Embrace the camera bump

Turn over both of Google’s new Nexus phones and you’ll notice something in common: no, not the fingerprint sensors — the big cameras sticking out above them. It’s easy to write these bulges off as compromises in the new Nexuses’ design — and, sure, to some degree they are. But camera bulges are also becoming the new norm, and today’s Nexuses are just the latest flagships to get on board.

The camera bump, of course, is nothing new — at least not for people who have been buying super-nerdy phones over the past decade. That’s especially true if you look at Nokia (RIP), which made such great bumps as those on the the 808 PureView and the Lumia 1020, which are basically two faces on the Mount Rushmore of camera bulges compared to the little nubs we see today.

But Nokia’s camera bumps came before their time. They were thick and unsightly bulges on already-chunky smartphones. In 2012, we didn’t need a phone pushed past the half-inch mark by a bulbous camera. We just needed a camera that worked.

The problem seems to be that getting a camera that works — and works really, really well — in 2015 may simply require pushing the boundaries of smartphone design. As in, literally pushing beyond the outer wall of the phone. In the battle for thinness, the camera remains the weak point. But instead of letting image quality go, the camera just stays the same.

It’s hard to say exactly where the camera bump began to take off since we’ve seen them here and there for years. But it hasn’t been until recently that thinness really seems to have begun forcing manufacturers’ hands. One of the first signs of this may not have been on a phone at all, but instead on the 2012 iPod touch. The device had a 6.1mm body — thin even today — out of which stuck a tiny camera bump. It was essentially the precursor to the iPhone 6’s little nub.

Apple seems to be pretty unhappy about its camera bumps, and for good reason: on the iPhone, they’re not a great look, and they keep the 6 and 6S from sitting flat on a table. That’s probably why Apple tried to hide that the bump even existed with the iPhone 6’s first marketing images. Even Jony Ive wasn’t willing to twist the camera bump into some elegant design solution, telling The New Yorker last year that it was “a really very pragmatic optimization.” He concludes: “And, yeah…”

THE BUMP HAS BECOME A MEANINGFUL PART OF A PHONE’S DESIGN

Samsung, on the other hand, has embraced the camera bump. Top Samsung phones have featured a prominent bump since 2013, with the introduction of the Note 3. The bump has persisted through the Note series and, in 2014, became equally noticeable on the flagship Galaxy line with the S5. Some of those camera bumps have been very, very ugly. But Samsung’s latest flagships, the S6 and Note 5, actually feature some of the most interesting camera bumps out there. They look rigid and stern on the back of its phones. These aren’t just bumps, they’re actually designed elements of the device. Bumps may not make for a perfectly sleek phone body, but they turn a necessary compromise into a style choice.

And that’s exactly what Google is doing today. Both of its new Nexus phones very much embrace the camera bump, albeit to different degrees. The Huawei-made Nexus 6P flares out ever so slightly up top in a way that’s almost reminiscent of an old calculator. What would otherwise be an extremely generic phone becomes distinct thanks to this single black strip. In fact, Google tells Wired that the 6P was in many ways built around its desire to include this large camera.

STARE INTO THE “SINGLE VOLCANO.”

The Nexus 5X’s camera bump is a little less compelling, but it still seems to be something that Google put real thought into. One of Google’s industrial designers even describes it to Wired as a “single volcano,” which is the kind of phrase you’d expect to hear in an Apple design video. Machining it, the designer adds, is not easy work.

There’s one other thing in common about both Nexuses’ camera bumps: while they’re a visual focus, they aren’t really an impediment to holding or using the phone. In our initial hands on with the Nexus 5X, The Verge‘s Dieter Bohn writes, “I was concerned going in that the camera bump on the back would be super annoying, but it’s actually relatively subtle and not too large.” Which speaks to how much has changed. There’s nothing subtle about this:

But there’s little to complain about with this:

“A lot of being a designer is about making tradeoffs, especially in the smartphone space because we have limited real estate that we can work with,” HTC’s industrial design chief,Claude Zellweger, told The Verge earlier this year while discussing protruding cameras. “As you go bigger with the sensors, you inevitably come up to certain limitations.” HTC’s latest flagship, the M9, includes a very slight bulge. That’s an acceptable compromise, Zellweger says, but “there’s sort of a limit to how much we would be willing to grow over the rest of the product.”

There are still ways to avoid the camera bump, as we’ve seen on recent flagships. Motorola and LG use curved backs, in part, to fit in a larger camera sensor. Others, like Sony, just avoid the issue altogether and manage to pack everything into a phone with a flat back.

But that option appears to be getting harder and harder. We don’t just want functional cameras on our phones — we want good ones. And good cameras need bigger sensors and bigger lenses. Fortunately, as phone manufacturers race to the bottom on thinness, they’re starting to figure out how to make the bulging compromise that is a good camera look good, too. The camera bump may not be ideal, but when done right, it’s character, not just compromise.

Correction: The Galaxy S line had a protruding camera before the Galaxy Note line, not after it, as this article initially stated.

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