The Android fan community is having something of an emotional meltdown right now as it witnesses new phone after new phone embracing the notched screen design. Popularized by the iPhone X and Essential Phone last year, the notch at the top of the screen has been widely ridiculed as a dire offense against the principles of good design and x-axis symmetry. In short, people don’t like it. But there’s a certain inevitability to this notch-heavy future of ours, and I want to bring a cautious note of optimism to the conversation. Life with the notch isn’t so bad, and app developers can make it a hell of a lot better.
My stance on the notch has been softening since I started using the iPhone X at the beginning of this year, and one of the highlights of that experience has been the Halide camera app. This minimalist manual photography app has been around since before the iPhone X, but it was its thoughtful redesign to account for the X’s notch that really caught my eye. Halide doesn’t retreat from the iPhone X’s notched design and instead uses those two spare slivers of real estate on either side of the notch to insert useful information. On the left, you get to see a histogram of the photo you’re composing, and on the right, you have a readout of your exposure adjustment. The app and the phone feel like one, as if the notch in the iPhone was put there just to separate the Halide data readouts.
The reason I find Halide encouraging is the sheer simplicity of the design tweaks required to make apps feel cohesive with notched display hardware. You can easily imagine other full-screen apps making similarly good use of the top corners of a modern phone’s display: games can show the player’s score on one side and remaining lives on the other, reading apps can display page numbers or quick links to bookmarks, drawing apps can tuck brush shape and size toggles into the corners, and social apps can jam their unread-message counters into those slots.
We’ve spent so much time fixating on how the displays of 2018 phones are different from before that we’ve mostly neglected to address the opportunity that comes with that change. Even if all you ever do with your notched screen is mask it with an optional all-black background (as Huawei offers on the P20 Pro), you’ll still be able to nudge the notifications bar, clock, and status icons up and out of the way of the main screen area. With perfect blacks on OLED displays, the physical notch melts into the darkness, and what you get is a pretty awesome effect of your clock and icons seemingly floating atop the phone’s bezel. I’ve seen that in person on the P20 Pro and it’s a really striking and appealing effect.
One of the major differences between Apple making a radical change like the notch and its Android competitors doing the same is the reaction of their respective fan bases. Apple, together with its vast ecosystem of design-savvy app developers, gets the benefit of the doubt. People just trust that the new hardware, however weird, will be capitalized upon. It’s not so with Android devices, and there are good historical reasons for that, but I’ve seen enough encouraging signs of improvement on the Android front to ask that we give more phone makers the benefit of the doubt.
Maybe the notch will indeed be a design disaster and nothing good will come out of it. Or maybe the tiny Halide development team will be emulated by others building new apps for both the iPhone and its similarly styled Android rivals. Let’s see what happens.