Let’s talk screens

Our phones screens are getting bigger — which is great, mostly

With every new generation of smartphones, the updates have been increasingly incremental — slightly faster processor, better camera, more efficient software and so on. But in the two big launches 2017 has seen so far, the story has been slightly different — the attention has not been on massive performance bumps, which remain incremental, but on the displays.

When the original Samsung Galaxy Note launched in 2011, its 5.3-inch display was deemed massive overkill. Cut to 2017, and any self-respecting flagship phone is required to have at least 5.5 inches for users to work with, and this has been the norm for a few years as display technology plateaued.

It makes sense that the first indications of pushing the envelope further came from LG, who have long been masters of stretching the screen size without making the device unwieldy. Last year’s LG V20, while housing a huge 5.7-inch screen (and a secondary display atop it to boot), remained surprising usable. This year, the LG G6 also features a similar-sized display, and the recently-launched Samsung Galaxy S8 comes in two flavours, the smaller of which is 5.8 inches. Samsung’s crafty design, including letting the display curve off to the edges of the phone and making it taller instead of wider, means that even the enormous S8+ with a 6.2-inch panel is hardly much bigger than a Google Pixel XL.

So it looks like bigger displays are the norm now, and since the phones themselves don’t seem to be increasing in size, this is good news for customers everywhere. But there are caveats — one of the biggest ones being the repositioning of hardware components to accommodate the display. Front-firing stereo speakers are tough to integrate, home buttons and front-facing fingerprint readers get axed. Samsung didn’t even include their logo on the front of the device, and positioned the fingerprint sensor awkwardly off-centre next to the camera. There’s also the little matter of these sizes giving rise to unconventional aspect ratios that cause videos to not fill the screen properly, but I nitpick.

As the display envelope is pushed further, and we come closer to truly bezel-less hardware, manufacturers have tough choices to make. The 6.4-inch Xiaomi Mi Mix from last year faced these challenges, featuring a screen that took up so much of the front of the phone, that the company had to forgo a conventional earpiece and design a vibration-based conductive system instead, and place the ambient light sensor and front camera at the bottom of the phone.

Convenience always comes with its own challenges, and this new breed of displays represent just that. It may be a while before a manufacturer engineers a truly bezel-less design, with almost no accompanying hindrance to the user, but what we’ve seen this year is progress, and progress is good.

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