It is perhaps the most disputed design element in phones in recent times. Most pundits and geeks hate it. Most companies are adopting it. And well, judging by the sales, most consumers do not seem to mind it too much.
Oh yeah, we are talking about that nick in the upper part of the phone screen – the notch!
Some would think that it is a bit late in the day to be talking about it. After all, it has been more than a year since the Essential phone (ooo, remember that one) and the iPhone X assaulted geek eyes with this transgression. “So ugly,” went almost everyone with a byline in tech. So phone companies promptly adopted the notch, thus providing proof that they do not believe that tech writers have any idea of what their readers want (but that is another story). So much so that now in the mid and premium segment today, a phone is more likely to have a notch than not have one.
But to revert to the original question: why on earth are we talking of the notch NOW?
Well, for the simple reason that we have had the Google Pixel 3 XL with us for about a week now, and cannot really fathom why it has a notch on that display. And we are not talking about aesthetics here, but good old simple functionality. Yes, for all our mixed perceptions of the notch on the iPhone X (some of us hated it, some did not find it worthy of the fuss), what we could not deny is the fact is that Apple provided some rationale for its existence. We were told that the notch allowed the phone to have narrower bezels on the top and accommodated the front facing camera, the earpiece and a number of sensors that allowed you not to just take selfies but also unlock your phone in a secure and safe manner.
Of course, we had seen phones that could be unlocked with a glance in the past, but that system had been at best iffy, and was often secondary. Apple, however, made it the primary one by pretty much yanking the fingerprint sensor off the phone, and using a fair bit of tech to make sure Face ID worked effectively, even in pitch darkness. No, it was not perfect and we had people lining up to tell us how it could be fooled by an identical evil twin (all you had to do was get one, evidently), but over time, it has become a part of the iOS experience, so much so that people are reasonably sure that the new iPads and iMacs too will come with it.
Now, from what we can see, a significant portion of the Android competition has so far been focusing totally on trying to change the shape of that notch, treating it as exactly what Apple has NOT (and tech writers have) – a cosmetic factor. We have phones which claim to have smaller notches, drop-shaped notches and of course, there are those who insist that they are so dedicated to defying the notch that they will put new mechanisms in their phones, from displays that slide up to cameras that pop up, just to ensure that they stay notch free (Samsung, however, deserves credit for doggedly sticking to keeping things simple in this regard). There have been some notable innovations, most notably sound that comes from within the display rather than from distinct speakers and displays that act as fingerprint scanners, but at the time of writing, no one had really used the notch with the sort of effectiveness that Apple has. Face ID remains a trifle iffy on most Android devices which still insist your using fingerprints for most transactions, and most do not even handle face unlock too well in the dark.
However, the device that many consider to be Android’s ultimate flagship (hey, Google made it), the Pixel 3 XL reflects the confusion in Android’s approach to the “notch wars.” A lot has been written about how ugly the big notch on its display is, so it does not score on aesthetics. And while it accommodates a speaker and two front-facing cameras, it comes with no face unlock whatsoever. Which reduces its raisson d’etre of just being a means of adding a few mm to the display and shaving some off its bezels. We are sure some sort of face unlock will be coming to the Pixel 3 XL in the coming days, and hey, the phone takes some great selfies. But at the time of writing, that notch is just a camera-bearing bezel trimmer.
And even as this happens, Apple is believed to be working on adding more sensors to the notch on its devices, trying to gather more information more accurately, enabling you to not only unlock your device more securely, but also gauge your health by detecting breathing patterns and changes of complexion. And if that does not tell you the story of the notch on phones and just how Android players are losing the plot over it, nothing will.
The notch isn’t about aesthetics, but functionality. Its shape and size are not half as important as what it adds to the phone experience.