The smartphone notch is almost dead, and I couldn't be more excited

ZTE Axon 20 5g Official Render
ZTE Axon 20 5g Official Render (Image credit: Ni Fei on Weibo)

Recently word leaked that ZTE was planning to unveil an all-new update to its Axon line of smartphones that had a full-screen display with minimal or no bezels. Admittedly those of us in the West haven't heard much from ZTE in recent years; however, the company has been known to push the envelope a bit with some of its designs. It was one of the first to have a "folding phone," and it's now it is emerging as the first OEM to offer an under-display camera in a commercially available phone.

Full-screen fantasies becoming a reality

OnePlus 7 Pro

Source: Andrew Martonik / Android CentralPictured: OnePlus 7 Pro full screen (Image credit: Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

The bezel-less, full-screen life has been a dream of enthusiasts since smartphones first burst on the scene, but it hasn't truly been possible yet, not without some compromises or leaving out some key features. The first attempts to push those bezels back were the notches that we saw starting with phones like the Essential Phone and the iPhone X, all the way back in 2017 (yes, I said all the way back, because it feels like eons in smartphone terms).

The "notch" has been with us now for over three years — can you believe it?

In the intervening years, pretty much all smartphone manufacturers have copied, er, adopted this design trend in an effort to create the illusion of more screen real estate. Some experiments like the hole punch on the Note 10 and Note 20 series worked out pretty well, while others like the Pixel 3 XL... didn't. While they did free up more screen space than traditional bezels did, they still didn't offer the complete, immersive experience of a true full screen.

Then there was the trend of pop-up selfie cameras like the innovative Asus ZenFone 6 and one of my personal favorites, the OnePlus 7 Pro. But the problem with those was that despite how well-engineered and fast the pop-up cameras were, they were still moving parts that could be damaged by drops or repetitive use. Additionally, they didn't allow for full waterproofing like phones with traditional selfie camera setups.

Let's also not forget that phone manufacturers have been working on under-display tech for some time, particularly in the form of fingerprint sensors. We first saw this concept realized a few years ago with experimental phones from Vivo, and that technology too was quickly adopted by the industry. True, some execute it better than others — just compare a OnePlus sensor to those on Samsung Galaxy phones — but this is where the puck has been moving, and OEMs have been skating to. It just appears that ZTE has gotten there first with regards to under-display cameras.

There are some potential downsides

Google Pixel 4 face unlock

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

For as wonderful as the idea of a seamless, bezel-less display that still incorporates bonuses like waterproofing and wireless charging sounds, we have to proceed with a bit of caution and skepticism. For starters, V1 products always have bugs and issues that need to be worked out, and they are never optimal user experiences. That's just a given, though many early adopters will no-doubt accept those compromises to be "first."

I mentioned the proliferation of under-display fingerprint sensors and how to this day, they still aren't as fast or as accurate as rear-mounted fingerprint sensors (despite how I personally feel about those). Once ZTE unveils its new camera system, will it take three years or more before that kind of setup is considered as good as current selfie cams (or even ones from a few generations ago)? It's possible.

For the truly paranoid, an under-display camera might feel too intrusive.

With an under-display camera or sensor array, the more paranoid among us might feel like they can never truly be sure that someone isn't always watching them. There's no place to put a sticker or slider on this new device. Now, of course, those people are probably paranoid right now since most phones have front-facing cameras that are not covered (aside from those with pop-out cameras). Still, if the cameras are under the display, they may never really feel like they're not being observed. Just about the only recourse for them would be to purchase a wallet case and cover their screen when it's not in use.

The next wave

ZTE Axon 20 5g Tenaa

Source: TENAA (Image credit: Source: TENAA)

If what ZTE is bringing to market with the Axon 20 5G shows as much promise as we've been hoping for, you can bet your bottom dollar that other OEMs will quickly follow suit. Even in these trying pandemic times, it could be just the shot in the arm the mobile industry needs to regain momentum, particularly at the high end of the market.

