A notch too far: The unfortunate irony of the bezel-less phone

Is giving up a chunk of our screens a price we want to pay for sleekness?

iPhone X Notch
Apple

Let me just start by apologizing for daring to criticize something that's clearly both magical and revolutionary.

I know, I know: With its snazzy new iPhone X, Apple just "innovated" the bezel-less smartphone. (It also "innovated" wireless charging — er, sorry, AirPower — along with fast charging, high-quality OLED displays, and gesture-based controls, among other things. But we'll focus on the bezels for now.) And hey, I'm certainly not one to get in the way of a good buzzword. 

While this column is ostensibly about Android, though, there's no denying that Apple's take on the design trend du jour is bound to have an impact on all parts of the mobile spectrum. With a variety of low-bezel phones already available in the Android ecosystem and plenty more certain to appear in the months ahead, Apple's approach to the concept is likely to become relevant to us all at some level — whether directly or indirectly.

(About the term "bezel-less," by the way: You might have noticed that I said "low-bezel" instead of "no-bezel" a second ago. That's really more accurate, as all of these fancy new phones — including the iPhone X — most certainly do still have bezels. But I'll begrudgingly use the terms interchangeably for now, since the technically inaccurate "bezel-less" is the widely accepted nomenclature of the moment.)

By now, you've no doubt seen how Apple managed to create its "immersive," "entirely screen" iPhone X device: by cutting a prominent and rather sizable notch out of the nearly edge-to-edge display. That's where the company not-so-subtly stuffed the sensors, speaker, camera, and other assorted elements that have to reside on a phone's front.

iPhone X Notch Apple

"Except for, y'know, that meaty notch at the top where it isn't."

The result? Pure, unadulterated irony: You've got your bezel-less phone, sure — but now you've got a bezeled interface instead.

Not following? Look at some of the ways the iPhone X shows common types of content. In the device's horizontal orientation, websites by default end up with actual white bars — letterboxing — on either side:

iPhone X Notch - Web Pages Twitter

The iPhone X's notched-out setup is so ill-suited for current web standards, in fact, that the folks behind WebKit — the rendering engine that controls how web pages are displayed in Safari on iOS — are actually asking web developers to add device-specific code into their pages so they'll be "optimized" for the phone's display. Such code can override the default letterboxing behavior seen above and cause a site to stretch out to the edges of the iPhone X's screen.

Notably, the code has to be carefully crafted to respect the device's "safe area" — lest a page's primary content get cut off by the cut-out and end up looking even worse than it did in the letterboxed view.

iPhone X Notch - Safe Area WebKit.org

The iPhone X's "safe area" for web content — and what happens when you violate it.

"But I hardly ever flip my phone horizontally while viewing the web!" you might think, whilst casually sipping cream soda and guffawing at my gall. Maybe that's true — but it's not just the web that's affected here. The iPhone X's notch puts black bars on either side of videos by default, too, and those are bits of content most of us do tend to view horizontally on our devices.

iPhone X Notch - Video Twitter

To be fair, you also have the option to double-tap a video and make it go full-screen — well, full-screen minus the notch, anyway. It's debatable if that's better or worse.

iPhone X Notch - Video Apple

Even Wonder Woman's superpowers can't keep a chunk of her movie from vanishing out of view.

The same missing bite appears in games, which also tend to be viewed horizontally. And as for the phone's vertical orientation, that, too, causes an awkwardly prominent and intrusive tooth to jut into all types of content — common stuff ranging from websites to your own now-magically-notch-enhanced photos.

iPhone X Notch - Photos Apple

Forget Portrait mode: Missing Notch mode is what all the cool kids are talking about.

Even iOS-specific apps look odd with the cutout at their top — an effect developers could theoretically work around, if Apple weren't actively discouraging it.

iPhone X Notch - Apps Twitter

So, yes: The iPhone X's screen does extend almost to the edges of the device — but does that actually make for an "immersive" experience? One so immersive "the device itself disappears into the experience," as Apple alleges? That seems like a difficult argument to make.

If anything, the iPhone X's odd design makes you more aware than ever of the hardware's existence and the inelegant tramp stamp it forces onto your digital view. The most dedicated Apple devotees may defend the setup or do the "you'll get used it" dance, but just imagine what the reaction would have been if this same cutout-screen design had appeared on a Samsung phone instead of an iPhone.

Sure, you may get used to it — but that doesn't mean you wouldn't jump on the opportunity to drop the notch and get a full-sized, non-cut-out-screened version of the phone, if such an option were to become available. Putting up with something and thinking it's actually in any way good are two very different things. (Trust me on this one.)

iPhone X Notch - Perspective Twitter

So why am I rambling on about all of this, and what does it have to do with you? Good question, Gertrude. Aside from the inexplicable joy I get from hearing my own voice in my head, I'm doing it to drive home one key point: At the end of the day, creating a bezel-free phone — at this point, at least — requires a fair amount of compromise. And we, the stunningly attractive users of said phones, are the ones who have to shoulder that burden.

With Apple's iPhone X notch design, the compromises are substantial (and we haven't even gotten into the phone's loss of a fingerprint sensor, which is something I suspect a lot of folks will miss). But even with other less extreme bezel-less designs, ranging from the Essential Phone's similar-but-smaller-cutout approach to the Galaxy S8's a-little-more-bezel-on-the-bottom-and-top alternative, you're always giving up something in exchange for that eye-catching new look — even if it's something intangible like extra protection in the event of a drop or optimal ergonomics for holding the device. And appearances aside, the practical value gained from going edge-to-edge is questionable at best.

As I wrote in advance of the pending wave of bezel-less phone arrivals on Android earlier this year:

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.

That statement seems just as true with the iPhone X now as it was with Android phones then — perhaps even more so, given the elevated amount of compromise involved. A bezel-less phone looks fresh, futuristic, and sexy. And regardless of what types of tradeoffs it may require when it comes to real-world use, that alone is gonna get people to notice it and plunk down their hard-earned shekels to upgrade — an increasingly difficult feat in a world where smartphone hardware has gotten ho-hum and the differences from one generation to the next are rarely wow-inducing.

But you know what? While the bezel obsession may be relatively new, the notion of taking things to silly extremes for the sake of sales absolutely isn't. Think back to the thinness battles we saw with smartphones some years back. For a while, every new device had to be the "thinnest phone ever made" — even when that reached a point where said thinness provided no practical value and made the phone both uncomfortable to hold and unnecessarily short on battery life. After a while, most device-makers stopped obsessing over millimeters and found a sensible balance to strike.

With any luck, the same thing will happen with this current bezel craze. Of course squeezing more screen into a smaller footprint is a positive thing — up to a point. But taking that to the utmost extreme and attempting to eliminate bezels altogether, regardless of the tradeoffs, is a perfect example of doing something because we can rather than because we should. And the difference between those two methods is critical to consider.

At its most extreme iPhone-X-like end, after all, you'd have to work pretty darn hard to justify the value of awkwardly losing a chunk of your on-screen window — the area of a phone you spend the most time focusing on intently — in exchange for dropping a teensy sliver of surface around the display. Not convinced? Consider this slightly-more-bezeled iPhone X mockup, which shifts the dial one tiny notch (as it were) in the direction of practicality:

iPhone X Notch-free Mockup Twitter

If there's one silver lining here, it's that silly trends like this one — just like the thinness craze before it — do seem to have a way of settling themselves into happy mediums eventually. It's almost like the companies have to push us to impractical extremes in order to test the limits and find the sweet spots.

Until such spots become standard, though, get ready for a whole lot of irritating compromise — and a whole lot of entertaining irony — on both sides of the smartphone fence.

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