The new iPhone 4 might look less friendly and more dangerous than its predecessors, but for all its glass and steel, it might actually be more prone to cracking than previous iterations of Apple's massively popular smartphone.
After a major redesign, Apple's iPhone now has special, strengthened glass on both its front and back sides. A stainless steel band is sandwiched in between. Gone is the relatively soft aluminum and plastic that formed the backs of past iPhones.
When it comes to all this new glass and steel, Apple certainly is talking the talk. At the iPhone 4 unveiling event Monday in San Francisco, Jony Ive, Apple's senior vice president of design, said the custom glass is "comparable in strength to a sapphire crystal."
What is not immediately clear is if this glass is the same as that used on the fronts of previous generation iPhones. Apple did not return a request for comment by filing time for this story.
The answer may have to wait until the iPhone 4 comes out later this month. But for now some early conjecture on this next breed of iPhone has it that the device may be considerably more prone to cracking.
"The front screen can take a lot of wear-and-tear and use-and-abuse, but if you drop it face-down on a concrete driveway, it'll crack," said Vinita Jakhanwal, an analyst with the tech firm iSuppli, which does so-called teardowns, or dissections of Apple products.
"I think you've now increased the probability of [the iPhone 4] cracking by having glass on both sides instead of metal on one side."
Being a hard glass
On its Web site, Apple says that "all the breakthrough technology in iPhone 4 is situated between two glossy panels of aluminosilicate glass – the same type of glass used in the windshields of helicopters and high-speed trains. Chemically strengthened to be 20 times stiffer and 30 times harder than plastic, the glass is ultradurable and more scratch resistant than ever."
Apple has not said who manufactures this impressive-sounding glass. However, iSuppli has linked past iPhone screens to Corning, a New York-based company renowned for its "gorilla glass."
Dan Collins, Corning's vice president of corporate communications, said that the company provides gorilla glass for 17 major manufacturers of electronic devices including smartphones, personal digital assistants and laptops.
Corning does not reveal whom it supplies with glass by name, though Motorola has openly discussed the gorilla glass used for its Droid.
Jakhanwal said Apple and other smartphone companies go with this glass rather than cheaper, tougher plastic in order to support thin "capacitance" touch screens.
These screens react to a change in electric current caused by the fine touches and gestures of a person's finger, enabling multi-touch interfacing. "You need a glass cover for that kind of a touch," said Jakhanwal.
iSuppli's Jakhanwal thinks Apple put it on the iPhone 4's back primarily to make the device thinner.
Indeed, the new iPhone is leaner at 9.3 mm thick, making it 24 percent slimmer than the iPhone 3GS while weighing just a tenth of an ounce more. Apple is billing the iPhone 4 as the thinnest smartphone on the planet.
Attractively thin, yet fragile?
But might this touted thinness come at the cost of more busted iPhone screens and backs?
A cottage industry of repair services has sprung up to fix the popular smartphone, and the glass screens on current iPhones to a large extent are its bread and butter.
"Cracked screens are the number one most commonly done repair for any kind of accidental damage," said Aaron Vronko, service manager at Rapid Repair, a nationwide iPhone and electronic device repair company.
Vronko thinks that doubling the surface area of glass on an iPhone will lead to a good deal more repairs.
Yet the parts of the new iPhone appears more tightly aligned, and this snug configuration will transfer force through the device better than previous generation phones, Vronko said.
"This design should make the iPhone less susceptible to sudden impacts," Vronko said.
Sudden impacts rather than the glass bending are what dooms most iPhone glass, according to iFixYouri, an iPhone repair service. In a recent blog, the company noted a troublesome "design flaw" on the iPhone 4 that might leave it more vulnerable to this sort of damage.
On older iPhone models, the glass was a bit recessed and protected by a bezel, while on the iPhone 4 the glass sits exposed on top of the phone's frame.
Girded in steel
The other key new part of the iPhone 4, a stainless steel band that acts as the primary structural element (as well as the antenna), could perhaps bode for a tougher product, however.
On its Web site, Apple brags about this band as well: "Created from our own alloy, then forged to be five times stronger than standard steel . . .The band provides impressive structural rigidity and allows for its incredibly thin, refined design."
As with the hyped glass, Jakhanwal is not so sure that these new construction materials will make the iPhone 4 more robust.
But in the end, with protective case accessories and a bit of careful handling, Vronko does not think there will be so many more cracked iPhone 4s that customers will be upset.
"I think Apple makes the calculation that there are other materials they could use that would break less," Vronko told TechNewsDaily, "but that not enough people will have problems that will change the perception [of the product] in the marketplace."
For the iPhone 4, Vronko said Apple has almost assuredly engineered for both "durability and aesthetics."