History of the notch: Who copied who (and why Apple did it best)

History of the notch: Who copied who (and why Apple did it best)
As soon as I begin typing the word ‘notch’, I can almost hear the distant clatter of countless fingers on keyboards, “OMG, so ugly,”“Why is this a thing,” “Apple copycat,” “Nuh-uh, Apple copied Essential.” So on and so forth.

That’s why we thought it would be interesting to examine the notch closer, and not as the supposedly purely aesthetic choice many people take it to be, but rather as a functional part of the modern smartphone, that is likely going to serve a purpose for longer than many people would like.

Who did it first?

This seems to be one of the most common questions when discussing the 'notch – a term somewhat blindly adopted by media and smartphone makers, which otherwise denotes that something is missing… for example, a portion of the screen.

But semantics aside, the name Essential always comes up when discussing the notch, and for good reason, as the Essential phone, which launched in 2017, is one of the first to feature a camera cut-out at the top of its display. But it wasn’t the first to do it. No, it was the Sharp Aquos S2 that beat Essential to the punch by a staggering couple of days!

This changes everything! Only, it doesn’t…

The Essential/Sharp notch

Sharp beat Essential to the punch by a mere couple of days, but both the Aquos S2 and the original Essential phone can be consider the first "notched" phones

The Essential phone and the Sharp Aquos S2 share a common design trait – their notches are simply there to house a front-facing camera, which could have been embedded in the sizable bottom bezel, but that’s simply not the best place to put a selfie shooter.

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Another phone that has something in common with those two phones is the Sharp Aquos Crystal, regarded by many as the forefather of the modern “bezel-less” phone. The Aquos Crystal came out in 2014 and had some staggeringly thin bezels for its time, save for the bottom one, which was quite big. Back then, Sharp opted to use the bezel to house the selfie camera, and keep the integrity of the display with a bone-conducting earpiece.

This choice, however, lead to some user experience hurdles, where people had to turn the phone upside down to snap a selfie, or otherwise risk the chance of having a finger in their shot, due to the camera’s awkward location near the palm. But regardless of where you put the lens, be it at the top or bottom, you’re still looking at some sort of bezel or notch. The problem is that most manufacturers these days have both, Xiaomi being a notable exception with its Mi Mix series.

The Apple notch

When Apple announced the iPhone X in 2017, many people were quick to point fingers and call out the company for copying Essential and Sharp, even though the iPhone X had no bottom bezel to speak of, and the notch on top not only housed a selfie camera, but seven other components that made up the TrueDepth camera… and then there was even room left for the screen to the left and right of it, lovingly referred to as ‘horns.’

Yes, Apple wasn’t the first to do it, it wasn’t even the second. It just did it differently, and now everyone’s copying. And yes, Apple is also using the notch to market the iPhone X, but this is a side effect, rather than the main purpose of the notch. 

The vast majority of Android OEMs that are jumping the notch bandwagon could simply do an Essential/Sharp-style notch that has a single selfie camera, an earpiece above, a proximity sensor, and an LED notification light. Because that’s all there is to it. They just choose to copy the notch on an aesthetic level, instead of a functional.

But since the vast majority of notched Android phones also have a sizable bottom bezels, manufacturers could also adopt the Mi Mix approach and have the camera on the bottom bezel, although that’s arguably not the best location, and maintain the display’s integrity. But again, it’s looks that are being copied here.

That’s why Apple does it best right now – the company doesn't see its design choice as “notch” that cuts into the display, but rather a bezel that the display cuts into. It’s more, not less. And this is an important distinction in attitude, which reflects how vastly different companies are when it comes to handling design choices. Apple never uses the word "notch," instead it focuses on the ears beside, the actual extra screen real estate that you're getting by removing some of the top bezel.

The future is bezel-less, notch-less

The Vivo Apex is a stunning phone, indeed

There’s no question that the future of smartphone design is both bezel-less and notch-less. The reality, however, is that the notch is here to stay for a while.

Removing the notch and bottom bezel means moving the front-facing camera somewhere else. There are ways to do it, but right now, none of them are cheap and all of them pose engineering hurdles.

The Vivo Apex is a great example of this – it has no physical fingerprint scanner (it’s in the display instead) and its selfie camera is mechanical and pops up only when needed. It looks cool and seems practical, but like all things mechanical, it is prone to breaking.

It looks cool, but like all things mechanical, it's prone to breaking

The mechanical camera is a great way to eliminate the need for a notch, but it could also introduce a number of other issues. Relegating something as frequently used as a selfie camera to a mechanical component with a limited lifespan could lead potentially lead to many unforeseen defects further down the line, like the camera getting stuck.

Not only that, but if a company wants to use more than one front-facing camera, as is likely the case with the upcoming Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, this further complicates the mechanical solution and raises costs even more.

And that’s why, although the future of the smartphone is completely bezel-less, the notch is here to stay for a while. Hope this short recount of the notch’s even shorter history has helped you see it for what it is – a functional solution to a problem, rather than a purely aesthetic design choice. Learn to embrace it, because it will be a while.

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