Innovation in the smartphone industry has been booming for the past couple of years. We went from including fingerprint sensors and facial recognition to having in-display fingerprint readers and folding screens. It seems like technology is always pushing the envelope, and the newest trend to hit the market is the under-display camera.
Many companies are actively locking their horns to set themselves as the ‘industry leader’ in this new technological race for the future, and it seems like the ultimate dream of a techy. Having a phone that is all screen is a major achievement for major tech companies. Since the trend of smaller bezels and bigger screens has been running strong for years, having a camera that hides under the display makes it more attractive for consumers. Will it change how phones are repaired in the future? Let’s find out.
The under-display camera trend
Let’s start with the latest developments. Recently, ZTE released the Axon 20, a new smartphone in its catalog. The phone possesses average specs, with the 5G model running on a Snapdragon 765G with up to 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. Fairly midrange specs, at this point. What made the phone special was that it added a screen that spanned the entire body without a visible camera. The camera was housed inside the screen, making it the first mass-produced smartphone to have under-display technology for cameras.
This kind of tech is different from what we’ve seen before. In-display fingerprint sensors use a camera as well, but they don’t capture pictures with it, really. Screens without cameras have existed before like the OnePlus 7 Pro or the OPPO Find X, or even the Asus Zenfone 6. What makes this one different is that the under-screen camera isn’t a trick – it’s actually sitting right underneath. This is made possible by the company Visionox using technology in its OLED displays to shrink the pixel size so that light can pass around it.
The wizardry and its faults
The result here is a screen that harbors a small patch of weirdly-colored pixels right at the top but successfully pulls off the magic trick. The Axon 20 manages to display an image from the camera mounted right beneath the screen, though there are a few caveats to the result.
Firstly, the camera still manages to capture some materials when taking pictures in its raw state and has to be run through some processing to become viewable. This has the unfortunate side-effect of making the images look soft and blurry. It’s almost as if something was smeared on the camera. The 7 layers of the screen had to be treated to reduce reflections and diffraction of light, but it still doesn’t end the glaring and fogging the company promised to take care of earlier. To top it off, reducing the pixel size on a screen that tops out at full-HD (1080p) kind of looks awkward.
Is it hard to repair?
Looking at how the display is constructed, it doesn’t look like it’s all that different from the usual ones. Sure, the screen on the Axon 20 5G will need a special replacement due to the treatment it’s received. But for the most part, the construction itself hasn’t had any major change to it. It’s not a pop-out camera with mechanical parts, and it’s not a folding display with hinges. In fact, the technology seems to be quite similar to the under-display fingerprint sensors we’ve seen for a while now.
Disassembling the phone shows that the screen is transparent through the top hole for the selfie camera. Looking through it, you’ll be able to see the other side with some discoloration, as shown in JerryRigEverything’s YouTube video. While the top part of the phone is transparent, the hole for the optical fingerprint reader isn’t. This is because of the densely-packed pixels in the area that make it harder to see through.
The repairability of the smartphone isn’t affected by the screen itself, as it can easily be put back together. This is a welcome sign for the future of under-display camera technology. As we’ve seen with pop-up cameras, sometimes innovation makes repairs a lot more difficult. So it’s great to see that this technology will not end up hampering both consumers and repair technicians.
While ZTE was the first to rush to market with its offering, the competition in this domain is certainly fierce. Both OPPO and Xiaomi have prototyped designs for under-display camera phones, which will end up making their offerings more refined for the market. Samsung is also rumored to be developing a different variation of under-display camera technology based on its recent patents. And while Apple would most likely not follow suit with this innovation for quite some time, it might eventually make it to market in a future iPhone.
One thing is for certain, though – the technology has caught attention. Seeing a company like ZTE pull it off means that implementations from other companies are right around the corner. They might be able to fix the shortcomings of the current model, and it remains to be seen how things can be improved. As we progress further into 2021, don’t be surprised to see more devices adopt this new face of smartphone technology.