Editorial: The LG G6 User Experience Proves 18:9 Has a Long Way to Go Before It’s a Worthy Replacement
We’ve heard time and time again that 2017 is all about eradicating the bezel. One way or another, OEMs want you to forget that your phone is more than a screen.
Thin bezels can make for an attractive phone, but it’s also an obsession that can hurt the user experience when taken too far. The first taste of the 18:9 wave of phones we can expect in 2017 is the LG G6. The company has thus pioneered once more by investing a lot of R&D money into the phone’s most marketable and, in my opinion, most surprisingly underwhelming feature.
LG is trying to make its newest display stand out through any way they can — and it’s no surprise either, as their flagships are always a good opportunity to demonstrate how good their LCD technology and manufacturing prowess has gotten. The LG G6 thus brings an insane pixel density thanks to its 1440p resolution, plus rounded display corners, HDR playback for Dolby Vision content, and of course the mightily-marketed 18:9 aspect ratio, which LG believes is a new emerging trend in the mobile market. After spending a good few days with a pre-production LG G6 review unit, I actually hope that this isn’t the case — at least not yet, and not in the way the G6 implements it. Because all in all, the 18:9 aspect ratio is the most disappointing aspect of the phone’s excellent display, and one of the few specifications of this device that doesn’t really add anything to my particular use-case, as much as I wanted it to. In fact, it brought some compatibility headaches and hand gymnastics I didn’t expect.
The first question that came to my mind when eyeing the G6 at its launch event was whether this new screen format would really change the way I interact with my phone. Off the bat, I can give the implementation credit for two accomplishments: 1. It does look attractive and unconventional, and often prompts curiosity even in those who don’t realise just what’s different with its display. 2. It does make the phone’s bezels appear much thinner, and it does indeed boost the screen-to-body ratio. But here is the thing: with an 18:9 display, all of our intuitive understanding of bezels, screen-to-body ratios, phone proportions and even some hardware assessments, goes out the window. Thus, plenty of misconception and confusion is generated when outlets fail to communicate what’s different in accurate terms, but I want to start with one I haven’t seen discussed: the LG G6 is not truly efficient with its bezels, at least not more efficient than previous LG phones and competing alternatives.
Tall and Curvy
This might come as a surprise because on its face, it does seem as if the LG G6 has very minimal bezels all around. When you look at the screen-to-body ratio figure, your preconception is seemingly confirmed: at around 78.37%, this phone looks to be as good as it gets in terms of bezel efficiency. Only Samsung gets close to this metric with a proper, non-experimental flagship — the Galaxy Note 7 (RIP) went a bit higher at close to 80%, but that was with almost no side bezel, while the Galaxy S8 and S8+ go way above. However, it might come as a surprise that the LG G6 doesn’t actually have extremely efficient bezels, at least not much better than LG’s previous efforts!
The LG G6 has a trick under its sleeve when it comes to screen-to-body ratio, as that ratio gives the 18:9 standard an unfair advantage given 18:9 increases the vertical segment of screen with side bezels, which greatly contributes to the area of the screen but not the area of the phone that is not-screen. In short, you are adding more of the phone that has a higher ratio of screen to not-screen, inflating the overall ratio.
So much of the intuition we’ve grown accustomed has been shattered
However, the ratio of screen to not-screen of each of these segments doesn’t necessarily have to be very good to get a higher screen-to-body ratio (though the thinner the side bezel, the better the benefit). The examples below should illustrate this, but consider the following as well: both the absolute and relative side bezels of the LG G6 are bigger than those of the LG G2, released in 2013. The screen height to physical height ratio is higher on the LG G6, both because its absolute bezel is smaller, and because the amount of screen (vertically) is larger. The screen height to physical height ratio of 87% has a 3.8 percentage point advantage over the LG G2’s, and if we were to keep the same absolute top and bottom bezel, but shrink down the display’s height by changing its ratio to 16:9, that difference would drop to 2.45 percentage points. To summarize, if it wasn’t for the vertical height advantage of the LG G6, we’d have a phone with bezels similar to the 2013 LG G2, with thicker side bezels too.
