Phone design got a little eccentric this past year. Reciting a mantra of “more screen is always better” under their breath, smartphone manufacturers did their utmost to kill the bezels around their displays, with most of them opting for the notch as the primary solution. Some copied the iPhone X’s wide notch, others boasted of their narrower notches, and Google went the other way by putting the biggest notch ever on the Pixel 3 XL.
Apple chief designer Jony Ive has long expressed his desire to “create an iPhone that is all display.” Currently, his company appears momentarily content with claiming to have an edge-to-edge display, albeit with that substantial disruption at the top. That outline of Apple’s current notch shape has already become a brand identifier for Apple.
Today, the technology exists to minimize or entirely eliminate notches, but Apple also has its Face ID system embedded in the notch. Plus, it’s a company that doesn’t often swim in the same experimental design waters as its more reckless Android rivals.
Meanwhile, Android phone designers are already moving on from the notch. Just this past week, we saw the emergence of the hole-punch selfie camera at the front of phones such as the Huawei Nova 4 and Samsung Galaxy A8s. Most notches have been mainly justified by the essential nature of the front-facing camera, but with these new screen cutouts now viable, a company can eliminate yet more unsightly bezel from the front of its phone. At the same time, the Nubia X and the second-gen Vivo Nex present another way to sidestep the notch with their addition of a second screen on the back of the phone. That way, the main camera can be used for selfies and the front of the phone can be (almost) all screen.
2019 is shaping up to be extremely intriguing because it’ll force the confrontation of a lot of new display tech and possibilities with the familiarity of established designs such as the iPhone’s. Where 2018 was about shrinking or finessing the notch, this coming year will show us what the successor to the notch will look like. Here are the strongest contenders.
The hole-punch display
This is the logical extension of the notch philosophy. When OnePlus adopted a notch in the OnePlus 6 earlier this year, the company went to great lengths to explain that it was only heeding its users’ desire for the largest possible display. As former Nokia lead designer Marko Ahtisaari used to say, a phone has to be as big as possible when in use and as small as possible when in the pocket — and that requires as close to zero bezels as possible.
The hole-punch display, where the only disruption to the screen is the selfie camera, is the simplest continuation of current trends. It doesn’t call for any fundamental design changes, as dual-screen phones do, or moving parts, as you’ll find on slider phones. It’s just the familiar dense monolith of technology, with the top bezel magically erased. The major downside to these screens, one that will be shared with most other designs in 2019, is that the bottom bezel of the phone — commonly called the chin — is likely to remain in place. None of the display improvements currently taking shape on the horizon promise to completely eradicate the chin.
Samsung and Huawei have both started their hole-punch displays off on midtier phones, but speculation is already rampant that their flagship devices in 2019 will deploy similar tech. Asus’ ZenFone 6 has leaked with a hybrid idea: it’s a notch, in that it touches the top edge of the screen, but it’s still just a tiny cutout solely for the camera, and it sits off to the side of the screen. It’s in this realm of teardrop notches, selfie camera cutouts, and combinations of the two that we’ll see most phone makers cluster.
The dual-display phone
This category is hilarious for its degree of over-engineering. Instead of trying to cram a selfie camera somewhere at the front of the phone, some companies are choosing to install an entire second touchscreen on the back, letting you take selfies with the main camera system. The Nubia X is especially impressive about this because its rear screen completely disappears from view when it’s off, leaving only a shiny glass surface to look at.
We shouldn’t anticipate dual-screen phones to be a high-volume class of smartphone in 2019, owing to the added complexity and cost associated with 1) a second screen, 2) custom software to make both sides usable, and 3) a battery large enough to power two displays. Vivo and Nubia are both using this design on their top-tier devices, and this will remain a premium gimmick until (if it ever) proves itself more than that.
The return of the slider
Oppo’s glorious solution to the notch drama of 2018 was to hide it in a slider. The Find X has a mechanical slider that pops up from the top of the phone to reveal the selfie camera along with a face unlock system similar to what’s used in Apple’s latest iPhones. On the rear of the same slider is the phone’s dual-camera system, and the lenses are also protected by the mechanism. While novel and very nicely integrated with the upward swipe to unlock the phone, this slider setup does make the phone more vulnerable to malfunction and susceptible to dust and water ingress.
Other than Oppo, Vivo had a periscope-like pop-up selfie camera on the Nex in 2018, Xiaomi introduced the slider-equipped Mi Mix 3, and Honor also released the notch-killing Magic 2. The latter two handsets require you to slide the entire front of the phone down to reveal their selfie cameras. None of these were exceptionally affordable devices this year, but if there’s sufficient demand for the design in 2019, we might see the proliferation of sliders into at least the middle tier of Android phones.
Phones in 2019 will not be distinguishable solely by their displays, of course. As we saw in the past year through experiments like HTC’s solid-state side buttons on the U12 Plus, phone designers are tweaking and manipulating every aspect of a device to try and squeeze out some more character or differentiation. The next year will also see a battle to determine exactly how many cameras make a phone most appealing, while the current trend of adding gradients and iridescence under the rear glass is likely to escalate to new heights of expressiveness. All of which is to say that the next year in phone design will be less predictable, more refined, and ultimately more satisfying than the one we’ve just had.