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What difference does sapphire make in smartphone displays?

The Huawei Ascend P7 Sapphire is materially better than the original

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The increasing use of premium materials in smartphones has gone hand in hand with the trend of them being presented as lifestyle and fashion items rather than mere gadgets. This year has seen the HTC One set a new design benchmark for Android (and now Windows Phone) handsets, Samsung switching to using real metal in its phones, and Sony refining a design language built around tempered glass and aluminum. But the hot new story is sapphire. Apple has committed an entire factory in Arizona to the full-time production of the ultra tough and scratch-resistant material, and all signs point to it planning to use it in the display for at least one of its new iPhones.

There's no need to wait for the next iPhone, however, to find out what difference using sapphire will make. Kyocera's Brigadier and Vertu's exclusive range of luxury phones already have sapphire displays, and here at IFA, Huawei has just introduced its new Ascend P7 Sapphire limited edition handset. I spent some time with the latter phone today trying to discern a difference between the reinforced glass typically adorning phone fronts and the even hardier sapphire stuff.

Huawei has taken the guts and design of its original Ascend P7, launched in May, and rebuilt them with more expensive stuff on the outside. The rear of device is now made of a "high-tech" ceramic that's three times stronger than steel, scratch-resistant, and fast to dissipate heat. The entire front, including the 5-inch 1080p screen and the bezels surrounding it, is covered by a sapphire crystal display. The aluminum frame that wraps around the top and sides of the P7 is retained, though it's rose-colored in this limited edition handset. Overall, this is a phone that aims for a glamorous look and achieves it with ease. The patterned rear is extremely reflective and, at the right angle, can be used as an impromptu mirror. The aluminum glints in the light. Huawei has checked off all the boxes for an ostentatious phone.

Alas, the front of the P7 Sapphire is almost as glossy as its rear. There's no difference to be found between regular glass and sapphire when considering screen reflectivity — both make the P7's brightness look inadequate under the harsh lights of the trade show floors. Similarly, I wasn't able to detect any meaningful difference in contrast, color saturation, or viewing angles when comparing the two displays. Whatever distinction may exist is too subtle to be picked up by the human eye.

The big advantage of sapphire over glass has always been its extreme scratch resistance. I wasn't able to test that today, and I doubt it's something that too many people will readily notice. After all, the absence of a scratch where you'd otherwise get one with a glass screen is a pretty tough thing to appreciate.

Handling the sapphire-fronted P7 also felt no different from the standard edition. Knowing that I was holding the more premium device did make it feel like a more exclusive experience, but not a tangibly better one. The one quirky difference I found was that, when both phones were laid face down, the P7 Sapphire slid around on the table more than the original P7 with a glass screen. So perhaps its surface has less friction to it, but again, that didn't translate to a difference that the end user will be able to sense.

Huawei says it'll price the Ascend P7 Sapphire "a little bit higher" than the original and launch it in limited quantity in China. An event in Shanghai on September 12th will make all details known, though a global release will depend on the strength of demand.

Indistinguishable to the touch

My conclusion after poking and prodding this sapphire display is one of ambivalence. From a user's perspective, it's indistinguishable from the glass screens already on the market, which is great if you value scratch resistance highly. But that switch isn't without its tradeoffs, with sapphire being both hard to produce and more susceptible to cracking. As HTC's former chief designer Scott Croyle once explained to me, the brittleness of ceramic is the reason why smartphone makers have been so reluctant to use it in the past. Maybe Huawei, Apple, Kyocera, and Vertu have figured out ways to minimize the downsides of using these more advanced materials and we can all look forward to tougher and more durable phones in the future. The thing about durability, though, is that it can't be tested in a day. For now, enjoy the pictures of the P7 Sapphire below, set against the original P7 handset with some added Arsenal livery.