London - For millions of us, it’s one of the perils of modern life. You’re going about your daily business when your expensive smartphone slips out your pocket, hitting the ground with a thud.
If you’re lucky, your beloved gadget is fine. If you’re not, the screen is scratched. Or, worse, the glass is cracked, leaving you with a repair bill that can be more than £200 (about R3 500).
Is there nothing that can be done, you fume, to make smartphones sturdy enough for the real lives of the people who use them?
At last, some good news is on the way.
Apple, the technology company that has sold an incredible 500 million iPhones since they went on sale in 2007, is expected to launch its iPhone 6 next month. And their latest model improves on the versions that came before it in one crucial way: a “virtually unscratchable” screen, made from sapphire. At least, that’s the rumour being circulated by technology aficionados online.
Why sapphire? Well, it’s the second hardest naturally occurring material on earth, after diamond.
The iPhone 6 will not technically be the first sapphire crystal mobile on sale in Britain. But if, as expected, it goes on sale for roughly £600, it’ll be the first that is vaguely affordable.
The only sapphire-screened mobile phone currently available here is the Vertu Signature Touch, a super-deluxe model that costs a wallet-busting £6 750.
The phone also includes a camera made by upmarket manufacturers Hasselblad and an audio system designed by Bang & Olufsen.
The Apple model, on the other hand, will be firmly aimed at the mass market. Business experts are predicting the company is preparing to manufacture an incredible 75 million iPhone 6s by the end of this year.
So how “unscratchable” is sapphire? And is this the holy grail for phones? Theoretically, since the only substance harder than sapphire is diamond, the only thing that could damage a sapphire screen would be a diamond.
But that would only be true if the screen were of pure naturally occurring sapphire, which it is not. It uses man-made sapphire, which is not quite as robust.
Synthetic sapphires can be made in a lab and are almost identical in chemical structure to the real gem stone, only clearer and lighter.
The respected technology expert Marques Brownlee managed to get hold of one of Apple’s new screens — albeit without a phone attached — and subjected it to a raft of assaults.
In a YouTube video which has been viewed more than 1.5 million times, Brownlee slashes the screen with a sharp hunting knife and a set of house keys — and it emerges as good as new. “The worst blemish,” he says studying it afterwards, “was my fingerprints.”
He concludes: “Basically, as long as you’re not carrying some high-quality sandpaper in your pocket, you should be good.”
Damaged screens are certainly a common problem. A recent survey of 2 500 iPhone users revealed that nearly a quarter of them were using phones with a screen that was chipped, scratched or cracked. Other smartphones are just as vulnerable.
In an attempt to deal with the issue, some manufacturers have begun using a material called “gorilla glass”, which is more scratch-resistant than ordinary toughened glass.
But ask anyone who has used both gorilla glass and sapphire and they’ll tell you: sapphire screens are in a different league.
Michael Fisher, editorial director of tech website pocketnow.com, carried out his own tests on a phone with a sapphire screen, attacking it violently with steel wool, coins, a knife and sharp stones. None of them left a scratch.
“Sapphire crystal is not a gimmick,” he says. “It really can withstand a lot more abuse than any of the other current materials. I had to beat the hell out of it to get it to chip or scratch.”
He only eventually damaged the screen when he threw the phone from 3ft in the air on to sharp stones.
“Scratch resistance is not the same as impact resistance,” he says, pointing out that even water, if sprayed at a high enough pressure, can cut steel.
Fisher believes that soon all mobile phones will have a super-tough screen, whether it’s Apple’s sapphire technology or a rival version.
After all, pretty much every smartphone you can buy now manages your emails, has a decent camera and a high-resolution display. The strength of the screen is likely to be the next battleground.
There are, however, two potential problems with sapphire. The first is size. Up until now, sapphire screens have been too thick for the manufacturers to want to use them. But Apple seems to have solved this problem — although they haven’t yet revealed how they have done it.
The other issue is cost. It’s estimated that a traditional glass screen costs a manufacturer around £1.80 per phone; a sapphire screen is believed to cost around £18.
By the time that extra cost has filtered down to the consumers on the High Street, you could be looking at a phone that’s £100 more expensive than a normal glass-fronted model. But, inevitably, that premium will eventually go down as the technology goes into mass production.
Jason Jenkins, editor of the CNet technology website, says: “If Apple wanted, they could soak up the extra cost — their margins on iPhones are very high. But it would be strange for a company to choose to do that.”
Yet price is not everything.
“I think the biggest problem with smartphones are not scratched screens but cracked ones,” says Jenkins. “You drop it, it lands on its side and the screen cracks. So, if Apple has developed a way to make the glass more resistant to that, that’s going to be the biggest win.”
Jenkins adds: “The hard part isn’t making one screen that doesn’t scratch or crack, it’s making hundreds of millions of them. The biggest challenge will be getting a good quality product when you’re producing lots of them — and at a cost that doesn’t make the phone unaffordable.”
That said, the cost of maintaining a phone with a non-sapphire screen can also be high.
Currently, Apple charges £216 to put a new screen on a cracked iPhone 5S, though small mobile-phone shops often carry out unofficial repairs for around half that amount. But £100 is still a lot of money for fitting what is essentially a piece of glass. It’s no wonder that there are video “tutorials” on YouTube for those who want to buy a new screen online and repair their phones at home.
The steep cost of repairs is also why so many smartphone users choose to just buy a new phone instead of fixing their old one. And why so many of us stick our beautifully crafted pieces of engineering inside an ugly, plastic protective case.
Many also attach a cheap “screen protector” (a sheet of clear, adhesive plastic) on the front to help guard the phone from scratches.
As Jason Jenkins says: “At the moment you’re a bit stuck: either you enjoy your beautiful phone and accept that after a couple of years it’s going to be scratched and you throw it away — or you wrap it up in a case and can’t enjoy the aesthetics that probably made you buy it in the first place.”
That is, however, before the arrival of sapphire. If sapphire screens live up to their promise, your mobile phone will be almost indestructible.
Just make sure you keep it away from your diamond engagement ring. - Daily Mail