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.
The notch enables us to provide the best cameras (two, one of which is wide angle) and audio experience. Pixel 3 also has a smaller border & front-firing speakers to provide optimum sound quality. Our notch-to-display ratio is actually less than many top competitors.
— Made by Google (@madebygoogle) October 9, 2018
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.
On the Pixel 3 XL, the screen underwent a similar improvement, and it’s clear Google has built the best display its Pixel line has ever seen. But the substantial benefits you get from buying a phone with a notch in this case are the improved speakers and the wide-angle selfie cam. There’s no facial recognition, no Animoji-like selfie tricks, and no camera features exclusive to the larger version of the phone.
In fact, there are no software benefits restricted to the larger of the two Pixels whatsoever. Everything you can do with both the front-facing and rear-facing cameras on the Pixel 3 XL can be achieved on the standard Pixel 3. And the wide-angle lens for better selfies and the improved speakers? You get all that with the Pixel 3, too, and in a conventional, notch-less package that costs less.
So the big question is whether the edge-to-edge screen is worth it, and if the notch is a reasonable trade-off for that. I’d argue that the first is debatable for most consumers, and the second a resounding no.
Google could make the notch smaller, but it doesn’t want to remove the speakers or dual-camera system. And it could keep those components and shrink the display, but it wants the edge-to-edge look. In other words, this is a choice. But it’s one that’s undermined by just looking at the phone in photos. For starters, the Pixel 3 XL’s notch seems rather tall and noticeable, despite Google’s claims otherwise.
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.
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.”
The broader picture here is that the notch trend risks sinking otherwise well-made and well-designed handsets by failing to justify what is ultimately a compromise. Like we saw earlier this year, tons of Android phones 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.