This is a rant about modern smartphone design. I’ve had a few ideas in my head for some time, since MWC 2018 in fact, but never bothered to write them down as it was only focused on this notch thing that keeps on spreading. However, recently my sister’s phone died – thanks for the boot loop issues LG (it was my Nexus 5X that I passed on to her) – and so I helped her searching for a suitable replacement.
Although there are plenty smartphone makers out there, our go-to list wasn’t very long. For one, we had ruled out LG from the start. It seems that the Nexus 5X wasn’t the only one with recurring hardware defects. The next ones that didn’t make it to the list were basically all Chinese manufacturers like Huawei, Honor, ZTE or Xiaomi. I understand that they make very good handsets, especially Huawei has upped their game, but I do have my doubts regarding software updates. The last time I had read about the Android update situation sometime last year, these companies didn’t have the best track record (I don’t have the link to the website anymore, sorry). In fact, just throwing it out there, some Android phone manufacturers even lie about the patch level of their firmware.
So that left us with Samsung, HTC, Sony, Nokia and Google’s Pixel phones in the Android world and, of course, the iOS counterpart from Apple, the iPhones. As probably the biggest handset maker in the world, we’ve had a very close look at the current lineup from Samsung. HTC and Sony were actually just an afterthought and never really considered. The Pixel phones fell through because of their price and what you get for it. Although the package is nice and software updates are guaranteed (for only three years, though), I feel that the hardware is still too flawed for the money you pay. Just look at all the reports regarding the Pixel 2XL. I’d rather recommend an iPhone for that price.
But this was supposed to be about design and now that you know where this comes from, I can get to the point. We went to a local electronics dealer and walked through the rows of tables full of smartphones and looked very closely – with a hypercritical attitude. A lot of money was about to change owners, so we wanted to be sure she buys the right thing. So, hypercritical it was.
The first thing we noticed was the form factor. Almost all modern high-end phones now come with a very tall display. My sister and I are still used to 16:9 and we both think it’s aesthetic. To be honest, on my Windows desktop, I resize smaller application windows like the Explorer to about the same ratio only because it’s pleasant too look at. I don’t make them wider only so I can see a bit more information unless absolutely necessary. It just looks awful. And that’s how my sister felt about those large phones. They look like someone slapped a regular variant on a rack in a torture chamber and pulled until it hurt and then a bit further. I wasn’t as appalled, but it looked and felt odd. It’s a totally stupid decision, but that ruled out a lot of phones. Looks are important and that just looked weird.
Past the point of weird is Samsung’s curved design. Since the Galaxy S6 Edge, I believe, Samsung curves their displays around the left and right edges and since the S8 it’s available on all models, not just the taller ones. On this topic our verdict is unanimous. It’s a terrible design. Until this point I had believed Samsung has done a lot of things right in the Galaxy S9 series, from a hardware perspective. Now that I’ve seen one in person I’m not so sure about that any more. I could get used to the tall display, but not the curves. It looks cool when a person next to you on the train or bus or just waiting in a line pulls out such a phone and starts using it. It’s a nice “oh cool” effect. But I think it’s distracting and even impractical in some conditions.
From what we’ve noticed, and which was to be expected come to think about it, UI elements bend a tiny bit around the edges. As a result, you see them at a different angle. And if this wasn’t enough to distract you, because of the angle and the way display technology works, you’ll notice a shift in colors. This doesn’t just feel odd, this is wrong. On top of that, depending on the lighting condition, e.g. that crazy concept of sunlight outdoors, the edges will create a reflection and therefore obscure the content beneath them. Look at this screenshot I took from a YouTube video.
Do you see the reflection on the left side? It makes the text harder to read. It’s a terrible design. When sunlight hits your monitor, you lower the blinds so that doesn’t happen anymore. Why? Because it affects visibility on the screen. As a result, all modern Samsung high-end phones immediately became very uninteresting.
