No bezels? No thanks

Sorry to rain on the futuristic parade, but despite what device-makers are about to tell you, bezel-free smartphones aren't all flowers and sunshine.

Smartphone Bezels
JR Raphael

Bezels. Bezels bezels bezels. For a word most of us had never uttered up until a few years ago -- heck, even I had to go and look it up at some point in the not-so-distant past -- we sure do hear an awful lot about the big "B"-to-the-"Z" these days.

(See also: "chamfer" -- another term gadget-makers and in turn tech writers have fallen in lust with as of late that no normal person has ever used. I have a theory, in fact, that no one actually knows what "chamfer" means. I chamfer you to prove me wrong.)

A bezel, for the uninitiated, is the space surrounding the screen of a smartphone -- you know, that area between the display and the edge where you rest your appendages and/or take occasional naps. It was traditionally used as a term for jewelry but has recently exploded as a buzzword here in the realm of consumer electronics.

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Why? Because as technology has gotten increasingly advanced and companies have gotten increasingly crafty at engineering, the folks who make our gadgets have figured out ways to shave down a device's blank space and cram in more and more screen. And if you look back at some of the phones of yesteryear, it's clear that this evolution is a good thing -- at least, up to a point.

smartphone bezels galaxy hero iphone jr

Holy bezels, Batman! The 2010 Samsung Galaxy S, 2009 HTC Hero, and 2009 iPhone 3GS

That brings us to today. Talk of "bezel-free" phones is picking up steam fast as 2017 gets going, fueled by rumors of low-bez creations coming via phones like the perpetually rumored Samsung Galaxy S8, the oft-discussed (but-honestly-does-anyone-really-care-about-it) LG G6, and maybe even the latest version of Apple's king-of-comically-oversized-bezels iPhone. They're all following in the footsteps of phones from manufacturers like Sharp and Xiaomi, both of which have produced minimally bezeled mobile-doodads of their own (though neither with any significant presence in the bezel-lovin' U.S. of A.).

Look: I get it. It's easy to get swept away in the romance of a bezel-free future. The notion of a phone that's pure screen from edge to edge is not only cool; it's straight out of science fiction. A piece of glass in your hand! Who wouldn't do a double-take at such "Mission Impossible"-esque magic? So of course, such a concept is spectacular for marketing -- and thus also for convincing customers content with their fine-enough 18-month-old phones to go out and spend money on something new.

But hold the phone: Are we sure a low-to-no-bezel mobile device is really what we want? Before we all get covered in the stream of hot, sticky hype that's sure to be spraying out from all directions any second now, let's take a moment to step back and think about the practical implications of a bezel-battling change.

Here's the cold, hard truth: Like many gimmicks created with the goal of selling smartphones, the "no bezel" trend isn't about doing something that's meant to enhance your life in any meaningful way. It isn't about doing something that's going to be of any practical benefit. It's about prioritizing form at the expense of function in order to make a product seem fresh and different enough from its predecessor that you'll want to buy it.

So before you buy into the hype and jump onto the "no bezel" bandwagon, think carefully about the following two areas:

1. Ergonomics

How do you hold your phone? Unless you have fingers that are far more graceful than mine, you probably extend the tips of your pretty little digits over the edge of one side slightly as the device rests against your thumb and palm (both of which probably press up somewhat against the phone's other edge). You aren't holding it like a dirty tissue that you don't want to touch; you're cradling it like the dear-to-your-life baby that it basically is. 

What about when you're taking photos or watching videos, especially with your phone in landscape orientation? Ever find yourself resting your thumb on the bottom area of the phone in order to have a better grip without blocking your view?

Now imagine if the screen extended all the way to those edges, with next to no borders whatsoever. Would that make the phone easier or harder to hold in actual real-world use? Would you end up handling it in that awkward dirty-tissue type of way, with your fingertips barely grazing the lower parts of the perimeter? What would you do in those landscape-holding scenarios? And how would all of that work out with your already-accident-prone butterfingers?

