Versus: For and against LED notification lights in phones

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
Versus: For and against LED notification lights in phones
It's true - one of the seemingly signature features of Android devices is dying a slow death. The LED notification light that was once briskly blinking on most Android devices will likely soon go the way of removable batteries and 3.5mm audio jacks. The reason behind this phase-out could be easily pinpointed to the continuously-evolving smartphone design and the nifty always-on display feature that most manufacturers these days utilize.

Some high-profile Android devices like the Google Pixel 3/3 XL and Samsung's Galaxy S10 series have notoriously opted out of putting notification LEDs, while other Android manufacturers are opting for rather small, single-color notification lights on most of their devices. It doesn't take a genius to spot the trend, does it? 

And still, notification LED lights have their proponents alongside their critics, and today, we've rounded up two completely polarizing opinions on the topic. Peter and Ray will be going head-to-head in our first installment of Versus, where the merits and pitfalls of notification LED lights will be thoroughly debated. 

Let's hope for a clean fight!


In defense of notification LED lights


Over the years, I've used upwards of fifty different Android devices, and I've always found myself favoring those with big, bright LED notification lights. The old saying that "you never what you have until it's gone" perfectly applies to my everyday usage once I played around with the Galaxy S10, which is devoid of the nifty blinking light. It turned out to be a small but important feature, and I'm a bit saddened that it's slowly getting phased out.

But why do I bemoan the removal of this seemingly-archaic feature in this day and age? Isn't the always-on display functionality a replacement that's just as good? 

Notification LED lights are a godsend

I just like how straightforward and informative this small light is in my day-to-day life. Here are just a few of the usage scenarios that I experience every single day. I glance at my phone and I notice that the LED light is blinking. What's the color? Red? Okay, that'd be a missed call, bud, I better get at it. Green light blinking? Somebody chatted me up on Messenger or WhatsApp - medium priority. Oh, it's blue? Someone's mailing list is clogging my inbox once again or Samsung Health is reminding me to input my caffeine intake for the day. Oh, I've put the phone on the charger? That's okay, the LED light will quickly inform me if the device is fully-charged or I need to exert a little more patience. 

Simple, informative, battery-efficient - what's there not to like?

I know that these scenarios might not apply to most users and respect the fact that you couldn't care less about this remnant of the "dumb phone" era. Yeah, those have been around for a decade and a half, and it was Apple who showed the world that a phone could do without a notification light. 

What about always-on displays?

Sure, always-on displays are a great modern-day approach to the notifications "problem", but in order to truly emulate the functionality of a notification LED light, they need to be constantly enabled in order to display any incoming notifications immediately. This takes a toll on your phone's battery and increases its idle battery drain, probably by a little, but hey, it's something.  Additionally, I'd argue that a notification LED light is much brighter and easy to discern from a far-off distance than an always-on display and is therefore more informative. This has been my experience with most Samsung flagships, one of the last holdouts of those big, bright, and lovable notification LED lights. 

I'm aware that this small blinking light is hindering progress and it wouldn't take long before it becomes a distant memory in the bezel-less, full-screen future of smartphones. Yet, I find it particularly useful and reassuring to have a phone with blinky light at the front, not because I can't live without it, but because it's a user-friendly way of prioritizing incoming notifications and important alerts. I have the tendency to cling to obsolete stuff and the transition is usually difficult and cumbersome, but I know someday I will have to wave goodbye to the LED light on my phone. It will probably be a sad day.


Against LED notification lights


Boy, am I in the minority position! Nevertheless, this doesn't change the fact that those tiny LED notification lights in phones are a relic of the past, and the only reason why some manufacturers keep those around is so they can squeeze any last drop of goodwill from their dwindling fan bases. A losing strategy.

Apple fixed phone notifications with iOS 5


Here's the thing: Apple largely fixed phone notifications with its standardized notification system in iOS 5, released almost 7 years ago. It went like this: all apps could support notifications and they all were going to appear and behave in the same style. Upon receiving a notification, it would appear on the lockscreen, and the phone's display would automatically light up for a few seconds, so that the user could easily see and read their notification. It even got the small details right, such as lighting up the display with higher than usual for the environment brightness, so quickly reading the notification would be easy, and not lighting up the display when the device was safely in your pocket or purse (an audio prompt works best in those cases). For years and years, such a properly conceived notification system did not make an appearance on other OSes. And here's why it made and still makes so much sense:

Nowadays, it's hard to say if we are smartphone consumers, or if we are entirely consumed by our smartphones. We spend an incredible amount of time staring at our portable displays each day. They are always with us, in our hands, on our desks, beside our beds, and, inevitably, keeping us company in the WC – one of the best phone features ever. Seriously, what did people do in the toilet before smartphones?

