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.

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.



1. NateDiaz

Posts: 1093; Member since: Mar 03, 2018

Apple's notch makes sense houses plenty of sensors. And Apple's the one that made notch popular.

7. maherk

Posts: 7049; Member since: Feb 10, 2012

I would gladly take a smaller notch with a more reliable fps instead of a slow and unreliable face scanner that needs a big fat notch to sit under.

9. NateDiaz

Posts: 1093; Member since: Mar 03, 2018

I agree FaceID can't beat TouchID but been using it for almost a year, it's not as unreliable as people think.

13. maherk

Posts: 7049; Member since: Feb 10, 2012

It's a hit or miss, and the slide to open technique makes it even more frustrating than it is. Removing TouchID was the main reason I didn't end up getting the X.

40. sgodsell

Posts: 7605; Member since: Mar 16, 2013

Apples notch is by far the worst by far, especially since it offers you the least amount of screen space on either side. Sure Apple put lots of sensors up there, but then that ultimately means their is a tiny amount of screen on either side of the iPhone X display. You can't even have a battery percentage because there isn't enough screen space. But that is not the worst part. The worst is where Apple knew that there is not enough space up there for apps to function correctly. So Apple had to FORCE it's developer community to support an embrace the notch. Otherwise iOS apps don't function correctly. Hence the need for Apple to FORCE it's developers. Androids approach is so much better, because the OS gives users options, and the notches are smaller on either side, so apps do not have to change.

61. errnope

Posts: 43; Member since: May 23, 2018

Completely agree. The iPhone X's notch is stupid. So wide that you can fit barely anything left or right. Yes it gives you extra screen space, but at the expense of usability - something Apple always likes to think it is good at. It would be a far better design without the notch. Unfortunately for Apple it would then make the design asymmetrical, which would also look odd. So what is the solution? Have a chin. But then what have you ended up with? A Samsung design. So they're kind of stuffed. They either have to go Samsung's route or go with the notch even if it looks horrid and offers a poor UX.

70. ZEUS.the.thunder.god

Posts: 1181; Member since: Oct 05, 2011

This. Apple did it one of the worst way possible by removing FPS. Total BS article. Any OEM who did the notch with a less than 6.1 inches screen is not the best implementation. I used iPhone-X for a few days and just now got OP6 and I can say that OnePlus did it way better by increasing the screen size while keeping the footprint of the device smaller. Apple realizes that fact and most probably we`ll be seeing 6+ inches iPhones this year. Biased journalism is pathetic.

20. Phullofphil

Posts: 1843; Member since: Feb 10, 2009

All these phones were way past developments stage when others came out. I don’t think anybody copied anybody. Final designs of the phones are done long before release and most of these companies came down the same path that was gonna happen at some point. What to do with the overly popular front facing camera and attempt to go all screen. Future could be to have all the sensors be behind the screen and work or have the ability to have the display work as a camara and recognition apporatice itself.

31. RebelwithoutaClue unregistered

It only houses 3 more sensors than the others, the all have proximity sensor, ambient light sensor, speaker, front camera, mic and sometimes even infrared

33. NateDiaz

Posts: 1093; Member since: Mar 03, 2018

Hmm hmm.

53. Mr.Pussy

Posts: 348; Member since: Feb 16, 2017

iPhonarena forgot to mention Samsung also have a notch designs with all the sensors and camera before Apple. Yes Samsung is uglier tho.

74. tuminatr

Posts: 1170; Member since: Feb 23, 2009

I slightly disagree with this list, I have always seen the LG V10 as the godfather of notched phones and where the others got the idea. Yes technically its not a modern notch but follows the idea that the notch represents

99. ssallen

Posts: 216; Member since: Oct 06, 2017

Oh shut up with the "Apple made it popular" BS. Apple made it mandatory. Thats it. No one loves the notch and therefore it can't be popular. Ask 10 people and see how many would prefer to not have it. Its going to be the majority. You could say Apple sold the most devices with a notch but who gives a crap? The notch is ugly, but a necessary part of mobile evolution. End of story. Take your fanboy dreams of "copying" back to your private fantasies. Along with your brony porn.