It’s unfortunate because otherwise the S9 hardware is pretty great. Instead of forcefully trying to fill the screen from top to bottom, Samsung decided to reserve some space for hardware features like the camera and earpiece without cutting into the screen. There’s a headphone jack, an SD card reader and the phone looks nice (apart from being tall). But those edges…
Which leads us to the top trend of the past months, the notch. Apple introduced it with the iPhone X and now everybody is copying it – for better or for worse. Actually, for worse. Oh wait! The Essential Phone started this trend, only nobody cared until Apple made it popular.
But let’s slow down. Before we get into that I must talk about the iPhone first, because we’ve looked at them a long time, even considered them as the only option for a while.
The device of choice was the Product Red edition but seeing it in person was disappointing. The pictures on Apple’s website look so amazing, showing a stunning red. In person it’s way too dark in comparison. It’s still the best color option in my mind, not to mention the good cause behind the Product Red initiative. The actual device pales in comparison to the advertising though. Unfortunately. I even think combining the red with a black front makes it worse. I don’t like white phones, but last year’s iPhone 7 Product Red edition looked much better because of the white-red contrast.
Moving on to the iPhone X and its… glossy frame. You expected notch, didn’t you? Patience young padawan.
We expect Apple to be meticulous about their design and on first glance we believed to have found a gaping flaw. In the show room it looked like the rounded edges of the display didn’t exactly match the curves of the device. It seemed as if on the sides the black borders were wider than on the top and the bottom and in the curves. After a short moment of disappointment, it occurred to me that this was because of the ugly reflections of the glass at the edge of the phone and the stupid glossy frame itself (which is ugly btw). After I had shielded the device from all the light and the reflections had vanished into shadows that would have made Batman happy, we could see that everything is as symmetrical as it is supposed to be. Still, that first impression, it gave me pause. It’s not as bad as Samsung’s curved displays that affect the visibility of what you are looking at on the screen. It makes me wonder though, why Apple went with slightly curved glass towards the edges. It looks shiny, sure, but it also results in (unwanted?) optical illusions. My Galaxy S7 offers the same effect, but it has a clearly rectangular 16:9 screen. Small reflections on that phone do not distract your vision into believing something else. Just saying.
So, 1300 words into the blog post (the crazy price of a spec’d out iPhone X) I’m now coming to the notch portion of the discussion. Let’s stay with Apple. The iPhone X is what sparked this trend in the industry, although Apple wasn’t the first company to do this. The notch conjures up mixed feelings and I’d prefer a phone without it. That being said, I think Apple’s implementation is the best one yet. For now. I’m sure someone will figure out a better approach soon.
You know what, let me go crazy for a moment. For all those people like me that only accidentally use the front facing camera because they’ve tapped the wrong icon in the camera app – read: they don’t need it at all – it could simply be removed. That frees up a lot of space on the front and also inside of the device (maybe enough for a headphone jack?). All I need on the front of my phone is an earpiece and an ambient light sensor. To go all out on symmetry, I’d even turn the earpiece into a speaker and add another one on the bottom of the phone. Look at my paint skills.
The image is based on a Galaxy S7 with the screen part being a bit wider and taller while roughly preserving the 16:9 aspect ratio. The body width and height are unchanged and still match the original. I’ve only reduced the top and bottom to the bare minimum with speaker grilles and the additional ambient sensor at the top. One could even add a notification LED at the bottom to match the sensor on top with regards to symmetry. A good designer will probably make the corners a bit more pleasing and even match the screen’s. But I don’t mind a rectangular screen, so that’s just a minor design detail. However, first impression 😉
Having the display this wide requires the sides of the phone to not be rounded, otherwise there’d be those ugly reflections as seen on the S8 and S9. In that case I would prefer a slightly wider bezel like on the iPhone X. I think what Apple did there is good enough for the rounded edges to not intrude on what’s shown on the screen. However, my design idea is a bit more aggressive in keeping the bezels small. Making the front flat from left to right and top to bottom isn’t a bad thing though. All these rounded sides, edges and frames result in very slippery phones. I don’t dare to take my phone out for photos without a case. I’m too afraid it’ll just slip out of my hand. The iPhone SE is unbeaten in that regard. The flat frame offers so much stability, and it is pretty too. And since it is a small phone, it doesn’t matter with regards to comfort. This, I think, is only an issue with big phones because they reserve so much more space in your hand.