The point is, for the vast majority of time, our phones are right beside us, and it seems like we wouldn't have it any other way. Because of that, Apple's notification system, outlined above, makes perfect sense. The only case where an additional LED notification would be in any way useful is if you were not in the room when you got the notification, and upon returning, you caught a glimpse of the blinking LED signaling you that... something happened. Wow, thank you, LED, awesome job! However, this function, in context, is actually not needed, because after being separated with your dear phone for a while, it's extremely likely that you were going to tap on your screen to see what's up anyway. So the LED serves no real purpose.

You're checking your phone once every 17 minutes; you don't need a persistent notification


And now here is some data for you data hogs out there: according to a 2018 study, the average American is checking their phone about 52 times a day. Even if you have an extended active day from 8 am to 11 pm, that's 15 hours. That means you are checking your phone roughly once every 17 minutes. How on earth are you going to miss anything that way?! Add to that the fact that 99% of the time our phones are right next to us, and that there are way more vital notification systems already in place, such as the audio system for notification tones and louder, longer ringtones for calls – no, sir or madam, you will not miss an emergency, or a Facebook post from that profile you forgot to unfollow. All of this makes the good old LED system, which can in no way outgrow its innate ambiguity, no matter what nerdy color-coding schemes we come up with, essentially irrelevant in the modern age.




In defense of notification LED lights


I agree with all the points made. The way we use our phones these days, we might not really need this archaic notification reminder on our phones, even more so with the advancement of always-on displays, which are frankly an alternative I very much enjoy. But why not use both? Thanks to the OneUI update, I've found myself simultaneously enjoying both features: the always-on display will only light briefly at upcoming notifications or when I double-tap the screen, whereas the LED light will keep blinking even after the former fades to black. Frankly, this seems like best of both worlds right now, a great way to combat my absent-mindedness and my delayed responses to important stuff. 

I've used many devices without such a functionality, iPhones included, and while the experience wasn't inferior due to the lack of this minor hardware feature, using a phone with a bright multi-colored notification LED puts a smirk on my face. Be it old habits dying hard or merely unwillingness to part with yet another 'signature' Android feature, I am reluctant to see that tiny blinking light go.                


Against LED notification lights


The trouble with the "why not have both" mentality in consumer products is that it very quickly leads to dangerous degrees of complexity. It's a very small step from "let's have many features!" to "oh my, their software is a bloated mess!" That is why companies like Samsung and LG have struggled mightily with their software UI, because it is part of their strategies to stuff as many toggles and buttons in there as possible.

When all you have is just one interface device — in our case this is the touchscreen — the minute you start having more than one way of doing one particular thing, you've crossed the line, and then it's very hard to go back. That is why, with vastly superior and more advanced notification systems around, it's clear there is no future for the simple LED as a notifications device. There's just no way it'll live on.

And now for the money shot: the same will very soon happen to microSD cards.

What's your stance towards LED notification lights on phones?

Love them, can't live without them!
79.46%
I'm indifferent and don't really care about these.
20.54%

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45 Comments

1. rebretz

Posts: 114; Member since: Dec 26, 2011

Back when I had the Galaxy Nexus and Droid RAZR HD I loved the notification LED on them. I would use Lightflow to set a different color notification light for each app and set a default time for the notification light to blink then go off. The good old days.

2. Cat97

Posts: 1858; Member since: Mar 02, 2017

LED notification lights are visible from far away (unlike any other method of notification - even AOD suffers in this area), are very power efficient, do not require you to wave hands, pick up phone from desk or other weird gestures, increase your productivity by letting you continue your work after just a quick glance to your phone, reduce power consumption by not making you wake up the phone frequently, and reduce your phone addiction. That's why Apple has no interest in adding such a feature: they want you to pick up your phone every few minutes, and do nothing useful but admire it after you find out there is nothing new. And then continue buying their gadgets, of course. The removal of LED notification lights is a very worrying trend, the OnePlus 6T being a sad example. Even Galaxy S10 would have benefitted a lot from a notification LED, but it can be forgiven due to the efficient AOD implementation. And to those rookies that still consider that notification LEDs can be substituted by the new OLED technology, I would like to remind them that if even one pixel is lit up on an OLED screen, the display driver circuit and even the graphics chip must be turned on, unlike with a notification LED. That's why AOD still sucks a lot of battery despite the OLED screens, and that's why you will never be able to match the efficiency and usefulness of a simple RGB notification LED.

22. TBomb

Posts: 1391; Member since: Dec 28, 2012

didn't read your point about OLED when writing my comment.... woops

39. pixel8or

Posts: 83; Member since: Jun 10, 2010

Couldn't agree more. I for one am NOT one of those who pick up his/her phone every 17 mins. Sometimes I'll walk away for a couple of hours or more, and don't realize I've missed a call/text/email until much later. And phone addiction is a real thing, and although it doesn't have all of the same physical detriments as substance abuse, it does have life-changing (really society-changing) implications.

