Why an all-glass 'iPhone 8' makes sense, and could be more durable than you expect

Posted:
in iPhone edited April 20
Not since the discontinuation of the iPhone 4s has Apple sold a handset with an all-glass back, but that's rumored to change this year with the flagship "iPhone 8." In the years between those two models, advances in glass production technology have made it so an all-glass "iPhone 8" could be more robust than you might assume.


Glass 'iPhone 8' concept by Steel Drake.

Why glass?

The iPhone 4s launched in October of 2011. If the redesigned OLED "iPhone 8" is announced this September, as is expected, it will have been nearly six full years between the two.

Why switch back to glass? There are a number of potential reasons including an attractive glossy appearance, hand feel, and scratch resistance compared to some metals.

Consider that last year, Apple attempted to emulate the glossiness of the iPhone 4s with a new jet black aluminum iPhone 7, but the handset's materials make it vulnerable to scratching. In fact, Apple's own website cautions that the high-gloss finish of the device "may show fine micro-abrasions with use."

With glass, such scratches from regular daily use are not only less likely, but they're also less visible.

In addition, glass is much easier to mold than metal. It also boasts properties that facilitate thin-and-light form factors, allowing for a truly unique look and thin chassis that may not be possible with metals.

Of course, switching to a glossy glass back is not without its consequences, as many iPhone 4 and iPhone 4s owners could tell you. While glass offers unique design and is good at preventing small scratches, it can also be shatter-prone when dropped.


Glass 'iPhone 8' concept by Steel Drake.

Glass keeps getting better

Apple has learned a lot over the years in its largely iterative iPhone design process.

In particular, KGI Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo believes Apple gained valuable knowledge and experience in selling the "glass sandwich" iPhone 4 and iPhone 4s for years. He believes that this year's glass iPhone will prove just as durable as the recent aluminum models.

It's unknown whether Apple plans to use an off-the-shelf supplier for "iPhone 8" glass, or if it has cooked up its own in-house solution. But if Apple partners with Gorilla Glass, as it has done in the past, a lot has changed in the years since the iPhone 4s.




Last year, Corning unveiled Gorilla Glass 5, a hardened material that survives up to 80 percent of the time when dropped face-down from a height of 1.6 meters, or 5 feet 3 inches, onto rough surfaces.

In fact, when the iPhone 4s launched in 2011, Corning was still selling its first-generation Gorilla Glass, which debuted in February of 2008. The second-generation Gorilla Glass 2 wasn't announced until January of 2012, months after the iPhone 4s went on sale.

That means there have been four new generations of Gorilla Glass introduced since the iPhone 4s hit the market. Apple has undoubtedly seen the advantages of these glass improvements for the front side of subsequent iPhones, but that same level of durability and shatter resistance would presumably be seen on the back of an all-glass "iPhone 8" as well.

For some perspective, the Mohs hardness scale ranges from 1 to 10, with talc having a rating of 1, and diamond being 10. Sapphire crystal is rated at 9, and all glass -- including Gorilla Glass -- falls between 5 and 7, depending on hundreds of variables introduced accidentally or intentionally during the manufacturing process. Beach sand has several components, but generally peaks at a Mohs hardness of 8.5, explaining why sand in a bag with a phone results in a badly scarred device.

Technical advantages, too

Switching to glass isn't just about design, or aesthetics, or even durability improvements it also offers key technical advantages.

While Apple did much to remove the "antenna lines" from its handset with last year's iPhone 7 design, they still exist around the perimeter of the device. An all-glass back, however, does not prevent the transmission of radio waves, and no such lines would be necessary.

In this sense, glass serves both form and function, allowing for a clean aesthetic with reliable wireless connectivity.


Glass 'iPhone 8' concept by Steel Drake.


Another factor at play in switching back to glass could be the rumored addition of wireless charging, which is easier to accomplish through glass than metal.

But glass also conducts heat quickly, which is said to have necessitated some minor internal design changes to allow wireless charging. Specifically, the "iPhone 8" is said to include a thin graphite sheet to help dissipate heat when using a charging pad.