But back to the notch and why it’s there: to make room for some of the front facing hardware. Apple needs more of that because they don’t like to put a fingerprint sensor on the back, maybe in the conveniently placed Apple logo where it would basically disappear from view, hiding in plain sight. But they believe (or so they let the world think) that a fingerprint sensor is worse than face recognition. Instead, they give up the option to almost completely cover the front of their phones with a screen. I haven’t used one for longer than in the show room, but I don’t think I would care that much. The overall integration in the phone is so nicely executed that this may become something you simply ignore over time.
So, it shouldn’t be a problem when manufacturers of Android phones include this design element into their phones, right? Well… Let’s look at a few pictures.
What do we see in all of them? Chins of various sizes. The most egregious one being the Sharp phone. For several reasons. First, the notch could have been even smaller if the camera had been placed further up. It cuts too deep into the display. Simple as that. Secondly, the home button looks so cramped and stuffed to the very bottom that I feel its discomfort. And why? Because they had to put their damn company logo down there as well! If this is the reason why we must suffer cutouts in screens, then I strongly object.
The best one of those examples is the second phone, the ASUS Zen Phone Something. I get the feeling everybody is afraid of litigations initiated by Apple over design (remember Apple vs Samsung?) and that’s why no company seems to dare to have a uniform bezel all around the phone. Take the first example. There’s almost no bezel at the top and the sides. It’s even less than on the iPhone X. But why leave that much space on the bottom? I don’t object to the notch if it’s for the right reason. This, too me, isn’t it.
An interesting idea comes from Xiaomi, a company we didn’t even consider in our selection. Instead of adding a notch on the top, they moved the camera and sensors to the bottom. That’ll create an odd viewing angle for selfies and video calls, but it also keeps the screen intact. It’s a pretty phone. I’m not a fan of asymmetric design, say hello to OCD, but it’s certainly an option to go with. Again, remove the front camera and maybe this approach can be used to bring my earlier idea to perfection. A rounded rectangle with a screen from top to bottom, left to right. I don’t even need stereo speakers. All I listen to on my phone is podcasts.
To be honest, I don’t even need a bezel less phone. I think the iPhone 8 is a beautiful device. It has a nice formfactor and a pleasant aspect ratio. It even gets regular software updates for several years. No, I wouldn’t mind a larger screen in this smaller device. I also wouldn’t mind if the screen stays the same and only the device shrinks. That would even be better. I just don’t want any unnecessary compromises that cut into the screen while there is still enough space all around or other valid and proven options are available (like the fingerprint sensor on the back of the phone).
Face ID has a similar problem like a fingerprint sensor on the back when the phone is lying on a table. You must pick it up to some extent to unlock it. This is the only real benefit of a home button on the front with integrated fingerprint recognition. Otherwise I found the fingerprint reader on the back of the Nexus 5X to be very convenient. It didn’t even need to be pressed – because it wasn’t a button. Just put the finger on it and it unlocks. Very, very quickly. Much faster and much more reliable than my Galaxy S7. It doesn’t work with gloves though, so Face ID has that going for it.
Unfortunately, market trends aren’t always what customers want. But that’s the beauty of the Android world since there is so much variety to choose from. If there weren’t this elephant in the room with the words “Update” and “Long term support” written on its sides. So, we’re stuck with Apple’s high priced “Think different” courage arrogance or a lot of options with poor software maintenance.