Editorial: Bezels in 2016, and the Trends that Will Shape Smartphone Designs in 2017
This past year has been quite experimental in the realm of smartphone design: smartphone OEMs attempted to push the envelope and find new ways to differentiate their products and push the industry forward. Many tried, plenty failed, but some were able to steal the spotlight.
One of those success stories is the Xiaomi Mi MIX. Xiaomi confesses that the Mi MIX is a “Concept Phone”, as it was an experimental release that aimed to push smartphone design boundaries, and test whether consumers would come to accept something rather unconventional, a specific design others had attempted before with little fanfare and success. The first Mi MIX flash sale only had a limited quantity (estimated at 10,000) that sold out in just 10 seconds, so the “concept phone” certainly had some appeal to it.
Its popularity originates mainly from its “bezel-less” design. Xiaomi’s Mi MIX claims a screen-to-body ratio of 91.3% officially, albeit GSMArena found the number to be a bit of a stretch as the actual number from their measurements came in at a lesser, but still very impressive, 83.6%. The phone only has a thin chin and minimal bezels on the other three sides, an approach that was preceded by phones like the Aquos Crystal and others from Sharp.
Incidentally, the display panel on the Xiaomi Mi MIX is supplied by Sharp. Sharp’s own lineup of bezel-less devices, by comparison, was not as well received. The bezel-less Sharp family started off with the Aquos Crystal in August 2014 with a screen-to-body ratio of 78.5% and a 5” display. The company then released the Aquos Crystal 2 in May 2015 with a screen-to-body ratio of 77.2% and a 5.2” display, while the Aquos Xx was released at the same time with a screen-to-body ratio of 77.7% but with a larger 5.7” display. The Sharp Aquos Xx2 was released in October 2015, but the display was trimmed to 5.3”. Perhaps Sharp was displeased with the sales numbers of the so-called bezel-less smartphones in their lineup, as the company later released the Sharp Aquos Xx3 which completely shied away from this design language.
Despite Sharp seeing little success and eventually discontinuing the key distinguishing feature of their lineup, other OEMs have taken lessons from Sharp’s foray into bezel-less design. The earpiece-less Aquos Crystal used a technology similar to bone conduction for sound transmission — the entire phone is vibrated by a direct wave receiver to produce and transmit sound. The Xiaomi Mi MIX employs a similar technology, as it makes use of a piezoelectric ceramic lever that hits the metallic frame of the device to transmit sound via vibrations. The Mi MIX also employed a few other technologies to achieve its grand vision, like using an ultrasonic proximity sensor instead of an infrared sensor, and reducing the front camera size by half and placing it at the bottom bezel.
All three of these features combined grant Xiaomi the freedom to free the Mi MIX from the massive chin that was a staple feature of the previously-mentioned Sharp devices. Granted, the Xiaomi Mi MIX still has a thin chin and minimal bezels on the other sides, but the device is as bezel-less as a smartphone could feasibly be in the year 2016.
A few other OEMs are approaching thin bezel designs too. The Lenovo ZUK Edge comes with a 5.5” 1080p display with a 78.3% screen-to-body ratio. Though, there is no curved screen at play here (despite the name), so the figure seems a lot more impressive.
Samsung’s ill-fated Galaxy Note 7 was also an improvement when it comes to the screen-to-body ratio. Compared to its predecessor, the Note 5 with a 5.7” display clocking in at at 75.9% screen-to-body ratio, the Note 7 reduced the bezel size thanks to the dual curved display. For reference, the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge with its 5.5” display came up to 76.1% in its bezel ratio, while the non-curved Galaxy S7 managed a 72.1%. Had the Note 7 not suffered an explosive fate, it would have been an impressive display benchmark for other flagships to compare to.
Other smartphones from Xiaomi are also in the race for the thinnest bezels, even after you discount the Mi MIX concept phone. The Xiaomi Mi Note 2 and the Mi 5 are also rather screen efficient, with a screen-to-body ratio of 74.2% and 73.1% respectively. The Mi Note 2 also adopts the curved screen approach, while the Mi 5 achieves its impressive minimal bezel design using a traditional flat display.
Even Huawei seem to be continuing an impressive streak. The Huawei Mate 9 comes with a bezel ratio of 77.5% for its 5.9” screen, compared to the Mate 8 with its 78% ratio on a 6” display. The Huawei P9 improves on the Huawei P8 with its 72.9% ratio versus the 71.4% on the predecessor.
