iPhone X Notch: The Good and The Bad of Apple’s Design Choice


Several months before the iPhone X launch, leaked images suggested how the front profile of the smartphone was going to look. The accidentally-released HomePod firmware also gave us the first official look at, what has ended up becoming, the iPhone X’s unique appearance. 

Often referred to as ‘the notch’, Apple’s official terminology calls it the ‘sensor housing’, as it encloses the following components — an infrared camera, a flood illuminator, a dot projector, ambient light sensor, proximity sensor, along with a front-facing camera, earpiece and speaker. Half of these sensors present are used for Face ID — Apple’s facial authentication system that’s put in the iPhone X instead of Touch ID fingerprint recognition.

Occupying this array of components on top cuts a portion of an otherwise edge-to-edge, near-bezel-less display. There has been a lot of controversy regarding this design decision, so let’s deep dive into the bad and the good things about the iPhone X notch, starting with the bad.

THE BAD

In 2014, Motorola was on the verge of launching its Moto 360 smartwatch, when leaked images on the internet showed a flat-tire at the bottom of an otherwise round display. Famous Apple blogger John Gruber mocked the design choice, which Motorola at the time suggested was necessary to contain components like an ambient light sensor and display drivers. Three years later, the iPhone X bears a similar cut-away that’s become an eyesore to several onlookers.

Apart from subjectively looking bad to some, there are functional disadvantages to the sensor housing placement. When the iPhone X is used in landscape mode, the notch creates an asymmetrical appearance. Apple’s design guidelines ask app developers to avoid placing any elements on the edges of the screen, and rather stick to the “safe area”, such that content will not get hidden due to the notch. But in the example below reported by The Verge, the scroll indicator unavoidably gets hidden upon holding the phone sideways, with the notch on the right side.

In landscape mode, videos by default play letterboxed, where the notch gets blended nicely into the dark borders on either sides (in part thanks to the OLED display). But you can double-tap on it for the video to fill up the entire screen. By doing so, some content expectedly will get hidden behind the sensor housing. But all visuals used on Apple’s official iPhone X page show content like photos, videos, and games occupying the entire screen, with some portion hidden behind the sensor housing. This suggests that Apple has fully embraced the notch, and expects developers and users to do the same.

Finally, as covered by MacRumors, in landscape mode the iPhone X shows less information when compared to typical 4.7-inch iPhones due to the swipe gesture indicator. That might not seem like a lot, but with the keyboard open in landscape, this will result in an even lesser viewable area while typing.

The notch’s problems aren’t only restricted to using the iPhone X in landscape. In portrait mode, when compared to previous iPhones, the sensor housing splits the display on the top into two corners (unofficially referred to as “the ears”). Now the top area traditionally houses the Status Bar, which on other iPhones displays a lot of information — starting with the network bar, carrier name, WiFi, and internet activity symbol with the time placed in the center. Next, there are symbols for do not disturb mode, screen rotation lock, location use, alarm, Bluetooth, battery meter with percentage and charging symbol. Lastly, the area to the left is dynamically used to accommodate a back button, when you jump to an app by clicking its link in another app (for example when you click an Amazon link from Twitter, or a Twitter link from Safari).

Although the media didn’t get a lot of time to deepdive into the iPhone X at the hands-on area after the launch event, it is evident that some compromises had to be made. From what I can tell seeing Apple’s official site and the early demo videos, Apple could only fit the important elements like the time, the network bars, WiFi symbol and battery meter on either sides.

Seemingly, the status symbols for do not disturb, screen rotation lock, and alarm won’t be persistently shown on the iPhone X top bar due to lack of space. Also, the carrier name is seen only on the lockscreen, and not always (although this is nothing worth fretting over for most people). Next, it is also unclear whether the battery left can be represented numerically in percentage next to the meter. If you were to look at the screenshots, there seems to be no space left for that. The only screenshot on Apple’s official page that shows the percentage sign is when the Control Center is opened. Lastly, the Back to App button is now super-awkwardly placed underneath the time on the left ear, and looks completely unpolished.

This brings our attention to Control Center — which now opens by swiping down on the right ear of the iPhone X. Swiping anywhere else, like the sensor housing or left ear, instead brings down the Notification Center. Comparatively, in Android phones, a one-finger swipe from the top using a single finger reveals notifications, and a two-finger swipe-down gesture opens the quick toggles for WiFi, Bluetooth, etc. To some people, iPhone X’s gestures were deemed as inconsistent behaviour, a notion made popular by this viral video.

Lastly, on non-iPhone-X smartphones, iOS puts a prominently-visible bar on the top to indicate background activity of a minimised app like a phone call, voice recording, and even location use from iOS 11 onwards.

This bar shows details like the app name along with other information like a timer for phone calls or a recording. Tapping the bar would take you back to the app. On the iPhone X, this persistent bar is replaced by a colored, pill-shaped wrapper around the time on the left ear. Prima facie, it seems that vital information such as which app is using what resource won’t be known up-front, because of this design change.

THE GOOD

After hearing so much negative feedback about the iPhone X notch, one would wonder if there’s any good that has come out of Apple’s design choice. In my opinion, there are a few things that can be seen in positive light.

For instance, since its introduction in iOS 7, Control Center has been universally accessible with a swipe up from the bottom of any screen in iOS. Although this gesture worked fine in most instances, personally it’s been not very easy to use when the keyboard is open. Every other swipe for me results in accidental characters typed on the keyboard. A slow, precise gesturing is needed to open the Control Center instead. On the iPhone X, since pulling down on the right ear brings up Control Center, such an issue won’t arise anymore (although people will have to relearn the new gesture).

Next, the sensor housing does offer the iPhone X a very unique appearance. It will be very easy to recognise someone using one especially at night, thanks to the edge-to-edge display that uniquely doesn’t light up on that top area. You can also expect app developers start getting creative in making their apps embrace the notch.

One could even say that if Apple had gone with a typical edge-to-edge display by not filling the area around the notch with screen, it might have looked similar to other Android phones. And that may be true — since that’s how the LG G6, Samsung Galaxy S8 and Note 8 are designed. Here’s a look at how the iPhone X would have looked if Apple had gone the traditional route.

And lastly, because the status indicators occupy the top edge of the iPhone X, that does create some extra viewing area for content below. Here is an image comparing how much more content is visible on an iPhone X when compared to 4.7-inch iPhones, which is largely due to the increased height of the display, but also in part due to the notch design.

In the next couple of months, as the iPhone X starts being used by millions of customers worldwide, we will see how people react to this drastic change. But there’s a good chance that the issues mentioned above won’t be deal-breakers for people who buy the phone; just minor bumps they need to get over.

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