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Edge-to-Edge Displays Are Do-Able – And Overdue

By Michael Fisher May 8, 2012, 2:04 pm

I have two important statements to share: first, if you were tuned out for the latter half of last week, you should know that Samsung announced their newest flagship Android phone, the Galaxy S III, at a London event on Thursday; and second, that's the last time I'll use that announcement as a lead-in to an editorial. I promise.

But I'm not just throwing it in for kicks: there was a lot to absorb from the GSIII announcement, and much of it is still filtering through our brains here at Pocketnow as we mentally tour the device, surveying its new features and highlights, whittling away the days until release. Many of those compelling new features are software-based, but not all. Among the non-software points of excitement/interest/dismay: the 4.8-inch screen. That's a big panel, but Samsung assures us that even though it's "22 percent larger" than its predecessor on the Galaxy S II, the device won't feel oversized in the hand, because the new design significantly reduces the size of the bezel.


That got us thinking about the promise and the perils of the so-called "edge-to-edge" display, that mythical artifact of technology sometimes talked about, but seldom seen. Now, the Galaxy S III is by no means an embodiment of this creation, but it comes close. Close enough for us to wonder what such a thing would be like to use.

In smartphones and tablets, bezels play an important role in day-to-day use. They provide a surface relatively free of controls to serve as purchase for our thumbs when we pick up our device. Anyone who's had to awkwardly lift his phone or tablet the "wrong" way while the display is powered on knows what a nightmare that can be. The screen, interpreting your touch inputs as valid commands, dumbly executes whatever your fumbling fingers tell it to. By the time you've got the screen turned around to face you, you've changed the time zone, silenced the ringer, and opened three apps you forgot you'd downloaded.

Of course, we rarely pick up our devices while the screen's powered on, and even when we do, the lock screen is usually there to save us from such agitated embarrassment. But what if the bezel weren't there at all? Well, we'd have the sleekest, sweetest device ever, that's what. It would be like carrying around a frameless window into the internet. Can you imagine the sheer awesome-sauce a bezel-less smartphone or tablet would represent? I'll save you the trouble, since, no … you can't. You need a picture. Hey, look what I have!

Some people don't see it that way, though. Some folks look at this and see a usability nightmare. Regardless of how cool it looks and how much bulk it saves by eliminating unneeded material, these people say a total lack of display border is a recipe for false inputs left and right. Where would you hold it without constantly re-brightening the backlight or inadvertently calling up a menu? And what would protect the display from damage due to impact?

The latter complaint is the easier one to address: a lack of bezel doesn't imply a total lack of edge. A display extending to the far reaches of a phone or tablet's face doesn't mean the sides of the device need be unprotected. Look no further than the iPhone 4/4S' sandwich-like design to see how this can be competently executed. Now, does that design have some drawbacks? Sure: that phone is a champ at shattering when dropped on the sidewalk. Here's the thing, though: are people willing to live with that drawback in order to own an iPhone? Last I checked, yeah.

The matter of false inputs is the graver one, but people don't put enough faith in UI designers. Granted, that's because there's a lot of bad UI design out there right now, but this isn't a difficult problem to solve. Those who cry "how are you going to hold a phone that's all screen?" suffer from a lack of imagination. We already have tablets on the market which feature things like smart bezels. The Blackberry PlayBook is a great example of a device that registers touch input on the bezel differently than it does on the display. Edge detection on the HP TouchPad does the same thing. Even the Sony LiveView worked with bezel-specific inputs … and that thing couldn't do much of anything right. The notion that software can be engineered to reject edge-proximate inputs when the device is in certain modes or orientations isn't impossible, or even far-fetched; it's do-able today.

Is any of that easy? No; we're talking about re-mapping a lot of interface elements, and it would represent a lot of work on the part of developers, not to mention increased fragmentation of OSes across devices with and without the "transparent bezel." That would be quite the headache for any platform, and it's not clear that enough demand exists to balance out the very real trouble this kind of interface redesign would represent.

Also, it would make life harder on phone case designers, but let's be real … cases are horrible.

One thing's for certain, though: we're seeing a trend away from thick, picture-frame-esque borders on our devices, and toward sleeker designs with the display edging closer and closer toward the sides. Along with the Galaxy S III announcement, other recent rumors point to Samsung's interest in bringing us closer to a "bezel-free" world, and when Samsung (or anyone) drops an original idea on consumers, it's not long before the industry starts the copycat dance.

How will you react when our mobile overlords -in the form of Apple, Samsung, Huawei, or anyone- drop some science on us in the form of edge-to-edge display goodness? Will it be the start of a new love affair, or will a fiery rebellion ensue? Let us know in the comments. And if you hate the idea, be sure to let us know which Otterbox you're carrying. And whether that armor box is worth sacrificing my your future. Your future , people!

Bezel-less tablet render source: Instant Fundas

Bezel-free Samsung rumor source: SlashGear


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