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When Building Smartphones, Materials Matter

by Stephen Schenck on

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about the materials that go into our smartphones. Maybe it was all this talk about Apple going back to plastic designs for a new, cheaper iPhone. Maybe it was seeing that awesome sapphire screen demo from the Mobile World Congress. Maybe it was thinking about HTC going outside the box for the HTC One’s design, while Samsung keeps churning out more of the same. Whatever the reason, I’ve got materials on my mind, and I think we finally need to start bringing them front and center to pay them the attention they deserve.

What’s your phone made of? Plastic? Metal? Considering the sort of smartphone details we obsess over, those are some incredibly vague answers. “Oh, well this phone appears to be made out of matter, primarily of the solid variety.” We know the difference between LCD and AMOLED screens, between RGB and RGBG subpixel arrangements, but nobody’s talking about ABS versus HDPE, or the trade-offs between two aluminum alloys.

That’s a shame, because it adds so much unnecessary subjectivity and uncertainty into how we evaluate phones. Is that polycarbonate on a Lumia 920 going to resist scratches better or worse than the Hyperglaze (whatever the heck is actually in there) on a Galaxy model? It’s a little embarrassing that we have to address that from the position of “well, this one feels sturdier” when we could be looking at hard data.

For all the benchmarks we run and spec sheets we read, why don’t we have comparable data for the materials that make up the bodies of our phones? The best that are probably currently used are the certifications for water and dust resistance touted by manufacturers of ruggedized handsets, but even that falls short of the breadth of data that could really be useful in making our purchasing decisions.

I especially wish we had some readily available stats for the glass covering our phones’ screens. Easily the most fragile component of our phones, for products that see so much abuse day-in and day-out we know remarkably little about just how strong they are. Occasionally we get at least some metric by which we can evaluate these parts – is it Gorilla Glass or is it something else – but I can’t count how many time’s I’ve heard that a phone doesn’t use Gorilla Glass, but some unrelated strengthening treatment instead.

What good is info like that? Tell us what the treatment is. If “trade secrets” prevent detailed disclosure, fine – we’ll live with that – but there’s no excuse why not to have some data to back up your claims. We can quantitatively examine material hardness. If you’re touting your glass as extra durable, tell us just how many newtons of force it can withstand, applied where on the material, without shattering.

Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if manufacturers didn’t already have much of this data just sitting at their fingertips, having done their own testing during development; after all, they have an interest in making their products durable, and will want to know just how successful they’ve been. So, why aren’t they sharing it?

Well, I get the feeling that smartphone manufacturers are already a little upset with how spec-heavy the industry is. While that’s great for the company that’s on top at the moment, it presents a never-ending drive to one-up or be one-upped, and it becomes a whole lot more difficult to sell a phone where the focus is more on the user experience and software. Surely, adding in a whole mess of physical specs would just create more headaches for them.

There’s also the issue of liability, and while a company might say “this material will endure an impact of up to X,” it’s going to be hard to argue with the upset customer who breaks his phone and insists up and down that there’s just no way the fall could have subjected the handset to those kind of forces. After all, a spec is just another kind of guarantee, and the more you offer your customers, the more opportunities your product has to fail to deliver.

Still, I’d like to see smartphone customers asking these kind of questions. Which plastic is this backplate made of? How durable is this camera lens, sticking out like it does? Our phones sure have to put up with a lot during their lifetimes, and the materials that go into their construction absolutely matter. We just need to be paying more attention.

Image: Chipworks, GTGlass

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