One of the biggest problems with smartphones is that they break. Screens are the most common culprit—smashed and cracked displays make up roughly 50 percent of all smartphone repairs. Water damage, malfunctioning charging ports or connectors, or nonfunctioning buttons are also popular reasons smartphone owners head to the repair shop. While talk of planned obsolescence—the idea that smartphone-makers purposefully design their products to eventually fail, forcing you to upgrade to a newer model—often comes up, these issues just happen with use over time. Over the past few years, smartphone companies have been taking small steps to make their phones more durable. Now, it seems we may be commencing an era of nearly unbreakable phones as hardware-makers develop less fragile display and body materials and continue to shore up devices against threats like dust and water.
Samsung has developed the most dramatic example of this yet. The company was recently recognized for developing an “unbreakable” smartphone display. The display is made of a flexible OLED panel with a layer of fortified plastic on top instead of brittle, easily breakable glass. If dropped, the display merely flexes under the impact rather than cracking and breaking. Underwriters Laboratories certified the durability of the display after it survived a rigorous set of military-grade standards: 26 repeated drops from a height of 1.2 meters (3.9 feet) and temperature tests ranging from -32 C to 71 C (-25.6 F to 159.8 F) with no physical damage and no impact on performance. Samsung says its display is particularly well-suited for portable electronics “not only because of its unbreakable characteristics, but also because of its light weight, transmissivity, and hardness, which are all very similar to glass.”
Corning’s Gorilla Glass 6 is working toward a similar goal. Introduced in mid-July, it begins to appear on handsets this month and also features formidable durability. Apple has used Gorilla Glass in many generations of its iPhones, and Corning has hinted that this newest, strongest version—it withstood up to 15 drops from a height of 1 meter—will be in this year’s models. Other smartphones have turned to sapphire or synthetic sapphire for ultra-scratch-resistant displays in recent years, while some glass startups are working on self-healing glass and synthetic diamond glass—materials that would be both scratch- and shatter-resistant
Hardware companies have been doing more than just strengthening the glass on the front of their displays, though. They have trended toward water resistant and waterproof devices as well. Samsung and Sony began making phones less susceptible to water damage around 2014. Apple followed suit in 2016 with the launch of the iPhone 7. Water-resistant phones must survive being submerged in up to 1 meter of water for 30 minutes for an IP67 rating, which has required new kinds of seals for ports and buttons, as well as different adhesives that won’t degrade with water exposure. Hardware-makers have also removed ports and buttons to help make their devices more water resilient. The headphone jack, which Apple nixed in the iPhone 7, has been one casualty in this movement in a number of leading handsets. Phone-makers have also begun eliminating the home button in favor of static fingerprint sensors and swiping gestures for navigation. This takes away one more moving part that can break after extended use.
The advances represent a big change. Because our phones have historically been so susceptible to breakage, a whole cottage industry has emerged to fix those issues. Smartphone repair houses like iCracked or Zagg Phone Repair have built small empires around our tendency to drop, crack, and otherwise bust our phones. As smartphone-makers add damage-proof screens to their mostly button-less, water resistant handsets, we’re going to see phones that last a whole lot longer and require less repair—phones that are, in essence, unbreakable. But those innovations come at a price. As phones use more premium materials and more ingenuous design to be more damage resistant, it’s not surprising that phone-makers are starting to up the price of these handsets. Instead of ponying up $600 every other year, you may hold onto your phone for three, four, or five years. A $1,000 price tag helps compensate for that shift. For a phone that won’t shatter when your Mimosa-lubricated hands let it slither through your fingers, it’s worth it.