What about sapphire?

Another potential option is sapphire -- a material that, at one point, reached near-mythic status in the Apple rumor mill, only to fizzle out with the implosion of supplier GT Advanced Technologies.

Still, Apple already uses sapphire glass for key components in the iPhone: The rear camera and the Touch ID fingerprint sensor. The hardened nature of sapphire helps to ensure that these crucial parts are not susceptible to scratches, which could render them effectively useless.




However, while sapphire is scratch resistant, reports have indicated that the material does not perform as well in drop tests. That would make it a less likely candidate to appear on the "iPhone 8."

Regardless, Apple has shown significant interest and investment in sapphire, and utilizes it to protect the heart rate monitor and magnetic charger on the Apple Watch. And higher-end models also use sapphire-crystal glass on the front display as well.

If the company has made internal advancements that make sapphire less prone to shattering when dropped, it's another potential candidate that could make this year's iPhone more durable than ever.

Premium materials

Of course, the "glass sandwich" design requires something to hold it together, and in that department it's rumored that Apple will turn to stainless steel edges. Like sapphire, stainless steel plays an important role in the Apple Watch, encompassing the body of the mid-range wearable model.

Once again, as Apple pushes toward the future, we can look to the company's past devices to get a hint of where things are headed. And the stainless steel Apple Watch carries a starting price of $549, or $280 more than the entry-level $269 aluminum Apple Watch.

What does that tell us about the "iPhone 8?" Possibly some insight on its price.


'iPhone 8' concept rendering by Marek Weidlich.


Rumors have suggested the "iPhone 8" could carry a starting price greater than $1,000. While that might sound outrageous at first blush, it wouldn't be without precedent -- especially if the device features a stainless steel chassis and new, scratch- and shatter-resistant glass on both sides.

By embracing new, high-end and costly materials, Apple could be setting the stage for a new tier of premium iPhone.

If Apple can fulfill the promise of a handset that is durable enough to withstand even the most clumsy of owners, premium materials for a premium price might be well worth it.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 26
    larryalarrya Posts: 397member
    My iPhone 4s is still fully intact, but come on - glass is still glass, no matter how many years it's been.  
    SpamSandwich
  • Reply 2 of 26
    SpamSandwichSpamSandwich Posts: 26,169member
    People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw phones.
    fotoformatThe_Martini_Catmike1waverboyroundaboutnowradarthekatpscooter63adm1eriamjhicoco3
  • Reply 3 of 26
    fallenjtfallenjt Posts: 3,258member
    My Jet Black 7+ looks like full glasses anyway, no difference for me.
    deijmasterwatto_cobraMacsplosion
  • Reply 4 of 26
    dbeatsdbeats Posts: 25member
    My Apple Watch is Sapphire Glass on Stainless Steel Chassis. It's nicely curved at the end with an OLED display that makes it hard to tell when it ends due to the true blacks. I have to believe that Apple did this also as a test run of the idea to move this to phones one day. The Sapphire Glass on my watch has taken many bangs on some hard stuff and is absolutely flawless still. If they can make enough Sapphire at this point, I can't see why they wouldn't do replicate the Watch approach, just on both sides.
    watto_cobracornchip
  • Reply 5 of 26
    lkrupplkrupp Posts: 4,702member
    People are people. Get ready for the scratchgate onslaught on the Apple Discussion Forums. “I just  bought my iPhone 8 today and when I got home I discovered a scratch on my brand new phone! I DIDN’T DO ANYTHING! IT JUST SCRATCHED ALL BY ITSELF! This is a defective design! Apple should be sued. I am going to move my entire family from Apple to Samsung. So there, Apple.”

    There are still long threads from users who’s Watch sapphire crystal “SCRATCHED ALL BY ITSELF.” Mumblings about oleophobic coatings and how you should use an abrasive to remove it. Complete lunacy.

