Phones are more fragile than ever, and it's all our fault

Phones are more fragile than ever, and it's all our fault
How often do you buy a car? Is reliability a top priority, or you need something shiny, powerful, and flamboyant? Do miles per gallon matter? Would you buy a Ferrari if it was just a little more expensive than your Honda Civic? Important questions, but how do they relate to our phone subject in the title? The thing is, most modern phones are more like Ferraris - eye-catching, powerful, but fragile as hell, and expensive too. And yet, we buy them, break them, and buy them yet again. Why?

I drive a Civic, but my phone is the supercar variety. Curved glass, aluminum frame, fancy textured glass on the back to battle fingerprints, tiny bezels, a notch - the whole package. The real thing. Design-wise there's nothing wrong with that. It is a beautiful piece of technology. But I started wondering - how did we end up with such fragile phones? Do manufacturers deny our freedom of choice, or we're to blame for buying the Ferraris? 

The glass revolution

Phones with glass over the screen have been around for quite some time now. You can argue that the iPhone 4 was the first "glass sandwich", but for various reasons, Apple moved to aluminum bodies for the next two generations. If I had to identify the turning point, I'd go for the Samsung S5-S6 transition. The Galaxy S5 was heavily criticized for its plastic back, often compared to a Band-aid in feel and look. 

Samsung's engineers took it almost personally, and the Galaxy S6 line was born, with the S6 Edge catching all eyes. This phone was a looker with its curved front glass, aluminum frame, and also curved glass on the back. I'm not trying to rattle the snakes by saying that Samsung invented beautiful phones, but the company did have an impact. Now curved glass on the front and back is a norm. According to a study carried out by Counterpoint, 60% of all smartphones will have glass backs by the end of 2020.

That's a huge number. The key reason behind the widespread adoption of glass in phones is the overall look and feel of the device, according to the same study. Glass phones look more attractive and they feel premium in the hand. Apple returned to glass and metal designs after the iPhone 5 and 6, and while Samsung started adopting glass backs much earlier than other companies, with its S6 series, by the end of 2018 Apple was the only manufacturer having almost 64% of its portfolio with a glass back.

Mid-tier devices also moved toward glass - the Galaxy A series featured glass backs from 2016 onward and others followed suit. Smartphones of all classes and nationalities started to receive a facelift and the world became a prettier place. But then...

The elephant in the (glass) room - shatter resistance

You would be amazed by how often people break their phones. My wife shattered three glass sandwiches and didn't bother with repairs, she just bought a new phone. It's not that we're swimming in money or something, it's just that repairs are difficult and expensive. Most warranties don't cover accidental damage and a screen change often costs as much as a third of the overall cost of the phone.

Another study conducted by SquareShare in 2018 shows that my wife is not a minority. The study found that 66% of smartphone owners damaged their phones in 2017, with cracked screens leading the way as the most common type of damage (29%). Americans spent $3.4 billion repairing more than 50 million cracked screens. Meanwhile, 59% won't even bother repairing phones and opt for a new device instead.

It seems like manufacturers don’t care much about durability, either. And why should they? Phones become more expensive, features like waterfall displays pop into existence, making devices even more fragile, but people keep buying new phones when they break the old beauties. I won’t go deep into curved vs. flat here, it’s a huge topic that deserves a separate article. Back to breaking things. I can almost telepathically hear your next argument in my head.

Just use a case?

Using a case defeats the purpose of glass phones altogether. It’s like buying a Ferrari and keeping it covered even when you drive it around. In practice, you’re left with the equivalent of a phone with a rubber or a plastic back. The curved front glass sinks beneath the protective edges of the case and all beauty is gone. And besides, buying a case should be an option, not a necessity. After all, when you spend hundreds of dollars on a phone, it should be a complete product.

There are awesome cases out there, and I’ve used a bunch myself, but it just doesn’t feel right. Do you buy a case for your wristwatch before you put it on your hand? I remember the time when phone “cases” were actually little leather pouches you attach to your belt. They were meant to free your hands most than anything else. Protective cases became a thing when glass phones flooded the market. They’re just walking sticks for our beautylicious phones. And yet, 8 out of 10 people use a protective case on their phone. So we’re feeding the glass phone factory, while at the same time don’t get the stylish and sleek looks after all.

What’s wrong with metal?

A little side note, if you’re still with me. I used to have a Nokia 8 phone with an aluminum unibody. And frankly, I quite enjoyed the design. The back wasn’t a fingerprint magnet, I dropped the phone several times and it just dented slightly, and I used it without a case. Without fueling the metal vs. glass vs. plastic debate I’ll just point out one thing. Metal is great and all, strong, resilient, and premium on the touch. 

There are only two caveats - metal backs don't allow wireless charging and mess up signal reception. And while the latter can be justified by cleverly placed antennas, the omission of wireless charging tilts the scales. We most likely won’t see many metal-back phones in years to come, as wireless charging is becoming more and more widespread, and newer wireless tech (5G) will depend strongly on stable wireless connectivity. So, what to do?

How to “break” the vicious cycle?

There’s no easy answer to that one, I’m afraid. We can’t just stop buying glass phones or cases. Such a worldwide boycott is simply impossible. I did point the finger in the title, though. Don’t feel guilty or angry, please. Just try and keep this information on the back of your head next time you’re buying a phone. It might save you nerves, money, and disappointment.

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