2. jellmoo

Posts: 2670; Member since: Oct 31, 2011

Counterpoint: Other companies do it better because they've managed to build in a smaller notch, and return even more real estate at the top of the screen to the user.

6. Milen_Y

Posts: 116; Member since: Jun 09, 2016

I agree, but since there's a bottom bezel on many of those, you could easily put the camera there and have the screen untouched. But then, that's not the best location for a selfie camera. That's what makes this so interesting -- it's a balancing act of sorts.

11. Marcwand3l

Posts: 462; Member since: May 08, 2017

LoL. But what? From a technical or design stand point claiming that Apple did the best is a simple subjective opinion which doesn't make you right. jellmoo is right Android OEM's did better in other ways.

12. NateDiaz

Posts: 1093; Member since: Mar 03, 2018

The real question why did Android OEMs do that? Apple's move makes sense they ditched TouchID.

28. Humanoid

Posts: 1226; Member since: Dec 11, 2017

They think they will steal costumers from Apple with same design but cheaper. If ppl in China cant afford an iphone, many just want one that looks alike.

22. Phullofphil

Posts: 1843; Member since: Feb 10, 2009

That’s what a artical is. Or a comment. It’s all opinion

14. jellmoo

Posts: 2670; Member since: Oct 31, 2011

There's also other compromises in play though. The OnePlus 6 offers a fairly small chin, but also a smaller notch than the iPhone X. The P20 series has a chin, but also has a front fps there as well, maximizing its use. Apple's design is impressive, no doubt, but there is more to the storu than "they did it best". Compromises have been made by each company.

32. RebelwithoutaClue unregistered

People tend to forget that the notch was a compromise to have the most screen available in a 'small' body. Agreed, some companies just copied the notch without even thinking of why it was, so they have huge notches without the sensors that justify it. But there are plenty of notches that follow the same principle. Even with a small chin, because there are other reasons for the chin.

71. ZEUS.the.thunder.god

Posts: 1181; Member since: Oct 05, 2011

what about the removal of FPS with a not fully reliable FaceUnlock as the only option?

17. bucknassty

Posts: 1387; Member since: Mar 24, 2017

the essential/sharp notch.... makes the most sense... pretty much just the front camera.... giving you as much screen as possible

18. bucknassty

Posts: 1387; Member since: Mar 24, 2017

the essential/sharp notch.... makes the most sense... pretty much just the front camera.... giving you as much screen as possible

30. DFranch

Posts: 562; Member since: Apr 20, 2012

IMHO the notch area on the iphone is too small to have even bothered with. At least on the essential phone you still have most of the top section for notifications. How much even fits on the X?

3. Mreveryphone

Posts: 1855; Member since: Apr 22, 2014

I can't believe I'm getting ready to say that LG actually got something right but they did... Along with one plus they got the notch idea right by giving the people a choice in being able to hide the notch if you want to.. That's where Apples implementation falls short and where they got it slightly wrong, plus not being able to have the battery percentage displayed is a bit of a let down too in my humble opinion..

4. Wiencon

Posts: 2278; Member since: Aug 06, 2014

Two articles about such stupid thing?

5. maherk

Posts: 7049; Member since: Feb 10, 2012

"APPLE DOESN'T SEE THE NOTCH AS SOMETHING THAT CUTS INTO THE DISPLAY, BUT AS A BEZEL THAT THE DISPLAY CUTS INTO. IT OFFERS MORE, NOT LESS." Except that it does cut into the display, especially if you're watching videos. Whereas the notch on Android phones is an extension of the display, no matter what you're doing, the notch won't get into your way.

8. Milen_Y

Posts: 116; Member since: Jun 09, 2016

The display would otherwise end where the notch begins. Now you get two extra "ears" for your notifications. You also have the option of zoom to fit/fill for videos, so it's not like you necessarily have to watch the video with the notch in your way.

16. maherk

Posts: 7049; Member since: Feb 10, 2012

That's my point, that even when zoomed in, the notch on Android phones doesn't get in your way. The notch on the iPhone X is part of the screen, whereas the notch on Android phones is an extension of the 18:9 screen. It's like having two extra screens surrounding the front facing camera.

* Some comments have been hidden, because they don't meet the discussions rules.

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