With all of these devices, what we can remain assured of is that a few OEMs will continue to try and cram as big of a display as they reasonably can place into comfortably-sized bodies. Experimental phones aside, none of the other mentioned phones have had complaints for being too sparse on bezels. Some of these OEMs will also take it even further in 2017.
On the other hand, there are OEMs who completely disregarded these apparent trends. Some manufacturers even abandoned what their own flagships of the past have put forth as a benchmark.
A clear example is LG, who seemingly have completely moved away from what the LG G3 once stood for in the G-series lineup. The G3 was a champion of minimal bezels with its 75.3% bezel ratio, but the LG G4 and LG G5 got progressively worse in that regard with ratios of 72.5% and 70.1% respectively. Even on the V series which comprised of a large display and a secondary screen, the V20 bore an unimpressive 72.4% screen-to-body ratio, which is in contrast to the various other OEMs who manage to get better ratios on larger phones. Larger displays allow for bigger bodies to house the various components, thus reducing the dependence on the forehead and chin for housing hardware elements.
Finally, we can consider the Google Pixel and the Google Pixel XL. Since these phones have been made on Google’s specifications and are the first of the new Google Pixel smartphone lineup, there are no “true” predecessors to compare them to. With screen-to-body ratios of 69% and 71.2% on the Pixel and Pixel XL respectively, the numbers are comparatively unimpressive, and the physical appearance suffers as a result. This was one of the particularly common criticisms aimed at the device soon after its announcement and release.
So where does all of this leave us for the coming year?
There’s one thing that we can say with confidence: OEMs will continue pushing design boundaries and reducing bezels. Concept products such as the Mi MIX garnered a lot of media attention, so we can look forward to seeing other OEMs approach more minimal bezel designs. ZUK’s Edge barely squeezed its way into 2016 in the last few days – perhaps other Chinese OEMs will try similar approaches in 2017.
The trend won’t be limited to China either. Samsung’s Galaxy S8 is also a phone to look forward in this regard. Their alleged decision to ditch the physical home button will play well in helping the company reduce the bottom chin too, as it seeks to replace more of the frame with screen to make up for the screen real estate loss that a navigation bar would bring. Assuming Samsung continues implementing curved displays (which they will in all likelihood), the S8’s lack of bezels will likely impress, especially if the rumors regarding the removal of Samsung’s traditional home button happen to be true.
LG is also seemingly dumping its modular approach with the G6, so there are expectations that the G6 might be closer to the G3 than say the V10 in terms of bezels. As more leaks and renders for the device arrive, we’re starting a see a clearer picture on LG’s design standing.
Even a device like the Pixel gives us hope. Google has set a low baseline with their first release, so we can expect to see improvements made with the next Pixel successor. Whether the ratio will be impressive or not is something that we will have to decide when the device is released, but it’s likely they’ll manage to make their next Pixel even sleeker.
Why don’t more OEMs go for more screen and less body?
There are valid reasons why OEMs hold back on bezel-less designs. Bezels are necessary to provide structural support and integrity to the device. They also provide shock absorption (as much as a bezel can), mitigating the damage a direct drop would do to a glass display. More bezel also means more room for components, and in case of smartphones, every millimeter matters. They also provide area to aid in gripping our phones, a task that is becoming ever more arduous in times of glass and metal back phones. Adding on top and bottom bezels also helps in positioning the display in more favorable position relative to your hand and fingers, while the side bezels help in reducing palm and other accidental touches (like when you hold your phone in landscape for clicking pictures).
Hardware advantages aside, Android as an OS is also biased towards right-handed users. Think fast scrollbars, Floating-Action-Buttons, even your navigation bar in landscape mode — all usually come out on the right edge of the display. This caters to the majority of the population who hold and use phones with their right hand. Thin bezels would mean that the software would need to adapt for better palm and accidental touch rejection. It’s on the OEM to work on software to reject erroneous taps and swipes should they go for an implementation as specific as Samsung’s curved displays.
A proposition that comes up often is adopting AMOLED displays and then displaying black borders via software to mimic a bezel. This would give the user flexibility to choose their preferred bezel thickness for appropriate one-handed use, and still make a large display available for media consumption. While the idea seems practical, we have to go back on the hardware need for bezels to realize that we still need some of it.
For better or worse, OEMs will continue to try packing as much screen as possible into increasingly smaller bodies for sleeker devices. While outliers will continue to exist, 2017 gives thin bezel lovers plenty to look forward to.