Undoubtedly, the one smartphone trend that defined 2017 is the fact that most major league brands like Samsung, LG, Apple, OnePlus, Huawei, and others decided to adopt the 18:9 aspect ratio (or thereabouts) for their smartphones. However, I don’t understand why these brands are clamouring to commission 18:9 aspect ratio displays from their Chinese suppliers? Obviously, the sheep mentality is not limited to consumers.
Before I jump into why I think smartphone brands should stop making a big fuss about 18:9 aspect ratio displays, let’s understand what it actually means.
What 18:9 aspect ratio means for smartphone displays?
The standard aspect ratio for most smartphones was 16:9, up until LG decided to buck the trend with the G6. This means that all your standard smartphone screen resolutions like 720p, 1080p, and 2160p, were variants of the 16:9 aspect ratio. With the LG G6 launched at MWC 2017, the Korean manufacturer started a revolution (of sorts) by introducing a tall display with the aspect ratio of 18:9.
There is only one reason why brands decided to make taller displays is to make smartphones with smaller overall footprints and narrower bezels.
But, the surface area has reduced on 18:9 displays
A smartphone with a 5.5-inch display with 18:9 aspect ratio has a smaller display area when compared to a phone with a 5.5-inch display and an aspect ratio of 16:9.
One of my favourite tech writers Vlad Savov from The Verge, explains in this wonderful article that you will now need Pythagorus theorem to measure the surface area of the display accurately. Yes, the same Pythagorus theorem that gave you nightmares in school.
For the sake of explanation, let us consider two phones with the same display sizes but different aspect ratios. The LG Q6 (5.5-inch display, 18:9 aspect ratio) and the iPhone 7 Plus (5.5-inch display, 16:9 aspect ratio) are the perfect candidates.
Using Pythagoras theorem, I found out that the iPhone 7 Plus offers more surface area than the LG Q6.
iPhone 7 Plus display surface area = 83.39 sq.cm
LG Q6 display surface area = 78.02 sq.cm
16:9 is the tailor-made aspect ratio for video content currently
Most widescreen video content out there is made in the 16:9 aspect ratio. Therefore it fits perfectly on your phone. With smartphone brands trying to upend that standard by making taller 18:9 displays, you are bound to see letterboxed videos in landscape mode. While most apps like YouTube and Netfix do provide you with the option to scale the content, you have to consider a certain bit of cropping that happens as a result.
I know that Vittorio Storaro wanted to revolutionise the movie-making industry with his Univisium format, and that Netflix has also developed a fondness for the 18:9 format, but the aspect ratio is a little too wide in my opinion for smartphones. In fact, with more smartphones adopting this display aspect ratio, Storaro’s idea has actually gotten a new lease of life. Although, let’s not forget that 18:9 is the still not the widely accepted widescreen format for movies and TV. Moreover, it has counterintuitively affected smartphone tech, as far as I know.
Don’t force me to use my phone in portrait mode
Most importantly, I am now forced to use my phone in portrait mode as if vertically-oriented Snapchat videos weren’t any less of an abomination. While I don’t disagree that you get more vertical real estate, which lets you view more of the same webpage, what good is this extra space if you aren’t going to get enough width, correspondingly.
For example, gaming in landscape mode on an 18:9 display is rather annoying. I play a lot of Guns of Boom, an online FPS that has literally taken over my life. I tried the game on different 18:9 displays, and not one has offered me a great experience like the iPhone 7 Plus. It is easier to hold the phone in landscape and all the on-screen elements like the joystick, the fire buttons, yada yada, are placed in the right areas. It just feels so much better. Just try it.
In short, 18:9 displays are better for portrait mode but 16:9 displays find the sweet spot between portrait and landscape mode.
Before I write my impassioned sign off, let’s not forget that it is also a pain for app developers to now recode all their apps to fit the new aspect ratio. And despite recoding, there are still some minor issues that cannot be overlooked. For example, in Instagram Stories, if you notice closely, the story is cropped across the breadth of the video or photo on an 18:9 display. Basically, you see more on a 16:9 display. Take a look at the image above, the place tag is cropped out slightly on the Honor 9 Lite.
Give me back my 16:9 display
Maybe, I have a strong contrarian view in this matter but I can’t understand why there isn’t a bigger uproar among consumers and tech critics alike over 18:9 aspect ratio displays. I mean when Apple decided to ditch the 3.5mm jack, audio purists all over the world raised such a big hue and cry. No one seems to be complaining about this. Granted, I might not be comparing apples to apples (all pun on purpose) but the underlying emotion is the same; at least as far as I am concerned.
Please give me back my 16:9 display, or at least stop making a big fuss about 18:9 displays like they are the next big thing. You have forced it down our throats, and like all the big changes in technology we will have to live with this one too.