When Apple introduced the iPhone X, it removed the home button and erased everything it could from the front of the screen, leaving just a black area at the top. Instinctively, people started calling it the notch. Her appearance was divisive at first, but mostly faded into the periphery.
Over time, Apple has shrunk the notch to consume less area. The obvious thought is that Apple is trying to get rid of this stain completely. Isn’t a front camera or security components that take away pixels from the user a bad thing? I assumed so, until Apple showed off its Dynamic Island on the iPhone 14 Pro. Now I’m confident that the camera cutouts or a software-only version of its dynamic island will be present, at the top of the screen, for a very long time.
In case you missed it, Dynamic Island is the marketing name Apple gave to its revised notch area on its iPhone 14 Pro and 14 Pro Max. screen and floats with screen pixels all around it.
The physical screen is only half of the equation, however. The feature works with iOS 16 software to create the illusion that all black void can be used for system notifications and live activity, such as sports scores or carpool alerts. It’s quite alluring to see the pill-shaped space ebb and flow, allowing different apps and alerts to use its capabilities.
It’s very early, but the dynamic island tells a more cohesive story around news flashes that come to you regularly throughout the day. For example, plugging in the phone to charge receives a different visual indication of AirPods connection, and those alerts are still different than the appearance of an incoming FaceTime call. But now, starting with iPhone 14 Pro and 14 Pro Max, the Dynamic Island becomes a hub for all those miscellaneous notifications and system alerts.
Having a system hub isn’t exactly exciting by default, but Apple took the idea and pursued it. The company has infused some personality into this screen area; even its name suggests something beyond the status quo. Ultimately, the design is both smart and substantial.
But no matter how subjective the fun or the smarts, the dynamic island is exciting because it fulfills a real need of all mobile users to keep tabs on incoming information. Having Apple’s Live Activities at the top of the screen and updating app data in real time is useful for multitasking.
The dynamic island can be useful, but is it critical enough to take up part of the screen forever? Making more screen space available for people’s content seems obvious, but it’s not as simple as you might imagine. I tried out the ZTE Axon 40 Ultra phone, which places its front camera below the screen, and was shocked at how difficult it was to use the available top center area of the screen.
Most of the time, apps would treat the area as forbidden and use a toolbar or other tricks to minimize that part of the interface. Websites didn’t scroll from the bottom of the screen to the top, for example. Only in a few unnatural cases could I stretch and zoom an image for my own content to use the extra display pixels.
I came away from this Axon 40 Ultra phone less surprised by the under-display technology and more surprised that hiding the camera did very little for usability. I didn’t feel like I was gaining more real estate. Also, the trade-off was that the camera hidden under the screen produced terrible images.
Using the front camera was like stepping back in time four or five years. Selfies were lifeless, grainy and generally unpleasant to look at. This technology of hiding components under screens will improve, but it won’t happen in the next couple of years, it will take longer.
In addition to everything I discovered while using the Axon 40 Ultra, I also discovered that the front camera removal was not noticeable. Anecdotally, I handed the phone to several people and asked them what they saw, and no one realized the camera was missing until I pointed it out.
On an infinite time scale, yes, the new island area on iPhones could disappear – forever is a long time. But, even after the physical cutout on the screen is gone and quality cameras can live under the pixels, I think some form of Dynamic Island will remain long into the future.
The upper middle area on phones, tablets, and even computers has been underutilized for a long time. Before the notch appeared on the iPhone X, Apple mainly used only the top center space of the screen to display the time. Anyone who currently owns an iPhone 8 or SE can open apps and find out how often the area is wasted.
I don’t think using the top space on the new iPhone 14 Pros to collect and display system information is a fad. The design will trickle down to other iPhones when Apple decides the price is right for the screen technology. There’s a chance that Dynamic Island will even make its way to iPads and Macs in the not too distant future.
Eventually, when these devices are literally all-screen and pixels cover everything, that’s when we’re likely to see more of the Dynamic Island. When it’s purely software, it can provide even more utility and dance around the screen in new and unique ways. Life in Iceland is here to stay.