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Smartphone Durability

I asked myself today, “Self, why do you think people who don’t own smartphones choose to be smartphoneless?”  I thought it was a good question, but that’s my bias in the matter.  The obvious answer is cost.  Not everyone has the money for a smartphone.  The not-so-obvious answer is, I think, the answer nobody pays attention to.  Which makes perfect sense.

The not-so-obvious answer is that smart phones are too delicate for inevitable human error.  The screens crack when you drop them, and they don’t hold the weight of your car very well either.  But cost doesn’t stop people from saving up to buy one, and frankly, the two-year contract discounts dissolve that issue almost entirely.  If you want one, you can get one.  Cost is only a problem when you have to pay for the phone a second time.

Manufacturers and carriers deal with the problem of fragility with warranties, insurance, replacement plans, and third party dealers often double-up with protection plans and IT services.  Every solution is offered to help you deal with the problem, except for a solution that fixes the problem.  As I said, it’s the problem nobody pays attention to.  Oh, sure, you can stick Gorilla glass or an equivalent on my phone, or offer me rubber phone condoms.  But, a personal anecdote, every one of my cracked screens was Gorilla glass, and I was using protection.  Smartphones are downright frail.  And with each huge technological step forward in hardware and software, it seems we sacrifice durability.  The Samsung Galaxy S II is a jaw-dropping piece of hardware.  But if bird poo drops from the sky and lands on your SGS II, the poor thing shatters into a million pieces.

Is this issue big enough to bother?  I don’t know, but every time I poll smartphoneless people about why they have no smartphone, that’s the answer I get.  “Poll” makes it sound more official and sciency.  How many smartphoneless people are there?

As of Google I/O 2011, people activated 400 million Android phones.  Google currently holds the largest marketshare in smartphone OSs against Research in Motion, Apple, Microsoft, and Palm.  My Android device’s calculator says this means there are no more than 2 billion smartphones currently used in the world–and I assume that’s generous number, given my Android device’s bias in the matter.  About 5 billion people are using mobile phones of all kinds right now.  With at least ⅗ of the world’s mobile device users left to convince, I think smartphone frailty is worth taking into account.

My first Android device was a first generation MyTouch 3G.  I gave that to my ex-wife and slept around with slew of devices.  I was reckless.  Broke hearts.  Broke screens.  Somehow I ended up with what is my second MyTouch 4G.   I think the evolution of the MyTouch is a great simile for smartphone advancement in general.  The MT3G (HTC Magic) was arguably the starting point of the Android explosion in 2009.  The MT4G (HTC Glacier) was arguably the most advanced device of 2010.  And in-between were a series of generations that reflected smartphone trends, from better media playback (HTC Sapphire) to sliding keyboards (HTC Espresso).

The reason my current MT4G is the second MT4G I’ve owned is, I opened a door the day after Christmas.  I used my left hand.  In my left hand was my first MT4G, and now also a doorknob.  The doorknob liked being turned.  The MyTouch didn’t.  It leaped from my hand and dropped on my shoe.  And that was how I shattered my first MyTouch 4G.

I have a similar story for my first Android phone, the MyTouch 3G that I gave to my ex-wife.  She wasn’t my ex-wife at the time, but during one of the fights that led to her exiness, I grabbed the MT3G and hurled it against the floor.  Thankfully she had a clear plastic case over it that shattered but saved the phone.  I didn’t like that.  So I picked the phone up again and hurled it harder.  This time, it didn’t break again.  So I stomped on it with my boot.  Twice.  Then picked it up again and pitched it against the wall.  Then I punched a hole in the front door and carefully placed large dents in her car with a baseball bat.  I have issues.  The MyTouch 3G doesn’t.  She uses it to this day.

Why did the new MT4G die while the old MT3G lived?  My ex-wife might have bought a protection plan from God himself.  Or maybe I’m just weak.  Or maybe the designs are that different, who knows?  So I tried to destroy another MT3G.  Here’s the video.

The MT3G has a 3.2” glass display with dense plastic surrounding the screen.  By the time the MT4G rolled out, HTC decided that putting more glass on it wouldn’t affect its durability at all.  It’s a popular trend with smartphones, extending the glass beyond its 3.8” display to the edge of the phone.  It’s shinier.  I can’t imagine another reason.  I understand some sacrifices of durability for better hardware, but it’s not easy to justify sacrifices for aesthetic appeal.  Especially when that appeal is generated by a tasteless Apple.

