
In this article, we’ll explain why smartphone notches have become so widespread, and why they’re likely to disappear from phones soon.
Pictured above are three devices. The original iPhone from 2007, the iPhone 6S from 2015, and the iPhone X from 2017. While the iPhone 6S was released much closer to the iPhone X, its look has more in common with the original iPhone because of the top and bottom bezels.
The bezel is the width of the area around the screen. This is normally measured in terms of screen-to-body ratio, which is the amount of space the screen occupies in comparison to the rest of a device. The higher the ratio, the smaller the bezels.
The original iPhone had a screen-to-body ratio of 52%, while the iPhone 6S had a screen-to-body ratio of 64%. By comparison, the iPhone XS Max has a screen-to-body ratio of 85%. Thin bezels allow manufacturers to fit larger screens into a smaller body. They’ve become an indicator for what we expect modern displays to look like.
Some manufacturers have taken it a step even further than Apple. Since the Galaxy S6, Samsung’s flagships have had versions with curved edges, removing the side bezels entirely.
It’s not just phones, either. For nearly all devices with screens, thinner bezels have been a signifier of technological advancement. Television screens have thinner bezels so they don’t interrupt the viewing experience. Laptops have thinner bezels so they can fit larger screens into a more compact frame.
The Birth of the Smartphone Notch
The iPhone X’s big improvement in its screen-to-body ratio is because of two things: the removal of the home button and the addition of a notch. The reason why Apple implemented the notch was because of their radical advancement in facial recognition technology.
This notch allowed them to make a screen that occupied the phone from top to bottom, while still keeping the IR dot projector that powered Face ID.
However, contrary to popular belief, Apple wasn’t the first phone manufacturer to introduce the notch. It was the Essential Phone PH-1, a smartphone designed by one of the co-founders of Android. Released in August of 2017, the notch of the Essential Phone was different from most implementations we see now.
Instead of a large rectangular bar like the iPhone X, it had a small semi-circle cutout at the top which had the selfie camera. Even though the bottom bezel was still large, the tiny notch allowed it to maintain an 85% screen-to-body ratio. This was enough to beat the iPhone X’s 82%, which was released 2 months later.
The Smartphone Notch Goes Mainstream
The iPhone X’s notch had a major influence on device designers. Nearly every single smartphone manufacturer jumped onto the notch train in the year that followed. Notches soon became the central design aspect of a modern, stylish phone.
The flagships of some of the largest manufacturers on the market—Huawei, Xiaomi, Oppo, and Google—all had notches of some sort. Samsung was the sole holdout, with the S9 and Note 9 both having thin bezels and no notch.
Not every notch was created equal. In an effort to set themselves apart from the iPhone and its large notch, companies have explored different ways of implementing the design.
The OnePlus 6T had a teardrop-shaped notch, which smoothly sloped under its single front-facing camera. The Huawei Mate 20 Pro had a shorter, longer notch that housed a wide array of sensors. While the Google Pixel 3 had a large, curved box for a notch.
These devices also had options to turn off the notch entirely, with nothing but the time and notifications at the top bar.
This design philosophy quickly trickled down into the budget and mid-range category. Android added native support for notches succeeding software versions. Popular phones with middling specifications, such as Xiaomi’s Pocophone F1 and the Nokia 7, featured notches as well.
Disappearing Smartphone Notches
However, just as more people are beginning to have phones with notches on them, companies are already trying to get rid of it. Most designers and tech journalists believe that the notch is just a stepping stone to the real dream: a display that has no intrusions at all. The goal for almost all manufacturers is to figure out a way to get rid of cameras and sensors from the front of the device.
Some phones are already on their way there. One of the first implementations of this came in the form of pop-up cameras. Devices like the Oppo Find X and the Vivo Nex hid their front-facing cameras with an electrical mechanism. Whenever the front-facing camera is turned on, the mechanism pops up instantaneously.
Other devices, like the Xiaomi Mi Mix 3, use a sliding mechanism similar to feature phones of the past. You can push the body of the phone to reveal the front-facing camera and slide it back down during normal use. Both of these solutions are intuitive but may have reliability issues.
One of the craziest implementations comes from the Chinese smartphone manufacturer Nubia X. Their solution was to place a second screen at the back of the phone. This means that if you want to take a selfie, you turn around your phone and use the rear cameras to snap a photo of yourself.
The Future of All-Screen Smartphones
This brings us to Samsung. They have previously said that they would never add a notch to the Galaxy series. With their 2019 flagship, the Galaxy S10, they opted to use an Infinity-O display to reduce the bezels. This is commonly referred to by commentators as a hole-punch.
They have precisely cut out a portion of their AMOLED screen to accommodate the front-facing camera. This means either a circular or pill-shaped hole at the top right of your phone. With this look, the Galaxy S10 has a screen-to-body ratio of around 89%. Whether or not this implementation catches on remains to be seen.
One thing that manufacturers are working on is possibly putting the camera underneath the screen. Samsung, Huawei, and OnePlus all have fingerprint sensors directly on the screen, so there are ways to hide physical features entirely under the display.
In a small event held in late 2018, Samsung discussed a couple of features that are in development. This presentation included implementations of camera sensors, stereo speakers, and haptic motors under the display. We may see the elusive all-screen phone very soon.
Learn More About the Future of Smartphones
Considering everything that’s happening, notches will likely vanish form flagships at some point. For now, though, the big chunk of the phones you see will probably still have a notch.
For now, if you’re interested in getting a flagship phone without a notch, the Samsung Galaxy S10 is a good bet. Here are the things you should know about the Galaxy S10.