The first half of 2018 in the smartphone world was dominated by notches, which came in all forms, shapes and sizes. As smartphone makers looked for new ways to bring edge-to-edge display design to smartphones in 2017, they stumbled upon the idea of putting a notch at the top of the display. Essential, the company backed by Andy Rubin, the creator of Android, was the first to demonstrate what a notch would look like when he showed the Essential Phone at the stage of Code Conference. Apple, when it launched the iPhone X, in September of 2017, really pushed the idea forward. While notch was criticized at first, the idea became a commonplace as early as 2018.
Samsung decided stay out of the notch game when it launched the Galaxy S9, Galaxy S9+ and Galaxy Note 8 last year. However, all other leading players, including OnePlus and Google, adopted the notch when they launched their flagships OnePlus 6, OnePlus 6T and Google Pixel 3 XL. While leading companies were rampantly adding notch to their smartphones, there were others proposing the death of the cutout. The first signs of that came when Vivo launched its NEX smartphone in China with an elevating selfie camera. Oppo, which shares the parent company with Vivo, launched Find X in June 2018 that made mechanical components a new normal on smartphones.
Both Vivo and Oppo ditched notch without giving up on full screen design by adding mechanical components. A general design guideline states against the use of mechanical components in form factors like that of smartphones. Mechanical components tend to wear faster and if anything goes wrong then fixing them would not be easy. The culprit in the industry’s quest to make an all glass smartphone has been the front-facing camera. While there have been wild ideas like the ZTE Nubia X and Vivo NEX Dual Display Edition, which put display on the back as well to allow for the use of rear camera as selfie shooter as well, it is definitely not practical.
Honor, the sub-brand of Huawei, announced the View20 last month in Hong Kong as the first device with hole punch display design. With a week’s time, Samsung launched the Galaxy A8s and Huawei launched the Nova 4 with hole punch display design in China. The arrival of these three smartphones has raised the question as to whether this is the next big thing in smartphone design.
Huawei tells BGR India that the hole-punch display solution on models such as the Nova 4 and Honor View20 is the culmination of years of experience in premium design and advanced technology. It says the punch display takes bezel-less display allows the company to eliminate the notch and achieve a screen-to-body ratio of 91.8 percent. Huawei’s punch display solution is the smallest in the industry, measuring at just 3.05mm in diameter. In comparison, the Honor View20’s punch display measures 4.5mm in diameter while the Galaxy A8s uses a 6.7mm opening to house the front camera.
How does the hole punch display work?
The punch display, simply put, looks like drilling a hole into the display and putting a camera sensor underneath it. However, it is just not that simple. Huawei says the opening is a blind hole, meaning it does not go through the screen entirely. The design comes with a major challenge of light transmittance since the hole lives about 10 layers of glass above the camera. This could lead to light being absorbed and result in discoloration or blurry images. Honor says it adopted a special technique called pixel translation technology to achieve the hole punch display design on its View20 smartphone.
On the liquid-crystal layer of Honor View20, Honor has designed a small camera spot that does not fully penetrate the display but retains the camera function. The company says this process involves 18 layers of screen and uses a proprietary display bonding material that fixes different layers to prevent light emitted by the display from entering the camera.
Honor tells BGR India that this approach can prevent display interference with the in-screen camera and also lead to the camera being perfectly embedded into the screen for an optimal display. It claims the competing design which drills through all the layers of the screen, the View20’s design will allow for the structure and strength of the display in the long run.
Huawei says that it designed and reiterated the engineering process to ensure that the Nova 4 and its reinforced frame are as durable as a smartphone without a notched display design. While the focus has been around housing the front camera underneath the display, the design has also led to other kinds of challenges. The most notable one being housing the proximity sensor. On the Nova 4, Huawei has moved the proximity sensor to the top of the middle frame. Unlike optical proximity sensor, which fires in a tangent, the sensor on the Nova 4 and View20 fire vertically. The design allows the sensor to detect nearby object even when the sensor is not placed perpendicular to the screen. A close inspection of Huawei Nova 4 and Honor View20 also reveals that the phone has a miniaturised speaker grille, which is hidden between the frame and the display.
Watch: Honor View20 First Look
Is hole punch display the future of smartphones?
I have been using the Honor View20, the first smartphone with hole punch display in India, set to launch on January 29, for the past few days. I must say that the experience of a design where the display extends all the way to the edges (almost) and does not have to deal with a mechanical slider or an elevating front camera setup. While it is not as immersive as a smartphone like the Honor Magic 2 or Xiaomi Mi MIX 3, which have slider mechanism, the experience is much smoother and intuitive than those devices.
One of the things that I observed is whenever you held the phone in landscape mode, your left hand tends to block that hole punch camera and thus allows for an experience where that hole, which is also a notch, moves out of the equation altogether. I’m convinced that Huawei and hence Honor have conquered the idea of engineering and designing hole punch solution but the challenge lies in smart software design. The existence of hole punch results in the notification area being held hostage and thus the notifications need to shift to their right. The success or failure of this design will lie in how smart the OS design could get going forward and who does it the best stands to gain the most.
There will definitely be phones launching with traditional notches this year as well. The engineering of this hole punch display does not really seem cost effective enough where it would trickle down to budget and midrange phones as well. However, this notch is a much better notch implementation than the one seen on Google Pixel 3 XL, which looks nothing but robotic eyes staring at you. At MWC 2019 next month, we could see phones from Nokia, Motorola among others with hole punch display and it will dictate how popular this solution will become in 2019.