3. User123456789

Posts: 808; Member since: Feb 22, 2019

I like to have on my phone, for so,e apps I can choose colour. But at night is annoying, all those emails of products advertisement

17. JCASS889

Posts: 504; Member since: May 18, 2018

You know you can turn off notifications for certain apps, and spam should not be giving you a notification.

4. Sammy_DEVIL737

Posts: 1529; Member since: Nov 28, 2016

In 2014 when I bought Moto X 2nd gen I totally got annoyed by the fact that it didn’t had Notification Led, as my older Xperia Tipo had it. But it had a great alternative and that was “Moto Display” which use to lit up and fade away just like Led light every second when there was notification. It gave me a brief notification as soon I hold the app notification symbol which was much better than than the Led light and that was the time when I knew that I don’t want the Led light anymore. Motorola is the only one who did the AOD thing perfectly in my opinion.

5. baldilocks

Posts: 1494; Member since: Dec 14, 2008

iOS didn't fix any notification problems 7 years ago. In fact, iOS is STILL not as informative when it comes to notifications as is Android. Android actually has little icons up top that at a glance, make it easy to see what apps have notified you -- let alone that some now also use badges. Badges on their own (iOS) are cumbersome. Personally, I love notification lights. I wish my iPhone had one and I wish iOS had notification icons.

29. Leo_MC

Posts: 7190; Member since: Dec 02, 2011

It’s a good thing that android “also use badges”, but badges are cumbersome on iOS, right?

37. baldilocks

Posts: 1494; Member since: Dec 14, 2008

That's not what I said. On their own, they are cumbersome and don't offer much. That's even more true when apps are inside a folder.

41. Leo_MC

Posts: 7190; Member since: Dec 02, 2011

I don't think you know what "cumbersome" means and I don't think you understand how to use ios to your advantage.

6. willywanta

Posts: 502; Member since: Jun 04, 2014

I actually hate iPhone notification method. It light up the entire display. Wow! And if i missed it, there's no way to check it but to turn the display on or unlock the phone.

15. bucknassty

Posts: 1325; Member since: Mar 24, 2017

a subtle way to get you to touch your phone

7. lyndon420

Posts: 6720; Member since: Jul 11, 2012

Definitely miss my tiny little notification light...my HTC One X had it hidden inside the speaker grill which I thought was brilliant. Saves me from having to pick up my phone in a noisey environment, or after I've left my phone in the other room for awhile...like seriously why pick up my phone for no reason lol.

8. MrMalignance

Posts: 293; Member since: Feb 17, 2013

I'm surprised that the "against led" side(Slavov) basically had an apple history lesson and 2 points: we check our phones often and always on display. I would hardly classify the led hardware as bloatware, but can understand it would be another setting in the settings section. If both led and aod are present, wouldn't that actually be another choice, rather than forcing you to use both? Lastly, I found the argument stating that headphone jacks are on the way out troubling. Are we really at this point, where we will allow these companies to dictate what type of audio accessories we can use? No jack is just another way to sell a dongle, to use up our battery to sell a replacement battery on our device or headphones, or even to keep us on these Bluetooth headphones that (even on this site) have been shown to be linked to cancer. There appears to be more people who want the jack than don't. The SD card might be negotiable, but most people enjoy having that option as well. It's not about attachment to archaic tech, it's about options.

10. lyndon420

Posts: 6720; Member since: Jul 11, 2012

Definitely well said.

30. Leo_MC

Posts: 7190; Member since: Dec 02, 2011

When you create a business, you put in your vision: you imagine the best way of doing things and you make it happen for your clients. Our brain is incapable to handle to many options and, although more is better than less, too much is not good (have you gone through all the options in iOS settings to see how many there are?). Apple’s vision is a wireless world and a cloud world and everything it does with its products shows it; you’re free to not like it and stay away from their products, of course, you’re also free to talk against it, but you should be aware that your conclusions might be wrong.

32. MrMalignance

Posts: 293; Member since: Feb 17, 2013

That blew my mind...with how little it had to do with my comment

34. Leo_MC

Posts: 7190; Member since: Dec 02, 2011

Maybe I wasn't explicit enough. You're saying that having a led light is another choice (the same goes for headphone jacks or sd cards) and choice is good, I'm saying that a feature needs to have a point and a led light might no longer have it (just as a headphone jack is useless in the wireless world we're heading and sd card is useless in the world of the cloud).

