The number of interesting phones with an emphasis on durability is relatively low, and the market shows that people will often rather have a relatively fragile phone, than deal with the aesthetics of a “rugged” device. But what if you could have a business-style phone which is designed for maximum durability without looking like a plastic-encased phone? The LG V20 was created to achieve just that, and we can look at how it was achieved because more phones could use these techniques.
As we mentioned in our complete review, the LG V20 passes some “military standard” tests designed to gauge equipment survivability during transport. Named Mil-specs 810G transit drop, the test was designed to set a standard for U.S military equipment that was transported by ships or trucks from and to operational theaters. If you are curious, you can read our complete article about Mil-spec STD 810.
We had a chat with the Korean LG Engineers working on the structural design of the V20, and it gave us a good insight as for what kind of shocks and pressures phones (in general) can be subjected to.
Bending and twisting
Although twisting doesn’t happen that much, bending is an issue if you have your phone in your pants back pocket. Many people do it, and many of you may remember the issues that Apple ran into with the “iPhone bendgate” with a spat of users reporting that their iPhone bent (definitely). The larger the phone is, and the more leverage bending pressures can have.
The solution to this is an all-metal design. Metal tends to bend less than plastics, but the main problem of metal is the weight. To address that, LG is using the 6013 Aluminum which is typically produced for aeronautic applications. It’s light and very hard at the same time. The aluminum body is CNC machined (carved out from a solid bloc, via a computerized carver. See this video) and the same is true for the metal back cover.
Drops and impacts
Bend might happen from time to time, but drops are much more common. The first victim of a drop event is often the display, which will crack and a repair would cost anywhere from $80 to $150, plus inconvenience. A bad drop is something that any user would rather avoid. Obviously, you can protect your sleek design phone into an ugly case, but many users don’t see a point in that.
First, it’s important to understand the statistics of drops, and how to best protect the phone when it happens. According to LG Engineers, drops happen mostly from waist level (~3 feet) or head level (~5.x feet). That is when you take the phone our of your pocket/bag, or when you’re using it (text/photo/call).
Secondly, phones tend to fall more or less in the last position that they were dropped from. This means that phones don’t usually spin much as they fall and hit the floor. LG Engineers also told us that they estimate that about 48% of the impacts happen on one of the four corners of the phone. 26% land on the front, and 24% on the back of the phone.
So it was critically (and statistically) important to protect the corners because this is where the odds of an impact are the highest. To do so, the LG V20 uses a hard plastic (Silicon Polycarbonate, or Si-PC) for the top and bottom of the phone to protect two sides (top/bottom) and four corners with a shock-absorbing material.
Si-PC is used in helmets, so you can see how this would protect against shocks. A layer of paint makes the surface integrate visually with metal, and at the same time, the plastic is ideal to let radio-waves from the cellular modem and WiFi/BT go through.
After extensive drop testing on the corners, LG had no cracks of the glass, and the design was deemed successful enough to go to production. Interestingly, the back cover of the LG V20 will often “pop” out, sometimes, along with the battery, but it’s on purpose: it helps release/dissipate energy from the impact.
Other phones such as the Nokia Lumia series had also proven to be extremely resistant to drop because they used a polycarbonate body. The main issue is that many users do prefer a metal finish instead of a plastic-looking one. A “business” look was critical in LG’s requirements after the feedback gathered from the LG V10.
When the phone lands on the back it is highly unlikely to get damaged because the all-metal cover is very sturdy, and a paint scratch might be the worst thing that happens. Since the Camera module sticks out of the back, it might also get some damage, and some V20 users have reported as much.
Fortunately, the damage we have seen so far is superficial and affects the glass layer that protects the camera module, and not the camera module (and lens) itself. If you look at our LG V20 dismantling article and video, you will see that this kind of damage is easily repaired (not sure how much it would cost). As you can see in the photo above, the protective glass is slightly below the level of the metal frame around it, which takes most of the shocks. To crack this glass, it must have fallen on something that hit the glass directly.
The front is more difficult to deal with because of the huge glass panel of the display. Even when they land on the front side, they almost never fall perfectly flat on the glass. More likely, it will first land on an edge (left, right, top, bottom) then land flat.
To manage these shocks, LG has surrounded the left/right sides of the display with metal. It’s not immediately noticeable, but if you pay attention, it is visible. Upon impacting on an edge, the metal will take a significant portion of the shock, and will contribute to the avoidance of a glass compression level that would induce a crack. The top and bottom are well protected by the Polycarbonate.
"THE OBJECTIVE OF STRONGLY REDUCING THE PROBABILITY OF A CRACK WAS REACHED"The LG V20 display sits a hair below the level of the metal frame around it, which makes it very probably that the metal would take much of the hit. At the same time, it’s not too obviously raised for design reasons. Again, in LG’s internal tests, the LG V20 suffered no breakage although other phones of the company did under the same conditions. That gave LG the confidence that the objective of strongly reducing the probability of a crack was reached.
I talked to other phone OEMs who make “rugged” phones, and they use similar techniques to protect the screen. Some even sinking the glass a little deeper than the edge to further decrease the odds of a crack, although at the expense of the industrial design. For the LG V20, not looking like a dorky rugged phone was a requirement.
Of course, you can think of several scenarios where the glass would still hit a hard object right on: fall on rocks or other non-flat surfaces. There are no good solutions for them, without adding another layer to protect the screen.
Conclusion: tough, not invulnerable
Although it passes the mil-specs STD 810G drop tests, the LG V20 is not “rugged” or indestructible. It is not meant to be used in hostile conditions, or on a battlefield. It is also not water-resistant (except maybe in Japan).
However, it should have a much higher resistance to everyday accidents than phones that were designed mainly to be pretty. With the V20, you mostly don’t need to use an ugly case, and you don’t have to worry sick if you’re a bit clumsy – the odds of survival are much better by design.
The principles mentioned in this article should give you a good idea of why phones are fragile, and which are more likely to be sturdier. Don’t miss our complete review of the LG V20.