The true full screens that under-display technology would create would be a boon to those consuming video content or playing games on their phones, but it would also be awesome to see companies like Google, and Samsung (and yes, even Apple) be able to incorporate secure face unlocking technology beneath the screen as well.

Another potential benefit is for the idea (dream?) of a portless future. Being able to seal a phone up airtight would be great for preventing dust and water ingress, and could make it more difficult for third-parties to physically take control over your phone. This may need to wait for greater wireless charging access, particularly in public spaces, but I'd wager that time is approaching faster than you think.

Ultimately, I'm not alone in my excitement for what this alleged announcement will mean over the next months and year for the smartphone industry that I love and cover, and I'm curious to see how the market reacts.

But forget about the market for now; what do you all think? Are you interested in or excited about under-display camera technology? Why or why not?

Jeramy Johnson
Editor-in-chief

Jeramy is proud to help *Keep Austin Weird* and loves hiking in the hill country of central Texas with a breakfast taco in each hand. When he's not writing about smart home gadgets and wearables, he's defending his relationship with his smart voice assistants to his family. You can follow him on Twitter at @jeramyutgw.

34 Comments
  • The hole is just as bad especially when it is on the left side of the display as google has decided to also place the clock on the left. This leaves little space for notification icons and just clutters everything over there. Full displays without a front facing cam at all (which don't exist), with an under screen cam like this new one or with a popup selfie are the best. If they can't do that then I think they should stick with a design like the Galaxy S9 and use minimal bezels. Notches and holes are the equivalent of a display defect and have no place on a phone in my opinion.
  • This also is viable solution - no front camera and small screen on the rear side for selfies with main camera: https://www.anandtech.com/show/13534/nubia-x-a-dual-display-smartphone
  • That's a pretty neat solution. I like the fact that you also retain the same quality for regular and selfie photos. And the outside display could be useful for seeing notification if your phone is faced down on a table or desk.
  • The hole is no way as bad as the notch. The notch served no purpose, to what give you a tiny but of space left and right. Should've just stuck with a forehead. Right was best placement.
  • Notches and holes are dumb. I don't mind a little bezel on top and bottom. The under display tech is cool but not exciting. I'd rather have a wide angle selfie and front firing stereo speakers with a little bezel.
  • Agree completely. Give me a perfectly uninterrupted screen with good cameras, secure 3D face unlock, and all the necessary sensors in a slim bezel. Add in stereo speakers good enough to make a Bluetooth speaker unnecessary, and I'm good to go.
  • I agree. My Galaxy S20+ is nice but needs a top bezel with a proximity sensor. It just isn't able to properly determine when to turn the screen off. It looks stupid with the hole punch. If it had a mode in settings to work with a virtual bezel I would enable it for ALL views. It also needs a little bezel on the sides and bottom. I also hate rounded corners in the visible portion of the screen. The Lumia 950XL hat it about right though it would have been fine with a slightly taller screen.
  • If they can manage to conceal a larger selfie camera, a secondary wide angle, and ToF sensors for secure face unlock under the display, then I'm all for it.
  • I have my doubts about the quality, just to hide a pin hole. Can quality not suffer when there's glass over the lens? I guess we'll find out.
  • Notch = abortion
    Hole = fine
    Overall, get rid of selfies and do away with it all togethrer.
  • Except that a notch can be hidden in such a way that it looks like you have a bezel up top...which I prefer (a bezel is what I prefer)...the hole punch cannot be hidden (I think) and therefore it is ALWAYS there staring at you like a defect in your screen. Who started this stupid, idiotic idea that the phone has to have an edge-to-edge screen? It may be a great idea for a TV but I am not holding my TV in my hands or trying to fit it in my pocket!!!
  • Android OEM's will still find ways to build a chin into their devices since they can't seem to get the bezels right. 
  • I believe there is a technical, hardware reason, that there is a bottom chin. I say this because I remember reading something about it, and if I'm not mistaken...every phone out today has a chin...so there must be a reason for it to be there.
  • No the chin on android devices is much larger than the "chin" on the iphone. Iphone bottom goes pretty much the entire way down, even when android OEM's use flip cameras or whatever, they still have a much larger chin. 
