The Indestructible Smartphone: Why It Could Be Closer Than You Think

A smartphone is probably the most advanced piece of technology most people own. We take these devices with us everywhere, we use them all the time. Odds are high we will drop them - onto the floor, into water or even onto hard pavement. 

Even if you got the phone for free with a contract, this tiny slip-up could cost you hundreds of dollars to replace or repair the device. 

(See also My Week With Android, Or Why I'm Buying An iPhone 5.)

Meet The Indestructible Smartphone

It doesn't have to be that way. Several companies are already working on building much more rugged smartphones.

At this year's CES trade show in Las Vegas, for example, Sony demonstrated its "waterproof" Xperia Z. According to Sony, the Xperia Z can survive in up to 3 feet of water for up to 30 minutes.

Sprint, meanwhile, has just introduced the Kyocera Torque, which it calls the "splashproof, drop-proof smartphone that can handle all of the elements of your rugged world." According to Sprint, its drop tests were from a maximum height of 5 feet, 9 inches. Kyocera is even using Bear Grylls, of Man vs Wild fame, to promote the ruggedness of the device. The company claims the Torque meets IP67 ratings for dust and water immersion and Military Standard 810G for dust, shock, vibration, temperature extremes, low pressure, solar radiation, salt fog, humidity and immersion in 1 meter of water for 30 minutes. Phew!

The problem, of course, is that kind of protection often makes the devices too bulky, too heavy and too costly - and many of these ruggedized smartphones may not include the latest hardware. They may also be not terribly attractive.

The Torque, for example, weights 5.9 ounces - compared to the iPhone 5's 3.9 ounces - and is wrapped inside a thick, greyish rubber casing. In its review of the Torque - despite being impressed with its ability to withstand "pretty brutal treatment" - AllThingsD was disappointed in the device's speed and camera:

The Torque’s five-megapixel, rear-facing camera was disappointing. It was slow to fire up. I took more than a dozen photos in various settings — natural light, indoor light and darker scenes with and without flash — and all of the photos came out a little grainy.  

Meet Graphene: Tougher Technology On The Way

Soon, however, thanks to the "wonder material" graphene, light, attractive, smash-proof and waterproof smartphones could become commonplace. 

According to the BBC, graphene could enable:

Mobile phones that fold, razor-thin handsets powered by flexible batteries or see-through solar panels built directly into a colourful screen.  

The BBC notes that single-atom-thick sheets of graphene: 

Conduct electricity better than copper, has strength greater than steel and also shows extraordinary elasticity. So great is its potential that in 2010 its discoverers Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov were awarded the Nobel prize for Physics.

Graphene is durable, see-through and available - it comes from highly abundant graphite. The problem is both cost and graphene's current inability to practically control microelectronics as robustly as silicon can. This has not stopped Samsung, Nokia and IBM from investing heavily in the material. 

How To Protect Your Existing Phone

Until graphene and other materials, such as nanobites, can succeed in the market, smartphone owners will have choose between bulk and vulnerability. Bumpers and protective cases certainly help make phones more rugged, for example, but add size and weight. And they typically don't help protect against water damage.

For that, there's a new service called Liquipel, which made a, er, splash, at last month's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. Liquipel offers after-market waterproofing for smartphones and tablets. 

As the company notes:

Liquipel applies a very thin layer of a water repelling substance on all the surfaces of the object, by exposing them to a gas in a special chamber. Because the substance is gaseous, it can trickle into every corner of the device, thus ensuring total protection. The best thing about it is the fact that all ports, like USB or audio, remain accessible and functional.

While customers must currently mail in their device to the treatment, the company says it is rolling out "LiquiPod" machines at various retail locations.

Smartphone Airbags?

Surprisingly, one of the more outrageous methods to protect smartphones was developed by Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos. In 2012, Bezos and Amazon VP Greg Heart were awarded a patent for a "smartphone airbag system."

As Geek.com wrote at the time:

If someone accidentally drops his or her phone, the always-on accelerometer will detect that it’s falling too quickly and will deploy the miniature airbags to cushion a potential impact with the ground or floor. Other possibilities suggest puffing out streams of gas to slow down the fall, or using springs instead of airbags.

Right.

The Insurance Option

Finally, instead of protecting the phone itself, another option is to protect against financial losses from a ruined phone. Extended warranties such as Apple Care are popular, if costly, for example. Other options include insurance plans from mobile carriers. These typically cost around $10 per month and - unfortunately - carry a steep deductible. But since replacing a brand new smartphone without a contract can cost $600 or more, these options may make sense for some consumers. And you don't have to wait for a technology breakthrough.

 

Lead image courtesy of Sony Mobile. Image of iPhone dunked in water from Liquipel.  Image of smartphone airbag patent via the USPTO