Bezel Liberation: Not a Revolution Yet, Luckily
During the dumbphone era, phones aimed to get increasingly smaller, and what once were huge bricks became slim razor-sharp flip phones. Smartphones, however, are seeing a transformation from the compact design to a phablet standard. We’ve all heard the comments regarding these phone screen size increases, and now most manufacturers offer phones with screens above the 5 inch diagonal mark. But there’s a counter-trend seeking to mitigate these size increases:
Phone bezels in today’s phones are not what they were years ago, and many new releases are trimming down on their screenless sides and chins to get a narrower and shorter frame. In some cases, this practice works wonderfully and allows for beautiful designs and comfortable phones with screens larger than you’d expect. However, it is not always the case: many of these devices are blocky, sharp and despite trimming on certain sides, the compromise shows itself somewhere, sometimes on the very design they aim to improve. How big is this trend, and where is it primarily located?
The phone that arguably put the idea of thin bezels in the mainstream scene was the LG G2, which had very narrow side bezels that gave the phone a peculiar look for the time. Many critics praised it for this great screen-to-body ratio, but truth be told it was not the only device that year that managed to impress in this regard. LG predicted the bezel-less movement that would begin booming with certain manufacturers, but some of the ones that were already on track to increasingly bezel-less smartphones dropped the ball after that… and so did LG.
Trends Die Sometimes…
The G4’s bezels are not great. This claim is a personal pet peeve that I see all the time when I read or watch LG G4 reviews and commentaries. The G3 before the G4 has already decreased the screen-to-body ratio, but the G4 did such a terrible job with its framing (~72.5% screen-to-body ratio) that it now falls behind plenty of competitors, many of which do not seem to really try to mitigate the bezels – certainly not nearly as much as LG did. Some of these include the Note 4, Nexus 6, Mi Note, Find 7 and Meizu MX4 Pro – none of which really have bezel-less as a design goal. Let’s also take a look at few particular releases:
Samsung’s Galaxy S3 had a design that caught many people’s attention, mainly because of how thin and lightweight it was. The cheap glossy plastic didn’t make it quite the looker, however, and it suffered in a major regard: bezels. If you were an S3 owner like me, you probably got annoyed at the fat chin at the bottom which made for asymmetric gaps surrounding the power button (ugh). The Galaxy S3 has a screen-to-body ratio of ~65.9%, which in today’s terms is rather awful. The Galaxy S4, however, improved on this dramatically: it managed to increase the ratio to ~72.3% (that is just ~0.2% under the touted G4). This was a great move for Samsung, as it allowed them to increase their screen size to 5 inches while still reducing the frame… which is exactly the sought-after benefit of thinner bezels.
The S5, however, was a retrograde iteration that dialed back to under 70% for the ratio. This was unfortunate, because the G3 managed to stay at around ~75.3% – hardly as big of a compromise since the G2 was only ~0.6% higher. Samsung’s Note line up also saw a bezel increase: the Note 3 also had slim bezels, at ~74.8% screen-to-body ratio (one of the best ratios of 2013). The Note 4 lowered that to 74.2%, which is still largely favorable for a phablet. Luckily, the S6 improved the S5’s screen-to-body ratio while retaining the screen size… but most was taken from the sides, and the top and bottom of the device see very large bezels now.
It is also worth noting that devices like the Galaxy S6 Edge attempt to mask the bezels by having the curved edges wrap around the sides. This does help the illusion that the phone does not have side bezels, until you look at it from the very side. It is also rather unfortunate that the Edge didn’t have as prominent of a curve in its edges as the Note Edge did… but this is likely a conscious decision to avoid the issues that such a screen would cause.