    Oh it’s true. Very true.
    pscooter63watto_cobraredgeminipa
  • Reply 6 of 26
    Since I won't be able to afford a phone, I guess I'll have to buy a watch and do the best I can with it.  Cheers!
  • Reply 7 of 26
    k2kwk2kw Posts: 584member
    dbeats said:
    My Apple Watch is Sapphire Glass on Stainless Steel Chassis. It's nicely curved at the end with an OLED display that makes it hard to tell when it ends due to the true blacks. I have to believe that Apple did this also as a test run of the idea to move this to phones one day. The Sapphire Glass on my watch has taken many bangs on some hard stuff and is absolutely flawless still. If they can make enough Sapphire at this point, I can't see why they wouldn't do replicate the Watch approach, just on both sides.

    I never did understand why Apple didn't buy GT Advanced and develop the Sapphire themselves.   Then they would have developed the production capacity by now to make the iPhone with Sapphire.   Its been 3 or 4 years since the fiasco.
  • Reply 8 of 26
    jbdragonjbdragon Posts: 1,224member
    larrya said:
    My iPhone 4s is still fully intact, but come on - glass is still glass, no matter how many years it's been.  
    Isn't the Samesung S8 Glass front and back? I had no problem with the glass on my iPhone 4 and I had that for over 4+ years and it looked new when I sold it to T-Mobile for $202. No matter what the phone is going to be made of, people are going to break it. Some people are hard on their devices. Others are accident prone. Myself, I take care of my stuff as much as possible so it lasts. I'm on my 3rd year with my iPhone 6 and it looks as new as the day I got it.
    watto_cobraredgeminipa
  • Reply 9 of 26
    StrangeDaysStrangeDays Posts: 1,358member
    larrya said:
    My iPhone 4s is still fully intact, but come on - glass is still glass, no matter how many years it's been.  
    And in all these years of having iphones I've never broken my screen, let alone the backs of my 4 models. Tho side note, changing the back panel of the 4 took about 2 minutes, it was remarkably easy. 
    deijmasterpscooter63watto_cobraredgeminipa
  • Reply 10 of 26
    fallenjt said:
    My Jet Black 7+ looks like full glasses anyway, no difference for me.
    Exactly... forget about sapphire or glass - production process have 2 main barriers, size of components and of course, quantity. Many articles are available on the subject; in my mind this is dead for now - who cares really anyways? Materials used in the iPhone 7 can more than suffice the need for a glass feal if that's what's wanted. The big question are in the design details and new key integrations or features [New Touch ID, AR, Wireless Charging, etc.].
  • Reply 11 of 26
    BluntBlunt Posts: 35member
    If you make a concept rendering then pay attention to the details. Look at the typesetting (the 1 is spaced really bad), where not talking Samsung here.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 12 of 26
    irelandireland Posts: 16,530member
    Durable, but if dropped will probably break.
  • Reply 13 of 26
    But glass also conducts heat quickly


    Seeing as the article is comparing glass to metal the above quote doesn't make sense seeing as however quickly glass conducts heat, it conducts it much slower than metal.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 14 of 26
    The glass will be Liquidmetal, aka bulk metallic glass. Liquidmetal, I believe is structurally a glass, not a metal. Close attention to the patents will tell you that Apple has been working on getting LM into a production process where it can be mass manufactured at a decent cost and have an extremely smooth appearance. I've ben reading patently Apple religiously for several years. Not every patent goes into a product, I know. But when you look at the trend of patents that suggest advances in moving a production process along, it is all there. Apple's material sciences game is no joke. Look at their custom aluminum alloys, custom ceramic products, etc.

    Apple basically bought the rights to tinker with it exclusively for electronics. When their 5 year license lapsed a couple years ago, they re-upped for another five years, I think. They didn't but the company or IP outright, just the right to test it and barring LM from selling the technology to some other CE firm. Apple has gotten to the point where it is working and they likely are preparing to buy exclusive rights, or even an outright purchase of the company.

    Liquidmetal, or some custom alloy of it, will be poured into a mold. Not only will that make production easier, faster, and cheaper compared to CNC'ing aluminum, it will allow for radio transparency and allow for more efficient wireless charging. 

