iPhone 8 screen keeps spilling its secrets

Chris Davies - Aug 10, 2017
iPhone 8 screen keeps spilling its secrets

Details on how the iPhone 8‘s virtual home button will work continue to emerge, as coders sift through the goldmine that is the HomePod iOS firmware. That new iPhone, expected to be one of three handsets Apple launches later in 2017, is believed to be not only the first to use OLED for its display rather than LCD, but also the first to remove the physical home button that has been a mainstay of iPhone since the first-generation model. However, it was unclear what, exactly, Apple might replace it with.

Now, we have a better idea. Developer Steve Troughton-Smith has been digging through the pre-release HomePod firmware that Apple inadvertently issued to public developer channels, and which has already spilled plenty of interesting details about the company’s upcoming range. Latest to get fleshed out from that code is how the “notched” OLED screen and virtual home button will operate.

As Troughton-Smith points out, though it will be a virtual panel rather than physical one, there’ll still be a home button area at the bottom of the iPhone 8’s display. However, because it’s all controlled by software, Apple will be able to adjust its size. The indicator itself will support being hidden, which will happen during fullscreen video playback.

However he’s also identified some limitations in iOS 11 for home button behavior. There’s no API to change the virtual home button’s color, for instance, nor any evidence of other aspects of the iOS UI moving down to that portion of the screen. That’s in contrast to Android phones with virtual navigation keys, which generally have controls for home, back, and the app switcher in that lower portion.

It’s likely a move by Apple to retain some of the consistency the home button has always assured. One of the company’s long-standing messages for its less tech-savvy users has been that pressing the home button is always a shortcut back to the start. That transparency could have been confused if suddenly the controls began operating in different ways.

Troughton-Smith’s digging has also unearthed metrics at the opposite end of the screen, namely the status bar. For the device unofficially known right now as the iPhone 8, with its cut-out notch, that means things like the exact radius of the corners, and how much of the upper section is missing for the front earpiece.

Exactly how Apple will handle that notch – namely whether it will attempt to hide it, or embrace it – is still something designers are arguing over. However the iOS 11 details have been enough for some early mockups of what usable space there will be on the iPhone 8, at least in theory. Apple could well place its own limits on what apps can use what sections of the expanded display, much as it will likely do with home button area use.

One expectation is that Apple will have in effect two lines of status bar at the top of the screen. That will include both the two sections either-side of the notch, and a line that runs the full width of the panel right underneath it, as per mockups by designer Maksim Petriv.

Early reports suggested the virtual home button on the iPhone 8 would have another purpose, with Apple using it for a version of Touch ID integrated into the display itself. However the technology for doing that apparently proved too tricky for this generation of handset. Instead, Apple is expected to use facial recognition, with the iPhone 8 having advanced biometric sensors that will allow the new phone to be unlocked, notifications to be suppressed while the user is looking at the screen, and features like Apple Pay authenticated.

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