The MT3G is also 55.56 x 113 x 13.65 millimeters and weighs 116 grams.  Squeeze it by the glass and battery cover.  The thing doesn’t budge.  It’s solid all the way through, like hugging a tree, which always sounds more pleasant than it is.  The MT4G is 62 x 122 x 11 millimeters and weighs 140 grams, which gives it a higher density, but then, it has more glass, more metal, less plastic.  And being thinner, that density is spread out.  If you squeeze it, it gives.  Mine even wheezes, passing air from some orifice like a squeaky toy.

Of course, I’m ignoring the enormous technological upgrades to the MyTouch series. The 3.8” Super LCD MyTouch 4G with a 1 GHz Snapdragon processor (which I overclocked to 1.5 GHz) makes the 3.2“ color transflective TFT screen and the 528 MHz of the MyTouch 3G look like a joke.  Obviously, a larger screen means more surface area to reinforce, but since larger displays didn’t bring those 3 billion mobile phone users over to smartphones, a smaller display might be just fine.  Some sacrifice is necessary according to what you want most.

As far as the MyTouch 3G’s innards are concerned, there’s more than enough room for newer hardware.  Simply make a MT3G-shaped smartphone with MT4G hardware.  A few slight modifications for a front-facing camera, trade the trackball for the trackpad, and you’ve got a respectable, inexpensive mid-grade smartphone, to be sold on the marketing platform of durability.

image source: Intomobile.com


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  1. [email protected]:disqus, have you ever considered a motorola defy?

  2. Fascinating that the newer phones are getting shoddier, it seems like hardware in general is becoming more fragile/apt to fail lately (I’ve noticed the same trends with console systems and their rate of failure, such as when the first Blu-Ray drive in my PS3 stopped functioning). However I’ve got to disagree with your reasons for people not getting smartphones. I’m sure cost is one of the most major reasons (particularly the monthly plans), and for the older generation I’m sure it’s a lack of confidence with technology. But I also think–and maybe I’m just prematurely crotchety alongside the older generation being 20 years old–that some people just don’t care to have all that technology in a phone.

    I’m sure it’s nice to have all those apps, web-surfing, video, games, and so on in one device, but I don’t really see why all that has to be coupled with a phone. If you were to give me such a device without the phone, I’d probably enjoy it for what it is–a multi-purpose mini-computer with lots of shiny bells and whistles. As it stands, I hardly use my cell phone, which has just a few little apps like a calculator and such, for any purpose other than texting and emergency calls; the only difference that would come from having a smart phone is I would use all those nifty features and STILL not make many phone calls, so why even include the phone? The monthly payments come from texts, calls, and data, and I would probably only use it for the offline games, music, and so on, so it seems a bit silly to couple a phone with that. As far as I know, the only similar device sans-phone is the iPod Touch, but I’m not a particularly big fan of Apple products.

    Maybe I’m just antisocial and don’t have any friends and that’s why I don’t use phones all that much anyway. But as a poor college kid (or even as a potentially successful future working adult) I don’t see the point in shelling out $60-100 a month for the device when the features I’m paying an arm and a first born for never get used.

  3. At the very least, it’s the only answer I hear. It could be a diversion from admitting inadequacy, which agrees with your first reason. To the second, sure, durability isn’t THE answer to why some people don’t buy smart phones, there are others.

    However, I’m not so sure it’s a very widespread reason not to get one. AT&T doesn’t exactly compete with low prices. Some other companies do. And on top of that, considering the modern attitude toward debt, caution like yours is not widespread. If people want a smartphone, they’ll do what they have to to get one, whether that takes some time or some bad decisions.

    My answer is absolutely speculative, and I definitely could be wrong. It’s the answer I hear, but that could mean that it’s simply the easiest excuse. Even then, I think it’s in the manufacturers’ interest to offer a device or two that denies them the ease of that excuse.

  4. I disagree. I think the two major reasons that people don’t have smartphones are those who aren’t good enough with technology to figure out how to use a smartphone and those who are looking at the monthly plan costs. I paid $30 prior to getting a smartphone, once I got a smartphone, I’m paying $70. When data plans are $20-30+, it isn’t the short-sighted cost of the device, its the plan that gets them for $360 per year. There is a good reason why AT&T dropped the price $100 on the iPhone, people flocked to it like sheep and the monthly cost raised $10 per month and it maintains their contracts. I waited to get a smartphone because of the data plan cost, which is more than the phone itself.

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