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Pop-up cameras are just the evolution of the slider phone

Phone companies make a lot of design decisions that, in retrospect, are very bad. We've seen some poor smartphone designs over the last decade, and most of them can be boiled down to an attempt to be exciting, innovative and interesting, only to backfire spectacularly because they led to massive compromises or didn't work as intended.

So I don't blame anyone for being skeptical when the last week brought about the latest trend in hardware innovation: pop-up cameras. First with the Vivo NEX, with its periscope-like front-facing camera, and later with the Oppo Find X, making use of a large sliding mechanism to reveal both front- and rear-facing cameras.

Some have dismissed these movable structures for hiding cameras as a fad and poor attempt at being innovative with no real benefit. I see it somewhat more pragmatically — this is a necessary development, given today's available technology, to offer consumers all of the things they want. Not unlike the early 2000's, when flip phones and sliders dominated the landscape of feature phones and smartphones alike.

HTC G1

Look deep into history, back to the early 2000's, when feature phones we evolving at a rapid pace. Early on, just about every feature phone had a "candy bar" form factor with a small screen and a majority of the face of the phone dominated by a keypad. The phones were pretty simple.

Movable components were integral to new feature phone developments, and they'll rise again.

As our demands for phone features changed, so did the priorities of the hardware. We wanted large color screens and better cameras, so phones got a little bigger. But small phones were still a priority, so flip phones arrived that incorporated both a larger screen and a keypad. Soon we wanted an even larger display, and were willing to accept a keypad that took a backseat, so we got vertical slider phones. In the latest stages of feature phones as we transitioned to smartphones, we got landscape slider or hinged phones with full QWERTY keyboards.

Throughout this expansion of feature phone and early smartphone hardware development, we saw all sorts of retractable antennas, various screen swivel mechanisms and new keyboard designs. Phones back in those days were still highly mechanical. They were heavily reliant on physical buttons and many moving parts for basic operation of the phone. Most of it came out of necessity — components just weren't small enough and technology wasn't good enough to have a fully solid-state device that did everything we wanted.

Today, we face a very similar dilemma — this time with smartphones, coming from the other direction. Modern phones are now entirely solid state and permanently fused together, eschewing as many ports and movable parts as possible in the name of cramming as much technology into a single slab as possible. Sliders and flip-style phones are all but dead. Back panels and batteries are no longer removable. Buttons have been reduced to a bare minimum. SD card slots are very rare. With eSIM on the horizon, there won't be a single opening on a phone bigger than a USB-C port. On the new HTC U12+, the only thing that actually physically moves in the phone is the OIS module of the camera. But this trend is at odds with consumers' other demand: to not give up core hardware features like conveniently placed cameras.

People want smartphones that have a larger display, but in a proportionally smaller device. They don't want bezels, apparently, and have a disdain for display notches. Yet they don't want the compromises of an oddly-positioned camera, small speakers or missing sensors. What's the result? We return to movable components on phones. A feature that used to be a core tenet of "advanced" feature phones circa 2004, now modernized and automated to bring us the hardware features we both don't want to see but also can't live without.

Image credit: The Verge

Engineering a little module or even a whole segment of the top of the phone to rise up and show your cameras is not something to be taken lightly. It's a seriously impressive feat, both on the tiny scale of the Vivo NEX and the larger side with the Oppo Find X. And to be clear, these two phones have other small compromises, like the NEX's relatively large size and slower fingerprint sensor, and the Find X's lack of a fingerprint sensor altogether.

But when people say they want huge screens, small bodies and no bezels, companies answer the only way they know they can: with these new movable parts. While they may not be a permanent fixture of smartphone designs going on in perpetuity, they're more than a fad — this is what we're going to have to get used to from at least some smartphone companies that want to offer it all.

Andrew was an Executive Editor, U.S. at Android Central between 2012 and 2020.

