Why Are Smartphones So Delicate? The Quest for Solid Devices

Smartphones have been notoriously delicate since they first appeared on the market. After all, you’re purchasing a device with a very thin metal (or plastic) enclosure whose entire front side is made of glass.

In the late 90s phones like the classic Nokia 3310 ruled supreme, with their impressive week-long battery life and refusal to even crack when dropped on the pavement.

But times have changed, and now we’re in an era where phones are several times more expensive than their “dumber” predecessors and that much more delicate as well. Even the iPhone 6 released in late 2014 has a very bendy chassis. What gives?!

The Cumbersome World of Hardware Design


The modern smartphone has been through a lot of changes over time, but one thing has remained in common in every iteration of every model, ever: Manufacturers have to cram as much of the latest mobile hardware as they can into a space that can acceptably occupy a person’s pocket without creating any discomfort. This forces many companies to compromise on the amount of chassis material they can use. Multiply this by the amount of pressure they’re under to make thinner phones, and you end up with a Frankenstein project that requires a massive amount of ingenuity to pull off.

The point here is that you can’t expect a smartphone (that packs as much computing power as desktop computers had five years ago) to be both durable and compact. The compromise is to use hardened materials, like stiffer aluminum alloys that stillĀ allow for decent reception from the antenna or a hardened kind of plastic like polycarbonate. Hardware design then becomes a balancing act between durability and portability.

Mainstream phones like the iPhone and Samsung Galaxy series will always try to reach as many potential customers as possible, so they will often try to strike just the right balance to create a phone that can easily fit in a pocket or purse and will generally be used in urban areas where it is usually easy to avoid getting dirt or water in them.

Companies need to use materials that:

  • Do not interfere with signal quality
  • Look “fitting” from an aesthetic perspective
  • Are stiff enough to resist bending or breaking under most conditions
  • Conduct heat well enough to disperse any excess thermal energy that could cause the hardware to overheat

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Things get even wonkier when you’re trying to cram what is effectively a computer into a space no thicker than 10 millimeters and no larger than a few inches in length and width.

Durable Phones Do Exist


For people who are a bit more adventurous (or clumsy) there will always be a company attempting to reach this demographic. Samsung did so when it made the Galaxy S4 Active, a rugged smartphone that is both water and dust-resistant. After doing a simple search on Google, I found the UleFone Armor 2 and the Dogee S60, both of which are waterproof and dustproof. Because of their large enclosure size, you can be certain that these phones will withstand bigger shocks than whatever the big brands have to offer.

This is also a compromise, since the phones are not as portable or as comfortable to use as their more expensive but more delicate counterparts. Sure, it’s more likely to survive getting run over by a vehicle than you would be, but its rugged design and hefty frame might not be an ideal choice for everyone.

Would you prefer a rugged phone or one of the mainstream brand-name devices? Tell us your reasoning in a comment!

Miguel Leiva-Gomez
Miguel Leiva-Gomez

Miguel has been a business growth and technology expert for more than a decade and has written software for even longer. From his little castle in Romania, he presents cold and analytical perspectives to things that affect the tech world.

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