I am like a dog, ears pricked and attention diverted, desperately trying to spot the offending sound. It’s a violent combination of bombastic crash and subtle crack, a unique flavor of dread.
It’s the sound of a phone dropping from hand or pocket or table or anything — gravity doesn’t discern — to the cold hard ground. Occasionally, you get lucky and the phone lands on its back, and you see your last interaction — Instagram, let’s be honest — staring back at you, the dog photo not nearly as cute dimmed by the judgemental harshness of the late afternoon sun. But often the screen is hidden from view, phone face down, a tense few moments where you brace yourself for the potential heartache and accompanying dread in knowing all the subsequent steps you’ll have to take to replace the shattered glass, and hoping that’s all it is.
There are no definitive numbers to work with, but a number of studies have attempted to figure out how often people drop their phones, and how often those accidents lead to permanent damage. A 2011 Plaxo study estimates that 33% of people regularly drop their phones on a regular basis — some 20% in to the toilet (which, with a bit of luck, may be less damaging) — while a 2013 study from Tech21 estimates that 90% of people drop their phones at least once a month. Around 5% said they drop their devices six times per month.
For most people, it’s not a matter of if but when, and though the materials used on the outside of our beloved devices have somewhat improved over the past few years, nothing is infallible. Corning, one of the most important companies few people know about, introduced the fifth generation of its Gorilla Glass substrate in 2016, and believes that it is the strongest smartphone cover out there, “surviving 1.6-meter, shoulder-height drops onto hard, rough surfaces up to 80% of the time,” according to the company’s marketing materials. Corning, headquartered in the New York town of the same name, has become synonymous with the front glass of most Android phones, and while there are competitors — Dragontrail is the MediaTek to Corning’s Qualcomm — Gorilla Glass has practically become the Kleenex of mobile screen covers.
But even the strongest glass is still breakable (for now), and unless we outfit the world with carpet (which could get gross pretty quickly) there isn’t an alternative to trying to make our devices more durable. A worrying trend, and one that has been criticized since the debut of the all-glass Nexus 4, is outfitting both the front and back of a phone in glass. From the Galaxy S7 to the Honor 8 and many in between, the Gorilla Glass sandwich doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon — the Galaxy S8 looks to have more glass, front and back, then ever — so we’re just going to have to deal with it.
The sight of a person, or groups of people, walking with phones in hand, reading the news or catching up on a Twitter feed, is all too common on busy city sidewalks.
If we assume that people are not generally getting clumsier, the rising prevalence of cracked and broken phones due to drops is likely due to the increasing number of hours people spend each day using their phones. The sight of a person, or groups of people, walking with phones in hand, reading the news or catching up on a Twitter feed, is all too common on busy city sidewalks, and the more we take the technology for granted, the less careful we are with the thing itself. Smartphones may be dropping in cost overall, but they’re rising in importance in our lives, and a cracked screen is more than an inconvenience — it’s a tragedy.
And yet the same Tech21 survey said that many people are willing to continue using a phone with a cracked screen because the idea of having to get it repaired or replaced — often out of pocket, since accidental damage is not covered under most manufacturer warranties — is stressful and, often, traumatic.
I hate seeing cracked screens. It’s a visceral reaction, a combination of anger at the owner and sadness for the phone. But that’s dumb; I should feel angry at the phone for breaking, and sad for the owner who has to go through the hassle of replacing it. I’ve been there; you’ve been there. We’ve all dealt with a cracked screen or at the very least damage a phone’s casing.
For a few years, high-quality polycarbonate — devices like the HTC One X, Nokia Lumia 1020 and iPhone 5C — were all the rage, and while they may not have looked as nice (debatable, since the Lumia phones were perfection), they tended to be very durable. But no material — metal, glass, polycarbonate — is unbreakable and the most important factor to preventing drops is being aware of your surroundings.
In Toronto, where I live, there has been a huge increase in the number of pedestrian deaths in recent years, many of which are caused by people engrossed in their phones as they cross streets or step into intersections. Such accidents are increasingly common in big cities throughout the world, and lest this turns into a PSA against using one’s phone out in public, it’s clear that people are becoming more cavalier about using phones in places that a few years ago would have been considered verboten.
A dropped smartphone is not always a broken one, and avoiding the occurrence completely is likely impossible, but being aware of when and how these drops happen is the first step towards realizing that our devices, as essential (and addictive) as anything we use on a daily basis, can be made safer by being more careful.
And, if you can’t, or just refuse to be, more careful, there are always rugged phones and thick-as-a-brick cases that will probably save you from yourself.