40. MrMalignance

Posts: 293; Member since: Feb 17, 2013

Ah, that is a better distillation. I would have to agree to disagree. As mentioned, the health issues don't respect tech. If it might cause harm to users, the headsets might have to be abandoned. As for headphone jack being useless, there are very few wireless headsets that can even begin to be on the same level as wired pairs. Until that happens, we're settling for less. SD cards could indeed be less useful, but many people like to be able to put files on something they just pop into another device, rather than relying on a signal to access the cloud. Led lights having a point is in the eye of the beholder. If you (generally speaking) don't like the light, it probably has no impact if it exists or doesn't on a device. Btw, I do appreciate your counterpoint

42. Leo_MC

Posts: 7190; Member since: Dec 02, 2011

Health issues - as long as they are within a margin - have never been an issue; take oled for instance: its flickering is proved to be affecting the vision more than LCD, yet its advantages are starting to outweight the disadvantages and we're seeing more and more oled displays. For me it is impossible to ignore the advantages (I'm also a big fan of wireless - as in "no wires" - so I might be a bit biased): you have usb/lightning for wired headphones, what do you need a jack for?! Besides that, it's a MOBILE phone, so you're probably most the time on the streets, at the office, in the car, with your spouse, kids, pets etc; maybe being present is a better idea than listening to music... just saying; a headphone is more to use at the gym, in the subway or for calls. Although I can find a use for it, I think the same goes for the led light: most of the time the phone is close to you and you can see/hear a notification (light, sound or vibration; if you have none, probably the notification is not important), there's hardly a need for a blinking light.

9. libra89

Posts: 2271; Member since: Apr 15, 2016

This was a nice read, and both sides had valid points. However, I disagree with it happening to SD cards since phones are still being shipped with small storage.

11. Ichimoku

Posts: 165; Member since: Nov 18, 2018

Why not? They are useful

12. ShadowSnypa786

Posts: 554; Member since: Jan 06, 2017

LED lights all the way for me They use barely any battery and they can be assigned by colour. On my Samsung I have green led light for whatsapp, White for Text messages. So I dont even have to tap my screen to know what I have been messaged on. LED notification, SD card slots, 3.5mm audio jack are all things that should stay and not be removed.

21. TBomb

Posts: 1391; Member since: Dec 28, 2012

I'd be open to SD card slot going away if they were replaced by a different technology that was cheap and easily available. I'd also be okay with 3.5mm jack going away if there was a universal standard that everyone conformed to to replace it. But this stupid dongle crap.... it's gotta go.

13. LetThereBeLight

Posts: 112; Member since: Nov 20, 2014

With AOD supporting 3d party notifications it is not a necessity anymore, without AOD it is a must! I have a P20 pro with AOD NOT supporting 3d party notifications paired a very unreliable LED not the best in this regard. I feel so abandoned by Huawei. I thought they will fix it quickly like Samsung did when they introduced AOD and a couple month later they changed it to support everything. The p20 pro is a Great phone anyway but this was so much mature and felt being taken care of the company much more with Samsung. However the phone itself is much more snappy after long term usage so after all it is not bad compared to Sammy.

14. bucknassty

Posts: 1325; Member since: Mar 24, 2017

i knew he would point to apple for the first argument... ... please!!! like he said... you wont miss what you never had... apple has never had it so you do not know bruh!

18. Sammy_DEVIL737

Posts: 1529; Member since: Nov 28, 2016

Yup. Just like No SD card support, No Removable battery isn't a Con for iPhone but with Android it is.

16. irossdrummer

Posts: 366; Member since: Jan 17, 2015

you should do a vote poll, I love and use my s9+ LED notification all the time, and that one little factor is putting me on edge with the S10+

19. TBomb

Posts: 1391; Member since: Dec 28, 2012

The 17 minutes is an average and doesn't accurately portray normal phone checking persistence. You can check a phone 24 times over a 1 hour period each day and the average time between checking your phone each day would be 60 minutes. That doesn't paint the correct picture at all since you just cheeked your phone 24 times in a 60 min span. so that point to me is neutralized. The argument about Apple fixing notifications in iOS 5 with lighting up the screen doesn't address the reason for an LED notification light. The the LED NL alerts you that a notification came through EARLIER and you didn't address it. obviously you don't need the notification light if you are seeing the notification come through in live time - however lighting up the screen to a brighter than normal brightness for 5 seconds does not address the issue for 10 seconds after the notification comes through and your screen is off. AOD does address this, but at much higher battery life cost and more intrusive - thus adding to the we're consumed by our smartphones. I also don't agree with comparing Samsung/LG's habit of pushing features via software being their demise. LG's fall was from competition doing "the basics" (things that every phone on earth has, like 'a battery life') better. If you're going to make an argument against having an LED NL, I suggest using the "We want full screen devices and an LED NL takes up front real estate." But even then, you can build the LED NL into the LED screen that takes up the entire font of the device. Disclosure: I'm pro LED notification light... 100%.

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