So much of the intuition we’ve built and grown accustomed to through generations of 16:9 phones has been shattered, and measuring a screen only by its diagonal doesn’t give us enough information without knowing the height and width ratio. Because of this, some journalists (particularly in early impressions) called the LG G6 a “big phone”, and even a phablet, due to its “5.7 inch display”. The truth is, as you probably inferred by now, that the LG G6’s display is a glorified 5.1 to 5.2 inch display in terms of width, and thus it lends itself to some of the usecases of a 5.2 inch panel more than those of a phablet. Even some seemingly unrelated preconceptions we have about hardware are affected — consider, for example, that we often judge a phone’s battery capacity in relation to its screen size — though in reality, we are judging the ratio of mAh per square inch of screen. A 16:9 5.2 inch phone with a 3,200mAh battery would be well-received, but a 5.7 inch phone with that capacity would be criticised by many — the LG G6 is actually closer in screen area to a 5.5 phone, but we are used to thinking of the (implicit) ratio as battery capacity per diagonal inch, which until now and in a 16:9 world, gave us an intuitive understanding of a phone’s display area.
All of this is important because the LG G6 clearly puts an emphasis in multi-media, which is sabotaged by its functionally-small display. Consider that a video in landscape mode has the phone’s width become the video’s height, and thus the width of the screen in portrait limits the overall size of the image in landscape. For all intents and purposes, consuming 16:9 content on the LG G6 is akin to watching said content on a nowdays-small 5.2 inch device. The push for bigger displays came about as consumers started shifting their smartphone usage towards media consumption, as phones grew more capable, networks became faster and stronger, and screens got denser. The LG G6’s display has everything you’d want from a good phone screen for media consumption, minus the size.
There is some content you can experience natively on a 2:1 display, though, and it looks great. However, content that isn’t in 2:1 will leave large black gaps on the sides of the phone, which are accentuated by the LCD backlighting — I presume the Galaxy S8 wouldn’t have this issue due to its deep AMOLED blacks. But even then, the S8 doesn’t need to have such issue as Samsung cleverly allows scaling the video to the full display, even in apps like YouTube. While there’s 2:1 content on YouTube, some content is awkwardly uploaded and even if it is 2:1, you won’t see it in 2:1 (example above). While scaling a 16:9 video to a 18:9 format would result in image loss, having the option is very nice indeed as it does let you squeeze every inch out of your display, even if it comes at a small loss. This content loss impacts self-created YouTube content as well as television shows the worst, since most are shot in a 16:9 ratio and it is heavily consumed via mobile devices, and some older shows may even be in a 4:3 ratio, which will look even worse. Movies and theatrically-shot TV shows stand to benefit from this wider display since many are shot around the 2.35 ratio, filling the wider 18:9 display with smaller vertical bars than a comparable 16:9 device. In order for 18:9 to truly be better for media consumption, though, there would need to be a dramatic shift towards wider aspect ratios for the most common media types (YouTube in particular) and with television sets keeping the 16:9 ratio and laptops moving more towards 3:2, a dramatic shift to support these wider and ultrawide displays seems unlikely. The black bars will probably be here to stay.
There are some advantages to 18:9, though, and I think these are the ones that need to be maximized (though I don’t feel they currently are). For example, having a taller screen with equal width means that, under the same pixel density, you would see more text in portrait mode. And to an extent, this is the case on the LG G6 too. We arguably use our phones the most in portrait mode, and a large chunk of the content we consume with our smartphones isn’t video, but text and information feeds. For these usecases, 18:9 shines. But it doesn’t shine as much as it could with LG’s implementation, and other implementations too. This is partially because the LG G6 uses software keys (not to mention LG has been known for slightly-oversized navigation buttons) which eat away at the gains we see from increasing the screen’s vertical height, at least when you consider that phones with capacitive buttons exist and don’t need to reserve space for navigation keys. But an 18:9 phone would probably be too unwieldy without a bigger bottom bezel, which defeats the purpose of the race for inflated screen-to-body ratios. Still, an 18:9 phone with navigation keys has less of an area advantage over a 16:9 phone with capacitive keys for a plethora of usecases — though it’s an advantage still, as the vertical increase is higher than the height of a navigation bar.
