Much ado about notching
The next OnePlus flagship phone will have a notch in its display, and above is the first official image of it, that has been sourced from The Verge. OnePlus, still the darling of many Android enthusiasts, was alarmed by the vociferous chorus of disapproval directed at new smartphones launching at Mobile World Congress this year with notched displays. So the company reached out to me, as one of the louder critics of the notch trend, to try to make its case for why that change in design is a good thing and why its next phone release will be more than just another iPhone copycat.
“How big a notch is always depends on your choices as a company,” said Carl Pei, the public face of OnePlus, when he met me in London last week. In his mind, the question of whether to have a notch at all is a foregone conclusion. OnePlus, like every other phone maker opting to go this design route, sees it as adding more screen real estate instead of taking anything away. “What you are essentially doing is moving the entire notification bar up, giving users more content on their screen.”
Though Apple was preceded by the Essential Phone and Sharp Aquos S2 in 2017, the definitive “notch phone” for the vast majority of people is and will forever be the iPhone X. The X marked the first time most people had seen that striking design, which made for a radically different iPhone and an instantly iconic visual identity for Apple’s flagship device. And that’s what has irked a lot of Android fans: Apple has taken ownership of the notch look and any subsequent device that resembles it feels derivative. It didn’t help that, during MWC, we were treated to a conveyor belt of hastily assembled iPhone X lookalikes that had zero software adaptations for the notch.
Pei believes that OnePlus’ notch is different, implemented with more thought and care. His opening remark about the choices a company makes was a bit of a dig at the Essential notch, which is the narrowest one we’ve seen so far. Pei says OnePlus couldn’t have gone that small without compromising the quality of the device’s earpiece and front-facing camera or omitting the proximity and ambient light sensors or the user-requested LED notification light. At the same time, argues Pei, “we don’t feel the need to have structured light on our phones” akin to Apple’s Face ID, so OnePlus’ notch is appreciably smaller than Apple’s. “Our notch, it will be there,” sums up Pei, and “it’ll be bigger than the Essential Phone, smaller than the iPhone.” OnePlus provided the precise measurements for its upcoming notch as 19.616mm x 7.687mm.
On the software front, OnePlus has had its team manually test the top 1,000 Play Store apps to determine which would need a compatibility mode with the notch. The company is shifting its clock to the left side of the screen to allow more room for status icons, and it’s going to disguise the notch any time video is playing on the phone in a way that recreates the overall screen curvature. In my experience with the iPhone X, the only times that the notch has ever been noticeable as an incursion into the regular user experience has been exactly when viewing photos or video, and I’m encouraged to see OnePlus tackling those pain points directly.
OnePlus isn’t promoting its move to a notched design as an aesthetic choice. The company insists that it has done its utmost to maximize screen real estate for the user. Where the notch frees up a sliver of space at the top — by absorbing notification and status icons — at the bottom of the phone, OnePlus’ gesture interactions help to remove the persistent Android software keys and thus liberate even more space. Those gestures, available in beta software for existing OnePlus devices, are very much like the iPhone X’s, with a swipe up from the bottom of the screen taking the user home. I like them, my colleague Dan Seifert loves them, but again they seem like a change at least inspired by the iPhone’s.
“We saw the implementation [of gestures] on the iPhone,” admits Pei, and “maybe it would have taken longer if Apple hadn’t done it.” He has the same answer when I ask him whether OnePlus would have done a notch design had it not been for the iPhone X: “Maybe not as fast. But we have access to the roadmaps of all the screen manufacturers, and when they gave us the opportunity to make cutouts at the top of the screen, it just made sense.” OnePlus agrees with the widely held view that Apple “accelerates the adoption of things within the industry,” adding the subtle caveat of “where it makes sense.” (Related side note: the OnePlus 6 will have a headphone jack).
We couldn’t talk Android phone notches without also addressing Android phone chins. “The only phone on the market that has a notch that doesn’t have a chin is the iPhone X,” notes Pei, and that’s because the iPhone’s “chin is on the back of the phone.” At the bottom of each display is a ribbon for connecting it to the device’s logic board, which necessitates at least a thin “chin.” Apple’s exotic solution to that was to use a flexible OLED screen that curves internally and thus pushes the ribbon connection toward the back. Pei explains that this approach makes the phone thicker and, understandably, more expensive. Not even Samsung, which makes Apple’s iPhone X displays, is being so indulgent in its design. So chins are going to remain a feature of Android phone designs for the foreseeable future.
The discontent around notches tends to lack an understanding of the technical limitations that Pei set out for me in our meeting. From the perspective of an Android phone maker, there’s no viable “notch, but no chin” option. The bottom bezel is fixed in place and all you can do to optimize your design is reduce the top bezel by turning it into a notch instead of a full-width bar. It’s a more efficient use of space, and in Pei’s words, “it’s a very clear decision: more real estate for the user. In conclusion, learn to love the notch.”
OnePlus isn’t yet ready to talk more about the OnePlus 6 (or even go on the record with that name), but the timing of its preemptive notch defense indicates that we’ll see an earlier release than the company’s usual June timeline. The specs the company is sharing today are that this will be OnePlus’ biggest screen to date, with a notch-assisted screen-to-body ratio of 90 percent, and a size no larger than the company’s existing phones. Oh, and apparently it doesn’t look identical to the latest Oppo phone.