Gizmos

Get Over the Notch

Smartphone critics are way too worked up over an awkward, transitional handset feature.

Arrows surround a smartphone’s notch.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

Ever since Apple debuted the iPhone X, notches have been the bête noire of our ever-cooler, ever-bigger smartphones. Apple wasn’t the first to introduce the feature, which cuts into a phone’s edge-to-edge display in order to hold a camera. (Former Android chief Andy Rubin’s company Essential has the dubious honor of selling the first notched phone.) According to Fast Company, the notch was inevitable as smartphone makers moved from LED displays to full-screen OLED models. Phone makers were faced with a choice: They could keep intact the bezel at the top edge of a phone, where the front-facing camera and other sensors lie, or carve some of it away so the screen could stretch all the way from one corner of a device to another—with the exception of a somewhat unsightly notch jutting downward into the display.

At an event on Oct. 9, interestingly, Google showed it’s taking both stances. The new Pixel 3 features a typical squared-off display with a bezel along the top, while the larger Pixel 3 XL sports a large notch. Both devices feature the same dual front-facing camera system, which includes a wide-angle camera for group selfies. The notched Pixel 3 XL doesn’t feature any additional sensors—like ones for facial recognition, which the iPhone XS and XS Max have—and some critics feel that because of this, Google hasn’t justified its use of the notch in the Pixel 3 XL—the implicit argument being that if you’re going to intrude on an edge-to-edge display, it better be worth it.

According to Google itself, the Pixel 3 XL features a notch in order to provide a superior camera and audio experience. “Pixel 3 also has a smaller border & front-firing speakers to provide optimum sound quality,” the company tweeted, a response to a consumer asking whether users would be able to customize the size of the notch on their handsets. Google went on: “Our notch-to-display ratio is actually less than many top competitors.” But according to the Verge’s Nick Statt, this isn’t reason enough to justify the Pixel 3 XL having a notch while the smaller Pixel doesn’t—especially when it’s such a large one. “The substantial benefits you get from buying a phone with a notch in this case are the improved speakers and the wide-angle selfie cam,” he wrote. “There’s no facial recognition, no Animoji-like selfie tricks, and no camera features exclusive to the larger version of the phone.”

I get the argument: Why bother with that beautiful screen just to ruin it with a notch and no cool features? But it misunderstands the notch’s purpose. It’s not there because hardware makers are trying to pack in fancy front-facing camera features or depth sensors. It only exists because it’s an awkward, transitional byproduct of phone makers wanting to stretch screen real estate on pixel-packed OLED displays. While it might be nice if that notch does act as more than just a simple design element, to say that a phone hasn’t earned the right to a notch is a rather entitled way to view the feature.

Consider that several notched phones that debuted both before the iPhone X and after it have included a notch without facial recognition or even extra camera features. The Essential Phone only had a tiny notch, just enough to encircle the camera at the top of the device. The LG G7, meanwhile, has a wider notch that symmetrically encompasses its front-facing camera and a front-firing speaker. Huawei’s P20 and P20 Pro, which do include face-unlocking features, also allow you to nix the notch in the devices’ settings—so just because a phone includes facial recognition doesn’t mean it has to have a notch.

Notches may not be the most attractive phone trend of recent years, but they’re a design trend nonetheless. Eventually it should pass: Smartphone makers such as Samsung are already working on how to embed a camera and other sensors behind a phone’s display, eliminating the need for either a bezel or a notch. That development could still be years away, however. In the meantime, if a phone maker decides to sell a notched phone, it means you’ll get a little bit more screen real estate for your money. You probably won’t even notice the notch once you’ve used the phone for a few weeks. A year later, the most hated part of the iPhone X is no biggie.