44 Comments
  • I'd take this over a notch any day. I use my front facing camera like once a year. I wouldn't even care if the phone didn't have one or if it just had one of those little round mirrors on the back like old phones used to have. However, I use the display every single time I use the phone so I want that to be perfect. Hopefully the notch is a passing fad. I'm so glad the average sized pixel 3 is rumored not to have one.
  • I agree, I would definitely prefer a pop up camera to a notch
  • I really don't mind the notch instead of a bezel without speakers, but this looks to be better than ether.
  • Also then you were able to easily spot if something other than you were to activate the camera.
  • That's a good point. That's a very good point.
  • While I agree, it also becomes an issue when you want a phone that has a water resistance rating.
  • Not necessarily. There are splashproof cameras with movable zooms. Sony has has a waterproof 3.5mm socket for years without a plug. The main issue, to my mind, is that the design has to be a compromise. The Find X seems overly complex for what it achieves.
  • Slider phones were great. Small form factor and hide the hardware you aren't going to use as much. Win, win. Plus, if they could do it on the back and cover those lenses when not in use, no more greasy ass lenses to ruin a photo when someone asks me to take their picture. My stuff is clean, but other people are slobs.
  • I don’t agree, i would take a notch with a well designed os (ios or a vanilla Android) over this or a curved screen. Imo it’s the best compromise. It’s that or having bezels, which i don’t mind either. Everyone seemed to be hating on bezels for the last couple of years, they only got what they asked for with those trends
  • I would like a slider phone again, I thought the Priv was a winning design, just not a good product. It was launched terribly and didn't get updates. If they made a Priv style phone with flagship specs, I would buy it in a heartbeat
  • That does sound like an awesome phone lol
  • The Priv was magnificent, and magnificently botched. It launched on an outdated processor and focused way too much on security. One was actually completely unable to text to a short code because it "might unexpectedly cost money"; there was no option to toggle this permanent block. Also, the "regular updates" disappeared after only a few months. The form factor was outstanding though, and I really miss some of the custom features BlackBerry added. If they re-released the same design with better hardware and more consumer-friendly settings, I'd be all over that phone in a heartbeat
  • I'm looking at photos of the Priv. Is the appeal that you can type on the keyboard without looking due to the tactile feedback of the physical buttons? That seems like a rather cramped amount of space to be typing entirely by feel.
  • Sorry, but I can't accept your basic premise, that the urgency behind these pop-up cameras is "to offer consumers all of the things they want." I don't want bezel-less phones or pop-up/slide-out/Tickle-Me-Elmo panels any more than I wanted 18:9 displays or phones with dead FM radios. I'd call the motivation here yet another example of "to increase market penetration through desperate attempts at cosmetic innovation and telling consumers what they really, really want."
  • Maybe I would be quite happy with small bezels and good speakers, but you only have to see how well things sell to know what drives the manufacturers.
  • I'll agree to some extent. The companies with big money seem to push their products to the young and very impressionable clients. Market it as the latest fad - and - wa la - great sales. I like innovation. I like big screens. I like something that is useful for me - ticks all the boxes. Most people like pocketable sized phones. Some use 'it' as strictly as a phone, as a personal assistant for work, travel etc. and for viewing movies etc. To me, that's three different sizes - and yes I don't like the 18.9 ratio - it's like working with a cigar... Will the next thing be a foldable, flip or an extendable phone? I don't know. More than likely - it will be something that will be convenient.
  • Yes. Because you are the only consideration all the companies take into account when they design a phone. Nevermind the rest of the world. Only Nauga is important.
  • Sliding cameras over the notch any day. Not only is it innovative it's also beautiful design. Yes people are concerned with constant use of the sliding mechanism but a rating for at least 50000 actuations is more than most people will use in their phones life. They'll most likely upgrade to something else before that.
  • for a front-facing camera, a 50 actuation expected lifecycle would be more than enough for me in 2 years
  • My phone is now 6 months old and I'm yet to use the ffc!
  • I just watched a video on the Oppo Find X. The pop-up camera & display may well change the smartphone industry! I really liked how the camera pops up and can be hidden. Looks very cool!
  • I like bezels. Gives you something to hold on to when using the phone in landscape and a place to rest your thumbs. When using it in portrait it makes it so the bottom of the screen isn't too low to reach and buried in your palm. And it just so happens it's an ideal spot for cameras, sensors, and speakers.
  • How is a case going to work with the OPPO? Will the slider just stay unprotected? No thanks. I'll keep my bezels, 16x9 ratio and fingerprint sensor on the front. I guess I don't use my phone like everyone else, but isn't that the point of Android? That there should be different designs so everyone can find a phone they like? If you like a slider, you can have it. I haven't missed it since moving on from my Palm Pre.
