Over the past eight years, I've reviewed almost every major smartphone, and one of the changes I've come to notice in that time is how the subject of a handset's durability has become inseparable from that of its display. Without spinning hard drives, slide-out mechanisms, or telescopic camera lenses, most smartphones nowadays are nearly unbreakable, except for their expansive glass front — which is the most common victim of any accidental falls or drops. And in 2017, as smartphone makers keep putting glass on both the front and back of their devices, and as screen bezels shrink dramatically smaller, I think we'll see the preeminence (and fragility) of glass in smartphones take on a new importance.
There are still many people out there who take great care of their smartphones and have never had one break — but poll the ones who've had to replace or repair their device due to some hardware calamity and the vast majority will have had a broken screen. You can see it any time you're on the underground, with the valiant iPhone owner tapping away in between the screen cracks, or with company initiatives like HTC's Uh Oh Protection that guarantees a straight device swap for a broken screen in the first year of ownership.
This spring's big intrigue surrounds LG's G6 and today's upcoming Samsung Galaxy S8, both featuring stripped-back screen bezels and, if all goes as expected, glass backs as well as fronts. My pessimistic instinct with such designs was to think they'd be more vulnerable to drops, but LG has gone to great lengths to demonstrate how its curved corners actually help dissipate the force of an impact and thus make a phone's screen more resilient. I also had to remind myself that we've had big 6-inch contiguous slabs of glass on our smartphones for many years now — it's just that in the past they used to cover chunky black frames surrounding the display, whereas with LG and Samsung's new phones, the stuff under the glass is almost all display.
And yet, I do have a couple of issues with the construction of these new devices, which are joined by the HTC U Ultra, announced in January, in favoring glass as the primary build material. One is the obvious fact that doubling the glass surfaces significantly increases the area of a phone that's susceptible to cracks and breakages. In an ideal world, we'd be wrapping up the front of a phone in aluminum too, as opposed to replacing the trusty lightweight metal with a less reliable sheet of glass. Sony's Xperia range moved away from glass backs last year, after it'd caused it a chronic headache with users (like me!) suffering breakages even without major falls or disasters.
The other problem with glass is just how easily it scratches. The latest versions of Gorilla Glass, the imposingly titled composite material that the vast majority of modern smartphones use, seem to have grown softer and even more susceptible to nicks and scrapes. My Google Pixel, for example, is only a few months old and already its display looks like someone's been carving out a crosshatch pattern on it with a set of sharp keys. The rear glass window of that phone is also much less attractive than its hardier aluminum surround. Awesome phone and camera, but terrible durability.
Apple did once try to make a sapphire glass iPhone display, which would have solved the scratching issue with its incredible toughness. HTC is currently doing a very limited edition of sapphire glass U Ultras, and there have been a few other previous attempts such as the Huawei Ascend P7 Sapphire. Ultimately, manufacturing and cost constraints have kept these ventures from breaking through into the mainstream. And having handled the sapphire-fronted Huawei phone, I can say it doesn't look or feel any different, and those are important things to have when you want to sell people on a new technology. Just promising that something won't scratch or break — as desirable as that may rationally be — doesn't excite consumers in the same way as, say, a bezel reduced to its absolute minimum.
I'm really excited about how this is shaping up. Eager to get it in more people's hands... pic.twitter.com/LRzQCFSKTm— Andy Rubin (@Arubin) March 27, 2017
So we're now striding boldly forward into a year of even more glass on our smartphones. Glass which, thanks to the illumination of these new edge-to-edge displays, will have little room to hide its scratches and imperfections. Beside Samsung and LG, rumors of Apple's next iPhone also point to a device with negligible bezels, and we've just had former Android chief Andy Rubin teasing a new smartphone sporting a near-bezel-free look as well.
I know LG's confident its design is more robust than traditional ones, and I'm conscious that Samsung's been doing the glass-sandwich thing successfully with its Galaxy line for a couple of years. I just hope the shift to using more glass and more expansive displays has been thoroughly thought through. A beautiful phone on day one makes a nice sales pitch, but keeping it beautiful a year later is what makes customers happy in the long run.