5 ways to get a #crackedscreen, and other useful information about smartphone glass | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 03.03.2016
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5 ways to get a #crackedscreen, and other useful information about smartphone glass

Is your smartphone screen cracked? Are you still using it? Did you drop it, throw it, did you scratch it, or did your dog chew it like a bone? It's all possible - even the toughest glass has weak spots.

One of the most amazing things about mobile technology - especially the hardware - is that it's so keen to be an indispensable part of our lives it will continue to work, even when it's broken.

A 2015 Motorola report says, "50 percent of people globally have experienced a cracked smartphone screen." In India, China and Mexico that number is over 60 percent.

But more than 20 percent of people globally continue to use their phones "despite cutting their finger on the broken screen," the study suggests.

Either it's a case of keeping our broken phones on life-support, or they stubbornly refuse to die, like an android that's had an arm ripped off.

What are the most common reasons for the dreaded #crackedscreen?

Unsurprisingly, the most common way to get a cracked screen is dropping your phone or tablet. The detail lies in how you drop it. Did the device slip out of your hand, did it do the "lap launch" when you got up to stand, or did it drop out of a pocket and fall into a toilet?

Fall into a what? Yep, I'm afraid it does happen. I remember the day when a school friend of mine lost a rare C90 tape of a concert by The Cure in a toilet in Berlin - it fell out of his shirt pocket. These days hardly anyone listens to The Cure anymore. So it's people's phones, somewhere between 6 and 12 percent, that fall into toilets instead.

A significant number of people say their #link:https://discussions.apple.com/thread/6609200?tstart=0:screens cracked for no apparent reason#, but that may just be a mix of paranoia, excessive heat, or memory loss through intoxication.

A 2015 survey by SquareTrade, a company that sells extended warranties for consumer electronics, suggests parents in Europe spent 700 million euros on devices their children had damaged.

My phone once vibrated itself off a window sill, but landed flat, leaving the screen unscathed. If it had landed on a corner, such as happened to another friend's phone in a pub one night, I may have got a starburst crack like the one in the picture above.

Other people throw their phones and get a cracked screen that way, but that's just too obvious for words. And stupid.

Then there's your pets. Another SquareTrade survey, also conducted last year, suggests 10 percent of households have had a pet damage a device - of which 66 percent resulted from a dog chewing it. And this is the best bit: pets apparently will go after your devices if they're jealous, bored, or annoyed. So owners - behave!

I've got a cracked screen but the phone still works… should I fix it?

Well, if your newfound "broken worldview" doesn't bother you, save the money.

You may suffer a few cuts to your fingers as you swipe the screen, but a lot of people would rather endure that, it seems, than pay up to $150 for the repair work, depending on the depth of the damage.

Alternatively, you could get a third-party to replace your screen. Or fix it yourself - but this will break your warranty, so think carefully about that… and only do it if you actually know what you're doing. You wouldn't want to end up breaking the device completely.

Yes, but why does my phone still work?

Good question. A smartphone screen consists of a number of different layers. The top is a layer of protective glass. Beneath that, depending on model, you have a light-emitting element on LCD screens, such as Apple's Retina display, or a layer of OLED technology on Samsung devices, and a TFT (thin film transistor) layer.

Raed Kaplan, Business Development Manager at ViewSonic, a maker of visual technology and displays, says if all you do is break the protective glass, the touchscreen may still be usable… for a while. So long as the glass is merely cracked and doesn't start chipping away, that is.

Why aren't screens tougher?

Another good question. After all, we all want bigger, thinner and lighter phones that we can sit on or drive our cars over. Sapphire glass is said to be virtually indestructible, but it is also very expensive, even when it's not mined but produced artificially. Glass is cheaper - even the strongest kind - and is therefore more common.

Most smartphone manufacturers, including Apple and Samsung - the dominant players in the market - use protective glass made by an American company called Corning.

Samsung uses Corning's Gorilla Glass 4, while Apple reportedly uses a custom variant, but Corning declined to verify any details. Whatever the specifics, the glass is strengthened through an "ion exchange process," in which large Potassium ions replace smaller Sodium ones.

Apple and Samsung have also mixed zinc with the aluminium in their phone frames, in the hope it will help them absorb some of the shock of a fall.

But it's often tiny imperfections in the glass that eventually lead to a crack. So if you keep your phone with your keys, remember every little knock and scratch will play its part.

What's the future of smartphone screens?

Samsung has long been working on bendable screens, but whether this means they'll be more resistant to shocks is anyone's guess at this stage.

Apple, meanwhile, is said to have patented a motor which rotates your phone mid-air, if it falls, to ensure the screen doesn't hit the ground.

Aside from these innovations, our screens may soon incorporate solar panels or generate their own power.

But if like me you cherish the freedom to drop your phone, throw it at walls, or let a dog chew it to bits, you'll have to get used to the odd cracked screen - they are here to stay.

Neither Apple nor Samsung responded to requests for comment.

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