Twenty-six. That’s how many times an independent lab dropped Samsung’s new “Unbreakable Panel,” a display that’s not in any Samsung devices yet but probably will be soon. After being dropped repeatedly from four feet up, there was no damage to the OLED display’s front or sides. Just for good measure, Samsung also demonstrated nailing the thing with a rubber mallet on YouTube. It lived through that fine, too.
Can you imagine your iPhone taking the same level of abuse? Two years ago, I ranted about the iPhone’s ever-cracking glass screen. Two. Years. Yet they still crack all the time, and when they crack on the iPhone X, they’re even more expensive to replace, at $280.
As Samsung’s new test proves, device manufacturers now understand how to make phones and tablets that never break. The question is, when will crack-proof screens be the rule rather than the exception?
For as long as portable electronics have existed, durability came at the expensive of beauty. I remember walking the back halls of the Consumer Electronics Show in the mid-aughts, looking at the rugged mini-PCs and tablets, resistant to extreme shock, heat, and water. These were machines built for military types, and they looked the part; it was as if they had been wrapped in a bulletproof jewel case of plastic composites. Even today, using the most durable electronics on the market means you’re more or less operating them through an exoskeleton. It’s an experience one can tolerate in harsh environments, but you’d never pine for during a subway commute.
Unsurprisingly, I believed that durable and beautiful would never mix–that solid electronics were doomed to look ugly forever. Sure, Motorola began releasing near-indestructible phones in 2015, but they still looked plasticky, with a glossy industrial design that screamed cheap. The engineering was incredible, but it lacked the final bit of polish–that sensation of touching glass, the idea that you were holding something precious, which Apple is unparalleled at nailing in generation after generation of iPhones. Besides, the otherwise-durable Motorola phones actually scratched like mad.
My opinion finally flipped this month, when I first unboxed Samsung’s recently released Tab Active 2. It’s a small Android tablet that costs about $430, but it’s not even marketed to the general public. Instead, it’s sold to roughnecked enterprise customers who need a tablet they can drop or use it in the rain without running to the nearest Apple Store to fix it afterward. What surprised me was that, despite the fact that its screen can literally be frozen in ice, or it can be written on underwater, it felt like any other Samsung touch-screen product I’d held. In other words, the Active 2 is really quite premium in its engineering: thin and light, but droppable as heck. And that’s all due to a lot of micro-engineering that Samsung wasn’t too keen on detailing when I asked.
If you put the Active 2 in front of 100 people, 100 people would have no clue it was a “rugged device.” So isn’t it time that all devices are just as rugged?
To be fair, all manufacturers, including Apple, have gotten a bit better about durability. In particular, the entire industry began protecting their phones from water damage around 2016, using everything from glue to block ports to coatings around their chips so that smartphones can get splashed–and even survive the swampy bathroom air of a particularly hot shower–without dying a shivery, warranty-invalidating death.
But consider the durability-focused ads and products coming from Samsung, the only hardware manufacturer in the world that’s proved it can go toe-to-toe with Apple at all in portable electronic mind and market share. Then cross-reference those against the social media frenzy that has emerged around testing Apple products and calling them out for design flaws. I can’t help but wonder if, culturally, users are reaching a tipping point. We’re finally in an age when the $100-plus shattered-screen replacement fee has become unacceptable. Especially now that the technology to truly shatter-proof those screens exists.