Every year there's a new must-have feature for flagship phones. For the tail-end of 2019 and into 2020 it's all about the so-called 'Waterfall Display'. But what exactly does this mean, why would you want it, and which phones feature one? We take a closer look.

Before the likes of Oppo kicked off this curved screen trend by teasing an unnamed handset back in July 2019, typing "waterfall display" into Google would return a bunch of information about spectral analysers (high-end audio visualisers, if you're not following). But following the launch of the Vivo NEX 3 in mid-September 2019 and Huawei Mate 30 Pro just days after, we suspect that will all change.

What is a Waterfall Display?

Simply put, a Waterfall Display is when the side edges of a display are curved to such a degree that you can't see any side edge bezel - it's as if there's a cliff edge and the screen is flooding off it, hence the name.

Now, the concept of a curved screen isn't new by any means. We've long seen curved edges, back to when the Samsung Galaxy Note Edge appeared in 2014, which then developed into the likes of the S7 Edge and beyond. While such devices were bold with their screen curvature, it's now highly common to find flagship phones with curved edges - but not to the same 'off-the-edge' infinity-style as a Waterfall Display, rather more to subdue the physical size of a device and make it more comfortable to hold.

Having this seemingly absent side bezel creates a much higher screen-to-body ratio, so for fully immersive viewing such devices will be ideal for media. Less bezel also minimises the overall footprint of a device without sacrificing screen real-estate - not that the current crop of handsets and are small-scale by any means.

A Waterfall Display presents its own challenges though. With the screen effectively running mid-way over to the side of the device, there's unlikely to be any room left for traditional buttons - at least not in their conventional positions. While that presents a challenge there are workarounds, as we'll get to when looking at which Waterfall Display devices are available, coming to market, or rumoured to be in the pipeline.

Which phones feature a Waterfall Display?

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Vivo NEX 3

  • 6.89-inch AMOLED screen (2256 x 1080 resolution)
  • 98.6% screen-to-body ratio
  • No physical side buttons
  • Pop-up front camera

The first to market with a Waterfall Display, despite not being the first brand to show one off, is Vivo with the NEX 3. However, this Chinese company only releases devices in Asia Pacific at present, but we suspect that'll change in the coming years as this company looks like a force to be reckoned with.

The NEX 3 features a Samsung-sourced 6.89-inch AMOLED screen, in-screen fingerprint scanner, Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 Plus processor, and a 64MP main camera in among its trio of rear shooters. And, of course, there's hardly any bezel on show thanks to the design. Shame it can't be picked up in the USA and Europe yet, eh?

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Huawei Mate 30 Pro

  • 6.53-inch 'Horizon Display'
  • Notched display

The Mate 30 Pro gives its screen the marketing treatment, i.e. a different name, opting for Horizon Display instead. That's just fine. Oddly, however, it's chosen to maintain a notch at the top of the phone - because the front-facing camera section also houses several other sensors.

Given the difficult times Huawei is facing following being banned from its Android enrolment by the US government, it's gone all-out in terms of features, including two huge sensor sizes in its quad camera setup (both 40-megapixels, one 1/1.54in for cinematic capture; the other 1/1.7in for high-ISO stills capture).

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Oppo Find X2

  • 6.5-inch screen (2340 x 1080 resolution)
  • Pop-up front camera
  • Rumoured release

Oppo teased its Waterfall Display device back in July 2019. What was shown is thought to be the second-gen Find X device, complete with signature mechanised pop-up front camera. The X2, of course, looks to maximise screen real-estate yet more.

Interestingly, Oppo is a company under the same umbrella as Vivo, so it's really no surprise to see such a screen format here as technologies and ideas are shared. The X2 doesn't have the very same screen as the Vivo NEX 3, though, coming in every so slightly smaller - but still large-scale given its 6.5-inch diagonal measure.

'Samsung Galaxy S11'

  • Unfounded rumour

We had to put this in here, solely for the fact that Vivo is sourcing its screens for the NEX 3 from Samsung. That's not unusual, as many phone-makers do just that, but we've not seen a 6.89-inch one prior to now, which suggests that the S11+ could easily offer the same screen.

Right now, who knows? But if Waterfall Displays are the trend - Samsung will obviously give it a whole other marketing angle - then it's not too far-fetched to call it out now. That said, Samsung has already done the edge design and software implementation to death and, save for the Note series, has been moving away from it a little in its other devices.

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TCL phone

  • Demoed technology

A little less prominent in the world of flagship phones, TCL - which owns Alcatel and BlackBerry - showed us a behind-closed-doors demo of where it's got to with such screen tech.

Although it doesn't have any Waterfall Display device lined up just yet, it's good to see the brand showing that it can keep pace with the big guns.

Pros and problems

So there we have it: a Waterfall Display (or Horizon Display if you're on team Huawei) maximises the screen-to-body ratio by banishing the side bezels to oblivion, making for a good-looking solution for screen-dominant design. It also opens up a world of tailored software, where edge-specific lighting displays, alerts and bespoke software interactions can be possible.

However, it brings with it some issues. Curved edges are quite easy to touch by accident, especially on a large-scale screen when reaching across it, so the likelihood of touching one or both sides and making a device do things you didn't want it to is high. Furthermore, as shown in the Vivo NEX 3, the absence of traditional buttons is taxing - Vivo has implemented a pressure-sensitive layer under the screen to control power and volume up/down, but the spacing is too far apart, the sensitivity tricky to get used to, and for us it just doesn't feel quite right to use. We're yet to use the Huawei Mate 30 Pro, but it uses a similar approach.

So you might want the most striking of designs for your next flagship, but we suspect some manufacturers will swerve Waterfall Displays for the sake of keeping more practical flat screens (such as in the Huawei P30 and OnePlus 7). Time will tell…

This article was first published on 17 September 2019 and has been updated to reflect additional information following the Huawei Mate 30 launch event.