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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.

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