  • *accidentally opens the camera in pocket and breaks the camera off*
  • This
  • I don't get why people hate notchs, I am using the OnePlus 6 and I hardly notice that at all and to tell the truth, it looks kind of cool.
  • If this was on an Apple phone, it would become industry standard. Just
    Like
    The
    Notch
    !
  • It's a copy of the iPhone X1.
    Or will be when they release it.
  • and what happens, if someone has one of these stuck in their pocket, and something causes this pop up camera to want to open? Will the motor burn out?
  • It will likely retract. What we usually do when designing features like this, is have the motor stop when it reaches the up position, and if it does not do that within a certain time parameter, it will reverse and pull the unit back in. The motor in this unit is strong enough to lift the entire phone, so if it does activate in your pocket, it will probably open all the way.
  • Phones are now a mature technology and the marketing departments are scrambling for features to compel buyers to purchase new stupid gimmicks. I'll be into my S7 for years since nothing has developed to even interest me into spending $1000 on one.
  • I don't know that the Vivo pop up camera is an evolution of a slider phone, but the OPPO version does bear resemblance to the Palm Zire 71 in the way it operates. For those that are concerned about the mechanism wearing out, I still have my Palm Tungsten 3 from 2001, and it was hammered HARD year after year. I don't use it anymore, but still keep it charged and play an occasional game, and the mechanicals all work fine on it's sliding body. I would say competition for the holy grail of bezel-less phones is what's driving this, and it's a competition that manufactures have promoted because it's supposed to look cool. We all know "looking cool" sells better than function, as can be evidenced by the success of Samsung's curved displays. That being said, I would say Samsung is handling the trend the best, and giving us minimal bezels while retaining function. My first preference is small bezels. Believe it or not, bezels make a phone more comfortable to use while watching media or gaming. The average human thumb is 2.74 inches long, and gaming on a phone where the controls are on the edge of the physical phone makes for an uncomfortable experience. Dropping the phone while trying to do a bonus stunt in Riptide GP2 comes to mind, and in Leo's Fortune, you are forced to hold the phone and your thumbs weird in order to play on a "bezel-less" device.
  • I will tzke a notch over a curved screen any day :)
  • Hence Sony's bezels. Which I personally don't mind at all because they come with stereo speakers. But the market has spoken.
  • I can't say I see this particular option going very far. It has to be really well designed to handle the pop-out/slide back in operation without wearing out or getting loose. It presents something sticking out from the body of the phone on a lever a drop can not only break the camera lens itself but through the lever cause damage to the innards. (Talk to anyone who's ever dropped a laptop with the power adapter attached.) In addition, the spring-loading and retraction mechanisms take up space within the body of the phone which is not exactly bourgeoning with spare space.
    It seems like a very minor and nebulous gain for a lot of potential problems.
  • big dislike here. I don't care how fast they think it can open, but it just takes more time to open and also something else to break. Definitely going to miss that "moment" This does nothing for me.
  • It's funny how old tech, being a slider which is something not seen since the feature phone days, beats the notch any day. Whether it's just the selfie module or the entire top portion of the phone with both front and back cameras, sign me up for the slider vs. having a chunk of my screen removed...
  • « They don't want bezels, apparently, and have a disdain for display notches » No, there is little dusdain for notches whennthe iphone X is the top selling smartphone. The iPhone 8/8 plus sold quite well too so bezels are not that big of an issue. Sometimes i feel the opinion of a niche if techy people who wants the future right now think they are the majority opinion,whichvthey are not :)
    Those mechanical cameras are more stupid compromise than a notch imo.
  • So all of you that don’t want a notch are willing to give up water resistance, a fingerprint sensor, headphone jack, good luck finding cases. All for this big screen with no notch on the Find X?
  • Not sure I would want to give up much to get a full screen display, but the ffc I would give up for nothing.
  • I'll take this over a notch.
  • I too would takeover the notch anyday. The only question I have like on the oppo findX it is a moving part. How long would it last like being a jack in the box, wear & tear? And what kind of case would you need??
  • A 100% bezelless design is just a fad, honestly it's very impractical and not ergonomic... The S8+ and Note 8 are already hard to handle and use.. If you have a bezelless design, you have to make the sides flatter for better grip. The Vivo Nex is really cool, we're at the point where innovation is dead and manufacturers are playing it safe.. glad someone is trying to make some new changes in the market.
  • I think they will figure out a way to put the camera behind the display.