iPhone 6 Sapphire Display Durability Could be Vastly Exaggerated

iphone5s sapphire

Apple's upcoming iPhone 6 is expected to pack a super strong sapphire-crystal screen. CIO.com's Al Sacco lists a few reasons why the new iPhone could disappoint Apple fans seeking more durable displays.

Each and every spring/summer, keeping track of all the various new-iPhone-related rumors becomes a challenge that even the most dedicate iPhan would struggle to meet.

If you're paying attention — and if you're reading this post, I bet you are — the latest and most circulated iPhone 6 rumors relate to its display. It's been bouncing around the Web for some time now that Apple will forsake Corning's Gorilla Glass for fancy new sapphire-crystal displays on the latest iPhones. (Another rumor suggests that there will be two new iPhones, one with a 4.7-inch display and another with a 5.5-inch screen. The latest speculation suggests both models will sport sapphire screens, though earlier rumors said only one would feature sapphire.)

The use of sapphire crystal in electronics, watches and other jewelry isn't new. Apple also reportedly used sapphire in the iPhone 5s to cover both the home button and the rear-facing camera lens. So Apple and sapphire aren't strangers.

You'll find no shortage of YouTube clips that supposedly show the super strength of the sapphire display that will grace the face of the iPhone 6.

Here's a video of a sapphire display battling a concrete block. Here's another with sapphire scuffling with a pocketknife and a mean looking set of keys. And here's another with a sapphire display facing off against a hammer and a bunch of other sharp stuff. You can also see a car run over a sapphire screen here. Good times all around.

The common belief is that sapphire crystal is more scratch resistant than Gorilla Glass and other materials commonly used in smartphone screens today. However, it is unclear just how much more drop-proof or shatter resistant sapphire is on a phone. And it's very difficult, if not impossible, to simulate an accurate drop-test without the final device and the attached display. 

Last year, Corning, clearly concerned with all the rumors about sapphire ruining the Gorilla-Glass party, published a set of resources comparing sapphire displays to screens composed of Gorilla Glass. Not surprisingly, Corning concluded that sapphire is inferior to Gorilla Glass in many ways — though it was careful to cover its (gl)ass with quantifying statements, such as "[i]t is unclear if sapphire can compete with Gorilla Glass" and "innovation is always possible."

In the past, some very high-end phones, including models from Vertu, have had sapphire displays. But as far as I can tell, no mass-marketed phone packs a sapphire display.

In the past, the cost of sapphire was prohibitive. And while sapphire is still more expensive than traditional display Glass — Corning says "the cost to fabricate a sapphire cover… exceeds the all-in price of Gorilla Glass to a customer by more than a factor of ten" — Apple signed a multi-year deal last November with GT Advanced Technologies, a maker of sapphire materials. That pact could make the price more viable. Apple could also potentially use the GT sapphire to make more home buttons and camera components, so the agreement doesn't necessarily seal the deal for sapphire iPhone screens.

Another important question: Does it really make sense for Apple to make iPhone displays as indestructible as the YouTube testers make sapphire seem? Apple makes a ton of money from iPhone screen repairs. The company charges $260 to repair an out-of-warranty iPhone 5/5c/5s. That's more than many people pay for their subsidized iPhones. And it's a serious chunk of change for Apple.

I'm not saying Apple wants you to break your iPhone display…but I'm also not saying it doesn't want you to pay it for a repair if you happen to smash your screen. From a business perspective, it might not make a whole lot of sense for Apple to use sapphire if it really is as durable as some folks would have you believe. Sapphire could prove to be more scratch resistant, but just as shatter prone, as current smartphone displays. 

It's worth stating again that all of this sapphire chatter is speculation, and we may never actually see a sapphire display. It's also safe to assume that if Apple does launch the iPhone 6 with a sapphire screen, and you happen to shatter or crack yours, Apple is probably going to charge you a mite more than $260 to fix it.

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