  • Apple curves the screen back, onto itself at the bottom bezels. Its more expensive but gives you no chin.
  • The notch will die only when Apple says so.
  • I really don't see the problem with having a mirror on the back of the phone and using one of the rear, better cameras. Sometimes low tech just works.
  • You know what Rick? I did just that on my former U11 with the shiny glass back. It worked pretty well!
  • The Nubia z20 phone did just that...sort of
  • I am really not in a rush to get rid of the One Plus 7 Pro. I rarely use the selfie camera and want a perfect screen. No issue with the 'moving parts' solution so far but I can see why it is a concern for some. Although on the other side while I am not a tin foil hat wearer I don't trust anyone enough to completely forget about an under screen camera. I don't I distrust Chinese companies any more than I distrust Silicone valley.
  • Good article Jeramy, though I don't think that everyone chases Hollywood fantasies without being mindful that it's worse in many ways. The car Probe 16 featured in Clockwork Orange was super futuristic in looks, but it was a terrible car in function. The biggest hurdle will be optical clarity. Lowering the screen resolution will help, but you will require a second offset camera which captures light data from the areas blocked by the pixels on the first camera, then the images will need to be merged. You are right; it will take a few years, but it's doable. Will photographs and video be equal to a pure glass optical imaging lens? We shall see. Some people never use the front camera, and though I only took three selfies in my life, I actually used the selfie camera shooting video for a recent historical documentary. I have to say I was skeptical, but it turned out good enough that the production editors didn't even question the quality, and used it for the final production version which was aired.
  • First world problems... I don't care anymore. There are far more important things I look for in a new device.
  • When everyone else have switched to under display front camera Apple will come out with an *innovative* pop-up camera 😂
  • If there are pixels in front of the camera there will be degradation of image quality no matter what you do. Diffraction is unavoidable, like death, taxes and the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
    Anyone who learns the basic psychology of human vision knows that except for people with OCD, things like small holes in a display rapidly cease to be noticeable so long as they are dark.
    I'm sure some people will buy this feature but it seems utterly unnecessary.
  • Sony Xperia 1 or 10 are the best looking phones released this year. A small bezel can house as many ffc,s as you want without losing any notification space and can house front facing speakers for stereo sound too. If they symetrical and slim there doesn't need to be any compromises made at all. Slim bezels and a flat screen come back please!
  • All this chatter and strong feelings over a notch, hole, pop up, pop down, mirror, bezel etc. I don't even notice. I use other phones and have no idea how they do it as I don't even notice. It simply isn't an issue for most people. If I want to take a selfie I would like it to be quick and easy with good quality and it is. The only reason I am commenting is because I see so much about it.
  • I do not think I have used the front camera on my phone once, I thought I may have started using it with discord, but I use my computer and maybe my tablet now and again. It would not bother me if they got rid of the front camera. I have no problem with bezels, i prefer a bezel than a notch.
  • I had a OnePlus 8 and it allowed you to "hide" the front camera. It was literally all screen.
  • Even with a punch hole camera in the screen, there is still a small bezel where it's located, so everything from your clock to battery is also displayed from left to right (I'm guessing most would be fine with a small chin at the top of the screen having your camera, LED flash, etc in the centre?) I'm not into pop up / under screen cameras.
  • The notch or hole punch camera is a solution to a problem that doesn't exist. Everyone was just fine with having the front-facing camera in a small bezel at the top of the phone. Then apple released their "revolutionary" face id camera and all of these Android phone makers felt they had to follow suit with their own version of it. Apple looks especially dumb for their face id camera now that everyone has to wear masks. Android phones will be so much better off if they stop trying to copy Apple.
  • I will take a notch for facial recognition. I think its much better than finger print readers.
  • The notch on iPhones and punch hole on my Galaxy Note phones doesn't bother me at all. I always use black wallpapers and themes
  • Can't understand why people get so excited about notches, punch holes and bezels.
  • I love my iPhone notch and it's there for a reason because of the most secure face unlock on a smartphone in Face ID.