When future cell-phone historians at Verizon-Jobs University look back on 2017, they will remember it as the year the bezel died. Bezels, for those who don’t make a living distinguishing between various glass-and-metal rectangles, are the bits on the front of your smartphone that aren’t used for display. Soon, though, you won’t need to know that. Apple, the most-watched smartphone company in the world, just announced a new model, the iPhone X, with no bezels at all — just a smooth, gorgeous screen across the top of the device.
The first three iPhones had 3.5-inch diagonal screens — with large black bezels across the top and bottom. They needed room for speakers and antennas and everything else that’s crammed inside your standard smartphone, which meant that their screens were, by today’s standards, incredibly small. When the iPhone 5 made the jump to a four-inch diagonal screen in 2012, people wondered whether the phone would even fit in their pockets.
Oddly enough, despite the anxieties of small-pocketed analysts, people loved their larger phones. In fact, they wanted even bigger phones. Instead of a smartphone size crisis, we saw a smartphone size boom: the rise of the phablet. (That’s phone plus tablet.) Led largely by the Samsung Galaxy Note, these new phones carried relatively enormous 5.5-inch diagonal screens; they became so popular that even a self-consciously minimalist company like Apple introduced its own phablet-size phone by the end of 2016 — the “Plus” line.
The thing about the phablets, though, was that while people liked the bigger screen, the phone body was so big it could barely fit in a cargo-short pocket. Designers needed to figure out how to make the screen bigger while shrinking down the size of everything else that wasn’t the screen — and so the race to eliminate the bezel began.
LG was actually first out of the gate, with its impressive V20 design, but Samsung was the clear winner this year, with its S8 and Galaxy Note “Infinity Display” line creating phones there were able to simultaneously radically increase screen size while either keeping the phone the same size or even shrinking it. One of the more impressive moments at a tech shows this year was putting an iPhone 7 Plus up next to a Samsung S8 Plus. The phones are physically nearly the same size, but the S8 Plus’s screen is gigantic next to the iPhone 7 Plus — 6.2 inches compared to suddenly puny 5.5 inches. It’s not just a neat optical illusion — it’s one of the few gee-whiz moments in tech journalism where you get to say, “Holy shit, that’s cool.” Now that Apple is doing it, it’s no longer just a neat trick — it’ll become de rigueur for any high-end phone.
But as striking as the new phones look, the end of the bezel isn’t a radical revolution in the history of smartphones. It’s a visual signal of the smartphone’s completed transformation — from a phone that happens to have a screen on it to a computer that might have a phone in it, not that you’ll ever use it — but not a feature that introduces a new way to use your phone, like voice to text, or category of use, the way Touch ID introduced mobile payment.
Instead, the full-width phone screen is in practical terms an upgrade that make your phone easier — and more enticing — to use. As anyone who fell in love with a phablet will tell you, the larger screen makes it easier to read large amount of text on a screen, and fixes the fat-finger virtual keyboard problem of early phones. Now you get that ease of use without carrying around a device the size of a Louis L’Amour paperback; the iPhone X allows for spacious reading room — and a beautiful AMOLED Retina screen with HDR and True Tone display — while still fitting easily in the skinniest of jeans pockets.
But maybe the biggest effect of such a big and compelling screen is that it makes your phone more attractive and enticing. With the Galaxy 8’s huge and vivid screen, I suddenly found myself showing off pics of random streetscapes or sunsets more than I would normally. Selfies look better; funny videos you want to share at the bar suddenly look sharper.
It’s no small thing to make an already-addictive object even more irresistible, but otherwise these edge-to-edge screens aren’t going to be game changers for smartphones in the way other innovations have been. But they will drive a new upgrade cycle, and make the iPhone seem new in a way it hasn’t since the iPhone 6. Suddenly, you won’t want to be seen with a phone that isn’t all screen.
At this point, the only thing that might stop you is biology. Traditionally, I held a phone by cradling it in my pinky and using my thumb to navigate. While the iPhone 7 Plus was big, my hands only needed to cover 5.5-inches of that screen, and nothing much needed to change. But I’ve been using the Samsung Galaxy Note 8, with its 6.3 inches of space, and it’s nearly impossible for me to cradle the bottom of the phone with my pinky and touch the top of screen without putting a real strain on my flexor tendons — a real problem, since Android relies so heavily on a pull-down top drawer for it’s main user interface.
Instead, I’ve found with the Note 8 I’ve simply started to hold it differently, gripping on either side, almost like the neck of a guitar, and switching off fingers depending on which side of the screen I want to use. It’s … not an ideal situation, but it also means my hands don’t ache after 20 minutes of scrolling through Twitter. Oddly, the race to eliminate the bezel may have outpaced the human body.