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Opinion: The iPhone X notch is not great design, so why copy it?

Sanjiv Sathiah, 👁 Douglas Black, Douglas Black, 03/08/2018

Apple has historically been known for its industrial design prowess, understandably sparking the creation of many an imitation. Given the controversial iPhone X notch is not considered one of its greatest design elements, the mind boggles as to why smartphone makers are falling over themselves to copy it.

If there is one thing that MWC 2018 will be remembered for, it is not the launch of the Galaxy S9 and S9+, which look very much like their predecessors. It will be for the sheer number of blatant copycat Android smartphones that have ripped off the iPhone X’s notch (to be hereafter referred to as ‘The Notch”, as opposed to the Essential PH-1’s tiny camera-sized notch). Asus, Leagoo, Oukitel, Blackview — all pointlessly cribbed The Notch. Although a device called the LG G7 turned up at MWC with a Notch, they get a reprieve, as it has reportedly ditched its Notch copy for an all-new design. Unfortunately, however, the LG G7’s place seems to be taken by the just-teased Oppo R15 (and its design twin by default, the OnePlus 6). Thus, the list of brain-dead imitators swells. Why do I say “brain-dead”? Because the iPhone X notch is a design compromise, not a design breakthrough. 

The Essential PH1's notch. Not to be confused with The Notch.
The Essential PH1's notch. Not to be confused with The Notch.

The iPhone X Notch was controversial from its introduction not so much because of the Face ID technology it houses, but because of the way that it intrudes into the UI. Speaking to the Herald Sun, Sony’s head of design, Kaz Tajima, recently criticized the notch from this perspective; when asked why Sony hadn’t followed Apple’s lead on the notch as so many others have, Tajima said, “Notching the display always affects the user interface. We try to keep a square user interface as much as possible [because] we try to respect the content as much as possible.”

Other critics of The Notch have made the same argument: It might be distinctive (potentially helping to set it apart from other would-be full-screen devices reaching the market), but it comes at a cost to the user experience. The irony of this is that Apple, perhaps more than most companies, has focused on delivering uncompromised user experiences. So, including a design element like the notch to help make it more distinct (likely necessitated by the removal of its previously defining feature, the iconic Home button), is quite un-Apple-like. The saving grace for The Notch is the technology that it contains, which is what Apple is actually calling attention to in its decision to encroach upon the content. Still, the Notch is a decision made even more ironic by the fact that Apple has historically boasted of making technology fade to the background in the interest of advancing the user experience — the iPhone X is a complete reversal of this formula.

The iPhone X's True Depth Camera System.
The iPhone X's True Depth Camera System.

Part of what contributes to my decidedly negative take on the copycat designs we’ve seen of late is that fact that the iPhone X’s emulators do so with literally no excuse beyond imitation. The official Apple name for The Notch is the “True Depth Camera System.” It is a piece of hardware central to the device’s Face ID biometric authentication system. It contains a proximity sensor, infrared emitter capable of projecting 30,000 invisible dots on a user’s face, infrared camera, flood illuminator, ambient light sensor, 7MP camera, and a speaker and microphone. As you can see from the image above, there is a lot of tech packed into The Notch. This is quite different to the Notch-sporting devices that invaded MWC en masse, which simply include a front-facing camera, speaker and the usual sensors.

The Asus Zenfone 5's... regular Camera system?
The Asus Zenfone 5's... regular Camera system?

From an engineering perspective, there is almost no reason whatsoever for any of the copycat smartphones to have a Notch rather than simply a notch, such as the Essential PH-1 or the Xiaomi Mi Mix 2S, as none on show at MWC incorporate a 3D facial recognition system. Most, if not all, include a rear fingerprint sensor on their devices and don’t include anything special from a technological perspective in their notches. These companies have simply copied the notch for the sake of having a Notch, just like Apple. Worse, Asus, while at the same time as it shamelessly copied the iPhone X notch, also managed to try ridicule Apple by calling it the “Fruit Company.”

Thankfully, the designers at Xiaomi and Vivo have demonstrated that they possess some imagination. Even if there is an overall industry trend towards full-screen devices, their designers have shown some originality. Xiaomi’s Mi Mix 2S takes its own approach to the front-facing camera placement dilemma caused by the full-screen display trend, placing it in a small corner of the device. Meanwhile, Vivo’s incredible APEX FullView concept phone features a retractable pop-up front-facing camera, with its cutting-edge design proving that, with just a little imagination, smartphone makers don’t need to shadow every step that Apple makes — particularly the dubious ones.

Xiaomi's Mi Mix 2S has a tiny camera notch at the top right corner of the display.
Xiaomi's Mi Mix 2S has a tiny camera notch at the top right corner of the display.

It might make sense to copy design elements of a device that advances the smartphone experience — Apple has perhaps done this better than most companies, often “reinventing” products in a way that improve upon the user experience. What makes the Notch phenomenon on show at MWC particularly egregious is not the complete disregard for intellectual property, but the fact that in the rush to say “me too,” so many smartphone makers have copied what is arguably a retrograde design choice forced on Apple by the apparent need to replace one distinctive feature with another —  not because it is advancing the user experience.

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> Notebook / Laptop Reviews and News > News > News Archive > Newsarchive 2018 03 > Opinion: The iPhone X notch is not great design, so why copy it?
Sanjiv Sathiah, 2018-03- 8 (Update: 2018-03- 9)
Sanjiv Sathiah
Sanjiv Sathiah - News Editor
I have been tech-obsessed from the time my father introduced me to my first computer, an Apple ][. Since then, I have grown to enjoy exploring and experimenting with any computing platform that I can get my hands on – I am the definitive early adopter! I have always been interested in how we can use technology to shape and improve our lives, most recently using it to record, mix and master my debut record, Acuity – Nature | Nurture out now on Spotify.