    I might be off by a few minor facts, but that's the gist.
    radarthekatSoliwatto_cobraredgeminipa
  • Reply 15 of 26
    dbeats said:
    My Apple Watch is Sapphire Glass on Stainless Steel Chassis. It's nicely curved at the end with an OLED display that makes it hard to tell when it ends due to the true blacks. I have to believe that Apple did this also as a test run of the idea to move this to phones one day. The Sapphire Glass on my watch has taken many bangs on some hard stuff and is absolutely flawless still. If they can make enough Sapphire at this point, I can't see why they wouldn't do replicate the Watch approach, just on both sides.
    Nope. I dropped my Black SS Gen Watch and the sapphire screen shattered. Replacement cost-$250 plus tax. I had to pay it or my Watch would still be sitting on a shelf. Basically, they replaced the entire Watch, which tells me the Watch cost $250 to manufacture and they sold me a new one at cost, and reused everything else they could. It probably it would have actually been impossible to fix the glass. 
  • Reply 16 of 26
    Hey! The artistic rendering has resurrected the earphone jack! It would take courage to bring it back!
    tyler82watto_cobra
  • Reply 17 of 26
    MplsPMplsP Posts: 117member
    A couple weeks ago someone posted a youtube video comparing the drop resistance of the samsung galaxy 8 to the iPhone 7. The samsung totally shattered from just a 3-4' drop. Like someone said, glass is glass.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 18 of 26
    bigmikebigmike Posts: 234member
    I'm still rocking the 4S as well (with no protector of any kind) with hardly any scratches – just a few tiny hairlines that would only drive the most anal people nuts. BUT, remember the 4S has the tiny "edge" all the way around that sticks up a tiny bit to actually protect the glass a bit, which IMO was a great design... So I hope this new glass will be strong enough to hold up in a phone design with no edge. I don't want to have to buy a protector/cover since I never liked them. Why would you want to hide something that's supposed to be well-designed in the first place?
    king editor the gratewatto_cobra
  • Reply 19 of 26
    SoliSoli Posts: 2,817member
    MplsP said:
    glass is glass.
    What is that suppose to mean?
  • Reply 20 of 26
    melgrossmelgross Posts: 29,087member
    Some comments on materials. Glass isn't as good a conductor of heat as is aluminum. Heat sinks are made of aluminum for a good reason. Aluminum is a very good heat conductor. I can't even imagine glass heat sinks. They would be terrible.

    an aluminum case has a number of structural advantages. The back of the case can be thin because a small amount of flex is ok. It will absorb shock. The edges can be machined thicker for strength. Glass needs to be thicker than aluminum because it's rigid. It has no give, and so doesn't absorb shock. It can shatter.

    dropping a phone on its face is the worst test to determine how sturdy the glass is, but also the easiest. Most phones don't break because they fall flat, unless the glass face lands on a hard projection. The worst damage occurs from a drop on a corner. That drop propagates the shock into the glass, and it breaks. The reason is that the fall compresses the aluminum corner, which then compresses the corner of the glass. Most broken glass from falls that I've seen are from a corner.

    there are flexible glasses, but they are very expensive. A company has been selling "unbreakable" wine glasses for years. You can throw it down on a concrete floor, and it will bounce. I've seen the demo myself. But the glasses cost $100 each, on average, maybe more by now. Maybe Apple will use zirconium ceramic instead, as they do around the sapphire sensor windows at the back of the Apple Watch. But that's also expensive.

    liquidmetal, which we would all like to see in some product from Apple, is also very expensive. I have been expecting to see it in a luxury model of the Apple Watch. It's perfect for that, because Apple could charge a premium for that product. But not for a phone body. It's too big, and would be too expensive. I would be very surprised if Apple went with that.

    who remembers when, a few years back, the inventor of Liquidmetal said that the product wasn't ready for large scale mass production, and that it wouldn't be for years? His statement was ridiculed here by a number of people, but it was very true. It wasn't ready, and it may not be ready now.

    im not saying Apple won't be going to a glass back again, but it has limitations.
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