Remember: Design isn't only about appearances; it's also about what an object is like to hold and use in the mundane scenarios of our day-to-day lives. Creating a device that's comfortable and natural to handle is arguably the most important part of smartphone design, in fact -- because no matter how futuristic a gadget looks, if it's awkward to use, it isn't going to be very enjoyable once the novelty's worn off.

2. Practical value

Basic ergonomics aside, what's actually being gained by having a device with no (or next-to-no) bezels? You have more screen space within the footprint of your phone, sure -- but you still have to hold the phone in order to use it.

That means, unless you do the icky dirty-tissue dance, your fingers are always going to be covering active areas of content. From a visibility perspective, well, that's gonna be awkward. (Lift finger to see first letter of sentence at left-most edge of screen. Put finger back down to hold phone securely. Repeat.) And from a usability perspective, it's gonna have the potential to introduce a whole new series of headaches. (No, damn it! I didn't mean to tap that godforsaken ad over there to the right.) And yes, phone-makers are theoretically able to detect things like unintentional screen touches -- but how consistently do those systems work, even now?

With all of that in mind, is a bezel-free device really giving you "more screen" in any usable sense? Or is it actually a step backwards in terms of practical value? And what if you put a case on your phone, as so many members of our phone-carrying club do? How will that work out when the active display extends all the way to the device's edges?

Last but not least, don't forget about the under-the-surface trade-offs a bezel-free smartphone might require -- things like the placement and effectiveness of sensors, speakers, and cameras, most of which traditionally live beneath the bezel areas of a phone's face. Where are those elements going to go with the bezels gone, and what will that mean for how well they function?

The bezel balance

The key takeaway from all of this is that bezels aren't necessarily bad (mmkay?) -- nor are they necessarily a "compromise," as they're being made out to be in this latest round of thinly veiled device marketing (er, sorry, series of "totally unauthorized leaks"). Rather, they're a feature. They're a core part of a phone's design.

Like with anything, of course, there's a balance. Gigantic bezels like the ones we saw on early smartphones seem silly today -- as they should. Squeezing more screen into a smaller footprint is absolutely a positive thing, up to a point. But taking that to the utmost extreme and attempting to eliminate bezels altogether is doing something because we can rather than because we should. And the difference between those two methods is critical to consider. 

It's a pattern we've seen plenty in the mobile tech world these past few years. As the technology made it both possible and affordable for manufacturers to pack more pixels into our pocket-sized displays, for instance, our screens got tremendously better over a short period of time. For a while, the progress was astounding; no matter how finicky or tech-savvy you are, the difference between a 2009-era phone display and a current model's screen is downright remarkable.

But then we reached the point of silliness -- of taking things to an extreme just because we could. Of putting a 4K display into a 5-in. phone when no one outside of Superman could possibly appreciate that level of detail. And our phones' stamina suffered as a result.

The same sort of thing happened with thinness: Early smartphones were laughably chunky. Little by little, gadget-makers managed to make them thinner and easier to carry -- great! But then they kept going, to the point where practically every new phone had to be the "thinnest phone ever made" -- even if that meant it was uncomfortable to hold and annoyingly short on battery life. But hey, think of the amazing advertising opportunities such svelteness created!

(We see the same sorts of cycles pop up in other domains, too, of course. 3D TV, anyone? How about a gigantic curved flat screen television? Whee!)

This bezel business, at its new extreme level, isn't much different. Now, though, we can see it for what it is -- and take solace in the fact that silly trends like this seem to have a way of settling down slowly over time. While some manufacturers still obsess over marketing-friendly gimmicks like display resolution and maximal thinness, others are quietly moving away from those areas and focusing instead on what actually makes sense for an optimal user experience.

With any luck, this trend -- while sure to be wide-reaching in the mobile tech world for a while -- will follow a similar arc. In the meantime, buckle up and brace yourselves, amigos. Things are about to get silly...again.

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