This is, in fact, an inherent problem with the bezel-less phones as well: it is much easier to accidentally touch the screen unintentionally. There are, however, various software tweaks that can be baked in to minimize these accidental screen touches. The bezel trend spawned phones such as the rather known Sharp Aquos Crystal, a mid-ranger with an astounding ~78.5% screen-to-body ratio. The flagship variant Aquos Crystal X raises this to ~82.45%. The obvious downside to these phones’ designs, however, is that the bezels are all concentrated at the very bottom of the phones, which gives them a huge chin. Dell’s Venue 8 7000 tablet also had this very problem, which made the device very unattractive despite its ~76.3% ratio. The Sharp Aquos Crystal 2 announced this May is also seemingly going back in ratio, to ~77.2%.
… and at some places
The initial craze that reviewers had for the G2 and G3 did manifest itself in some of the devices we saw throughout 2014, and that we will see through 2015. But it is also clear that many important manufacturers are not paying as much attention to the bezels game as one would have expected a year or two ago. LG itself has fallen behind the curve in this regard, despite being regarded as one of the prophets of the “Bezel Liberation”. But big manufacturers are not all of Android, and many OEMs are still riding the all-screen train.
First, notable Chinese giant Xiaomi revealed that the next generation of their Redmi model would feature “ultra-slim” bezels. Considering that their recent Redmi 2 had a ~67.2% screen-to-body ratio with its 4.7 inch screen, the device would greatly benefit from this. Other than that, you also have the phone from controversial Chinese company Letv, Oppo’s bezel-less phone, the rather elegant Nubia Z9 and now the Aquos Xx. This last phone (pictured) in particular also shows bigger bezels than its brethren, and much thicker ones around the sides at that – so we don’t quite get why the blogosphere insists on calling it bezel-less. Regardless, we see the same ugly chin here as well.
Now, the main problem with the bezel craze is that many of these manufacturers don’t exploit the actual virtues of the approach. Many hide under the fact that it provides more “immersive” or cinematic media consumption, or that it simply looks better. The big chin in the Aquos phones, however, is rather problematic. The first Aquos in particular featured a lot of space that could be used for capacitive keys, but they opted for software keys instead that further trimmed down screen real-state. The Aquos Crystal also couldn’t accommodate an earpiece speaker, so the phone uses Direct Waver Receiver technology for the sound to “come out” of the display. Finally, many user reports mention screen responsiveness issues and inconsistencies. These kind of compromises eventually add up and result in either worse designs, architectural constraints and/or loss of features and functionality.
The Nubia Z9, however, does make good use of the flat sides surrounding its bezels: its “Frame interactive Technology” lets you to trigger actions just by touching the sides, and this allows for new features such as unlocking the phone with certain a grip or using certain motions to access certain features. This is something that, at the very least, pushes the envelope on a design that does not suffer from the unappealing asymmetry of plenty of other “bezel-less” phones.
In short, the “bezel-less” craze is not as widespread as it might be made out to be… at least not yet, and not everywhere. Many newer phones – even some of those coming from the ones who were on top of this niche – regress or stagnate on this front. The main “bezel-less” phones you hear about do not come from the popular OEMs that we all know about, and many come from companies that want to make a name by exploiting these offerings… sometimes in gimmicky was. Some do a much better job than others and – like on many other hardware aspects – it ultimately depends on how thoughtful the implementation is.
On a personal note, I do not believe that bezel-less phones bring much in terms of functionality nor aesthetic virtues. Curved screen edges make a little more sense from a visual design standpoint to me, and eliminating all bezels could be rather unfavorable for the overall UX and handling of a phone – reaching software keys on phablets is already hard as it is. A decent screen-to-body ratio to settle for is (in my eyes) around the 74% mark, and the focus should be on trimming the side bezels. Some implementations such as 2.5D glass help tremendously with the apparent size of and feel of the bezel as well. Ultimately, the practice does not hurt anyone as long as it feels like a conscious and thoughtful part of the design process that aims to meaningfully improve the user experience. Sadly, I don’t think we see that on all of these “bezel-less phones” just yet.
Do you care about thin bezels? What do you think about the current “bezel-less” phones?
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