Here comes the next silly smartphone design shift

One of these weeks, we’ll see a new smartphone design trend that’s actually advantageous to us — the ten-fingered terrestrial animals who carry these technological creations around in our pouches and/or trousers.

This, unfortunately, is not that week.

This week, y’see, the internet’s a-buzzin’ about an eye-catching new Android-based gizmo by the Chinese phone-maker Oppo (which is on some level connected to Android fan favorite OnePlus and frequently serves as a predictor of future OnePlus designs). It’s something Oppo calls the “Waterfall Screen” — a “borderless” phone concept that has the display extending beyond the face of a phone and curving completely around its left and right edges.

Oppo Waterfall Screen (1)Oppo

It’s not only low-bezel, in other words; it’s anti-bezel, with the screen itself quite literally acting as the phone’s sides. And it certainly does create a striking visual.

Don’t let yourself be fooled by the surface-level “wow” factor, though. This design trend — one that’ll inevitably make its way into more phones before long — is yet another example of how smartphone upgrades are increasingly acting as practical downgrades. Just like the foldable phone, the in-display fingerprint sensor, the 3.5mm headphone jack phase-out, and the variety of existing low-bezel compromises, it’s innovation for the sake of innovation — with the primary benefit of making a phone seem new and exciting enough that you’ll want to buy it, even though your current device is probably still fine — and worse yet, it comes at the expense of an optimal user experience.

Let’s move beyond the surface and think about why a side-wrapping “Waterfall Screen” might not be the smartest idea for anyone who actually wants to use a phone productively, shall we?

Ahem:

Factor #1: Curves for days

Man, those curves sure are pretty to look at. (And yes, we’re still talking about the phone. Get your mind out of the gutter, would ya?) But step back from that high-tech high for a moment and imagine what they’d actually be like to use in the real world — the way you use your phone in your earth-anchored day-to-day life.

First, just from a purely visual perspective, when you’re looking at a screen full of text — be it a web page, a document, an email, or whatever — you’re invariably going to run into instances where words run awkwardly off the sides of the display. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t jump out at me as being an ideal sort of reading experience.

Then there’s the actual interaction part of the equation — and that might be the most problematic area of all. Remember, interfaces in Android frequently extend to the edges of the screen and often revolve around horizontal-swipe gestures. Whether we’re talking about the new Android Q gestures and the system-wide swipe-in-from-the-side Back command, the swipe-in menus present in countless Android interfaces, or the swipe-based commands built into numerous apps like Gmail and Android Messages, there’s no shortage of examples where getting around an Android phone revolves around swiping in from the side of your screen.

And guess what? When your screen wraps all the way over the side edges, that’s gonna be a pretty awkward action to perform.

Oppo Waterfall Screen (2)Oppo

Speaking of those side edges, you’re also gonna run into plenty of instances where an element of an interface ends up extending over the edge — as illustrated in Oppo’s own images, both immediately above and higher up in this story. That means either you’re going to find yourself in a situation where you’re activating such commands by accident, simply because your palms are holding the sides of the phone where the associated icons appear — or, assuming the phone’s sides aren’t touch-sensitive, you’re going to have a tough time activating them when you want to despite the fact that they’re in plain view.

Either way, I think the resulting user experience can be summed up in a single, semi-nonsensical syllable:

Oof.

And there’s more.

Factor #2: Pushing my buttons

In order to make this side-extending “Waterfall Screen” effect work, you know what Oppo had to do? Yes, oh yes: remove the physical buttons from the sides of the phone.

It only makes sense, really: If the phone’s screen slopes all the way over its side edges, of course there’s not going to be room for any physical buttons to exist in that very same area.

Oppo Waterfall Screen (3)Oppo

We’ve seen phone-makers toy with the idea of producing a phone free from physical buttons before. HTC even came out with a phone that sort of attempted it — by leaving the traditional volume and power buttons in place but making them pressure-sensitive panels instead of actual functioning physical buttons.

Suffice it to say, the resulting experience wasn’t exactly phenomenal. When it comes to core commands like powering a phone on or off and adjusting its volume, physical buttons just work. They work quickly, consistently, and reliably. And eliminating them is (let’s all say it together now) a practical downgrade — innovation for the sake of innovation and change for the sake of selling phones without much thought into its effect on using them.

As I mused when bemoaning this general counterproductive trend in smartphone design earlier this year:

Yes, all of this stuff is incredibly cool, from a gadget-geek, “Whoa, look at what they can do now!” kind of perspective — but at the same time, almost all of it represents a practical downgrade when it comes to actual user experience. There’s a difference between something being cool for the sake of cool and something being genuinely useful and beneficial in the real world, from a human-person perspective — and almost every smartphone hardware trend we’ve seen lately has fallen onto the former side of that incredibly significant split.

Well, gang, here we go again. I guess all we can hope is that enough people will vote with their wallets to make practicality win out in the long run — or at least remain an option for those of us who put more weight on using our devices than oohing and ahhing at them — and that hardware innovation will move past this current sensational state and back to a point where progressions actually have meaning beyond these sorts of caveat-filled, appearance-centric adjustments.

There’s at least one reason to think such a future could be possible, and that’s Google’s now-confirmed use of radar technology in its upcoming Pixel 4 phone. Only time will tell if it ends up being more genius or gimmick in the real world, but it certainly seems to have a lot of promising practical potential — much more than the silly superficial stuff most companies have been fixated on as of late.

Here’s hoping.

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[Android Intelligence videos at wonderideas]

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