Google failed to justify the Pixel 3 XL’s massive notch

Google’s Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL arrived yesterday without too much fanfare. After all, the devices leaked pretty much in entirety over the course of the last two months, leaving little to the imagination when Google hardware chief Rick Osterloh came on stage. But one aspect of the Pixel 3 XL, in particular, that became more pronounced and perplexing now that we’ve seen it in full — and heard Google’s reasoning about its existence — is the rather obtrusive display notch.

With the Pixel 3 XL, Google’s justification for the notch is that it’s been able to reduce the bezels of the device and provide a larger display, while the notch is there to accommodate better speakers and an improved dual selfie camera system. Google even claims it has a better notch-to-display ratio than some of its rivals, and the whole argument is that you’re getting more screen, not less. But I find it unconvincing, and here’s why.

You may hate notches, and I may be preaching to the choir here by complaining about Google’s. But I don’t hate them. In fact, I’m a fan if the trade-off is for some features I enjoy, and I’m completely ambivalent to the existence of screen cutouts from an aesthetic standpoint, up until a certain point. I’ve used an iPhone X since it first came out; I never noticed or really cared about the notch when I first switched, and I still don’t today. I’m using an iPhone XS as I write this. But a notch should, at the very least, serve some purpose. It should have a good reason to be there, and Google didn’t really have a strong one to offer yesterday.

For iPhone owners, it was a no-brainer. The notch on the original iPhone X, though maybe not ideal from a design standpoint, was not too wide, not too long, and it packed in a huge amount of impressive technology in a nice-looking display. There’s Face ID, which is enabled by the TrueDepth camera module and Apple’s proprietary security and facial recognition software. There’s the ability to do some neat camera depth tricks with the front-facing lens, thanks to that hardware and software blend. And there’s goofy, ridiculous software features like Animoji and Memoji that are a fun little distraction now and again, but only enabled by the hardware in the iPhone’s notch.— nilay patel (@reckless) October 9, 2018

Another issue, albeit a minor one, is that the Pixel 3 XL’s notch doesn’t give Google the benefit of making all borders of the phone bezel-less. Practically speaking, the notch exists to allow the company a front-facing camera while still also stretching the display to the corners. (Some companies, like Vivo, have come up with novel pop-up selfie cams to avoid the notch altogether.)

But if you look down at the bottom of Google’s new device, you’ll see a bezel. Most edge-to-edge phones today, with the notable exception of the iPhone X / XS line, have a similar “chin” at the bottom, but the Pixel 3 XL’s is particularly prominent.

Photo by Dan Seifert / The Verge

Google says the Pixel 3 XL will come with the ability to “turn off” the notch if you don’t like it, transforming the top portion of the phone next to the cutout into a black status bar and nothing else. But then why bother shipping a phone with an edge-to-edge display if customers end up disliking it so much that they disable it? Sure, some consumers might not mind it at all and leave it as is, while those who prefer the extra room for the status bar will just turn it off. But needing to give people the option would suggest that even Google understands that it’s offering a compromise that’s more complicated than it seems at first glance.

My colleague Dieter Bohn, who’s held the device and is understandably more opinionated about smartphone design than your average consumer, says the notch is “not as egregious in person as it is in photos.” But he says the size of the notch can have a noticeable effect on how “chopped off” images and app screens look. He also says that “the slightly larger screen on the smaller Pixel 3 has me seriously considering going to the smaller phone.”

copied the iPhone X notch design just to have a device that looked similar to a flagship Apple product, but they failed to include any of the technology under the hood that would make a notch easier to accept.

The new OnePlus 6T, an image of which leaked just last week, has a tiny notch because the company, it seems, doesn’t need to stuff it full of sensors and additional hardware to achieve that edge-to-edge look. That’s a smart implementation of a notch, and it acknowledges that, without a convincing selling point, the cutout needs to be small and subtle.

In Google’s case, there’s just not a strong enough argument to be made for a notch of that size that does so little to elevate the overall quality and experience of using the device. Will buyers care all that much? Maybe not. But it does the Pixel 3 XL no favors when the slightly smaller, notch-less version of the phone becomes the much more attractive option in the eyes of buyers.


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