There are a few software mistakes, missed opportunities and oversights that LG (and other OEMs who look at LG) needs to learn from. For example, while LG touts that the added screen height improves multi-window functionality, they could squeeze more from their display by at least allowing partial or complete immersive mode. I’ve been a fan of multi-window for a long time, and Samsung got this right many years ago — on their pre-Nougat multi-window solution, they’d hide the status bar to further increase screen real estate. Samsung also had the advantage of capacitive keys, though with the additional screen height, one shouldn’t need to hide them. LG also offers “bubble” navigation controls on some of their apps when on landscape, precisely because they want to maximize screen real estate, and in those cases they do see the value of hiding the status bar. But these controls aren’t universal, and they aren’t even available on all LG’s own apps. They had the right idea, but implementation was lacking.
There are also some bad or pointless ideas in that try to take advantage of the new screen ratio, which is typical of OEMs trying to market their new software or hardware features and justify their inclusion. But something like the “square camera”, which comes with its own homescreen shortcut despite being part of the camera, is the kind of feature nobody really asked for. Instead, LG omitted some of the things that would make sense, like built-in video scaling. Then, there is the question as to whether these changes to the screen ratio standard really benefit the Android user experience when so much of Android is top-heavy, having us barely reach the top of our screen with our thumbs to check out notifications, change settings through toggles, access shortcuts, and (in LG’s double-tap-to-wake case, for example) even lock our phones. While phones might becoming narrower (the LG G6 isn’t quite following that trend), making them taller can result in unwieldier devices if proportions aren’t balanced quite right. I personally already have enough trouble carefully accessing the notification shade on some of my bigger phones, and I’ve had a lot more trouble doing so on my LG G6 too, than I remember having with phones having a similar (horizontal) footprint, and even similar screen area. I will dedicate more words to this in a future article, but it does beg the question:
Is it worth it, really?
Most of the time, you won’t notice that the 18:9 display is particularly taller or different if you come from a phone with capacitive keys, and didn’t have a portion of your screen reserved for navigation functions. At the moment, I can’t think of any instances in which I get a tangible added benefit from the LG G6’s form factor. On the contrary, the screen’s LCD technology and 18:9 ratio makes watching most videos in dark rooms worse, though that’s specific to LG’s implementation. There are also many instances in which I could see 18:9 improving or adding to my user experience. As I’ve said before, I am a multi-window fan, and I am always starved for usable screen area.
When we visited Seoul, South Korea for a pre-briefing, LG enthusiastically claimed that this standard was the future (unlike modularity, I guess), and tried to sell the media its advantages through a bunch of slides showing a few use cases, even the square camera application. I think that 18:9 has a lot to prove still, though, and while the fact that both Samsung and LG have embraced its potential does mean we’ll probably see many OEMs follow the money, it does leave me wondering how we’ll see both Android and usage patterns change and adapt to these changes. Could this, for example, drive up the demand (and supply) of 2:1 content? What kind of features will be added to make the most out of the additional screen space? Will we find a way to minimize the impact of the navigation bar on these display gains? Will Android find ways to shift from such a top-heavy interface if 2:1 really goes mainstream?
I also theorize that this push didn’t come because of direct consumer demand, but as a quick way of boosting screen-to-body ratios without constraining physical design or internals. The curved corners have a similar effect. As I’ve noted above, the LG G6 is really not that different from the LG G2 when you look at the matter closely — mainly, it’s thinner (as most phones are today) and taller, but it has similar bezel proportions in the end. LG, in particular, has been struggling to reclaim the bezels crown it lost with the LG G4, as their phones have been getting larger and less bezel-efficient with almost every iteration after the LG G3.
If 18:9 is first and foremost a way for OEMs to improve screen-to-body ratios, we have to wonder what the costs to our UX are, and whether they are worth it. As I’ve said above, the LG G6’s user experience ultimately doesn’t feel terribly different from a similarly-sized 16:9 phone with capacitive keys. Capacitive keys in general are a good way to leverage the bottom bezel that we are only now seeing close to outright-killed with the Galaxy S8, for example, which clearly couldn’t fit capacitive keys in there. This move also means technology media needs to find better ways to convey accurate information about smartphone proportions. Stating the screen diagonal doesn’t cut it anymore, and while most people should infer that a 5.7 inch 18:9 phone is no phablet, it needs to be made explicit for those who don’t. Even our understanding of screen-to-body ratio changes slightly as 18:9 phones get a slight advantage without necessarily reduce their absolute bezel size. These won’t be immediate changes, but I think they are necessary for responsible reporting and reviewing.
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