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The iPhone’s notch: should it stay or should it go?

Let’s discuss

Apple’s iPhone 13 lineup comes with the biggest change Apple has made to the front of its iPhones since it first introduced Face ID with the iPhone X: that controversial notch has finally been shrunken down a bit. Apple says the new notch is about 20 percent smaller than the old one, although eagle-eyed observers have noticed it comes with the tradeoff of being a hair taller, too.

The new and improved notch is still a notch. A big notch, too, compared to the hole-punch cameras and teardrop cutouts that competitors like Samsung or OnePlus have been offering on their flagship phones. 

Naturally, we here at The Verge have some thoughts on the subject: is the notch worth it in 2021? Or does it need to go the way of the dinosaur?

Chaim Gartenberg: I’ve been using a notched iPhone since the iPhone X first launched, and I’m a notch apologist at this point. Compared to the bezel-heavy style that preceded it, it’s an obvious improvement; it’s hard to go back to the older iPhone SE style. And while a lot of Face ID-based features have turned out to be pretty gimmicky (looking at you, Memoji and Animoji), the core functionality here is still really, really great. 

When it comes to unlocking a phone, Face ID just works, and it works well. And that’s largely because it does need all the tech that Apple fits in (including the various sensors, IR emitters, and the actual front-facing camera.) True, Android phones don’t have notches like the iPhone, but they also don’t have facial unlock systems that work nearly as well. And if a notch is the price to pay for convenience, it’s one I can accept. 

Sean Hollister: Sure, I admit Face ID is fantastic. It was the single greatest thing about switching from Android for me. I couldn’t believe how easy it was to log into my bank, check my medical records, or access and copy/paste my password manager’s passwords when I made an iPhone 12 Mini my daily driver last year. But that’s just as much a jab at Android as it is praise for the iPhone — because what I love is speed, which has nothing to do with my face.

Speed has nothing to do with my face

Why hasn’t Android standardized on an excellent, fast fingerprint sensor, one placed precisely where I leave my digits anyhow? Why did Apple always insist on fitting it into the bottom bezel of its phones where I’d have to awkwardly stretch down? Why not mount a fingerprint-reading camera in that iPhone logo Apple always loves to leave on the back of its phones?

Chaim: A rear fingerprint reader would mess with Apple’s easily shattered lovely looking slab of glass on the back, though. If the company can nail an under-glass fingerprint reader, they’re better off just sticking one on the front of the phone under the screen. 

The one thing I could see an argument for is bringing back Touch ID, integrated into the power button (like on the new iPad Mini and the recent iPad Air.) But even if you were to do that, Apple would still have to find somewhere to put the front-facing camera. Hiding it away in the bezels won’t work on an iPhone; there’s just simply nowhere to put it. And choosing between a small notch with less functionality and a marginally larger one with more, Face ID is an easy choice.

The new iPad Mini, with Touch ID.
The new iPad Mini, with Touch ID.
Image: Apple

Sean: They could put it where everyone else puts it these days: a tiny hole instead of a giant notch. Or how about those under-display selfie cameras we’ve heard so much about? Speaking of which, what keeps Apple from giving us an under-display fingerprint sensor, or sticking the guts of Face ID into the hole in a hole-punch display, too? I’m not saying the notch bugs me every single time I look at the screen (OLED works wonders), but surely you don’t need a notch just to fit a couple of fancy IR blasters.

Chaim: Right now it sounds like under-display cameras are still a bit more trouble then they’re worth; assuming Apple gets on board with that, it’d imagine it’ll still be some time before the tech catches up to the idea of what it could be. 

But even if they were, there’s a lot more to Face ID than just a couple of fancy IR blasters. Remember this slide from when Apple announced the iPhone X

What’s inside the iPhone’s notch, circa iPhone X.
What’s inside the iPhone’s notch, circa iPhone X.

That seems like it’d be more difficult to cram into a hole punch cutout — even if Apple was willing to go with a larger one, like the Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus’ double-camera cutout. 

Of course, the biggest argument in favor of bringing a fingerprint reader back is the stark reality of 2020 and 2021: the fact that we’re all wearing masks all the time, and that Face ID, frankly, is terrible when you’re wearing a mask. But hopefully that issue will improve if (when?) the pandemic starts to ebb, and I can go back to easily unlocking my phone when I’m out and about again. 

Sean: Hey! I was saving that argument for later. Cutting me off at the pass is a dirty trick. So do you agree that speed matters more than the fact that Face ID uses your face?

Okay, let’s pretend for a moment that Face ID actually requires a linear array of components (even though the speaker, microphone, ambient light sensor and proximity sensor in that image all feature in standard phones and almost all of them could easily be placed on a phone’s rim). What’s so wrong about giving a phone a little bit of forehead instead of a notch, like the Pixel 4’s Face ID competitor? 

The Pixel 4 stuck its sensors inside its forehead instead of a notch.
The Pixel 4 stuck its sensors inside its forehead instead of a notch.
Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

Stick some extra battery underneath the additional height that change would afford — or hell, how about a good ol’ headphone jack. Design certainly isn’t the reason that particular Pixel failed; it was panned for lackluster battery life and gimmicks, and probably didn’t have anywhere near enough marketing.

Chaim: I mean, design may have had something to do with it, but the Pixel 4 helps prove my point: Google was cramming way more tech than even Face ID had for the sake of gimmicky Soli gestures

And taking up the whole top of the phone for a camera array feels like a worse situation than the notch; at least with the notch, you can still nominally use the top area of the phone as a status bar thanks to the “rabbit ears” of screens on the side (something that previous versions of iOS had to devote useful pixel space for.) 

There’s also the chance that Apple could one day add Touch ID back to the iPhone, either in button or in-display form. But even if it does, it’s hard for me to imagine the company backtracking from Face ID at this point. Which means that like it or not, Sean, you’ll probably have to suffer a notch for the foreseeable future. 

Sean: I guess I kinda like the rabbit ears. But suffer, I will.