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How can smartphone manufacturers make phones tougher?

make phones tougher
Don't try this with your phone...

I’ve just come back from Panasonic’s launch of the FZ-T1, a super-rugged phone designed for industries such as retailers, warehouses and parcel deliverers. At more than £1,000 per phone, this is hardly a mainstream product, but it does include a few interesting technologies that every smartphone maker out there could learn from.

Are you listening Apple, HTC, OnePlus and Samsung? Here’s what you can do to make phones tougher.

Prevent broken screens

make phones tougher
This is why phone screens still break, despite being protected by Gorilla Glass

There are three types of shop on the average high street: charity shops, coffee houses and phone-repair specialists. The screen remains the weakest link, despite the rise of Gorilla Glass.

Why? Because Gorilla Glass only solves part of the problem. If something smashes against your screen, the outside glass may survive but the LCD underneath may not.

Panasonic solves this by adding a damper-style system (see the slide above, shown at the launch event, for more insight). Its “Optical Clear Adhesive” creates a buffer between the glass on the outside and the LCD on the inside. The problem with consumer phones is that it’s a direct bond.

Work outside, goddammit

make phones tougher
The Panasonic FZ-T1 can be submerged in water, ice and the dustiest of conditions – and still work

It’s a bit odd that the phones we buy aren’t that great to use outdoors. They’re fine if it’s cloudy and dry, but add some rain or blazing sunshine and the lump of plastic and glass in your hand becomes useless.

The FZ-T1, on the other hand, works happily in the rain, in sunshine, even in the freezing cold when you’re wearing gloves (providing they’re quite thin). Surely every phone should do the same?

What’s more, this phone will survive the very worst of drops. The design has been tested to survive 5-foot drops onto its edges on concrete, a 300g iron ball landing on the screen from 80cm and 500 “tumble tests” from 1m.

Battery life designed for real life

Then we come to battery life. While the quest for super-slim phones has diminished, it’s a rare phone indeed that will keep working a full day after a year’s use. That’s due to two main reasons: a) the battery capacity degrading over time; b) the lack of capacity to start with.

I was interested to see that Panasonic claims a 12-hour working day battery life, which is based on how its customers use the phone. So half an hour of talk time, a certain amount of browsing time, so much scanning etc.

Panasonic then made sure that its product would last a day of such tough usage. Compare that to modern phones where manufacturers stuff a 3,000mAh battery inside and hope for the best.

What’s more, the Panasonic battery is warm-swappable: switch out the batteries and it will keep working, no reboot required.

Take control of security

I get the feeling that most Android smartphone makers push the phones out of the factory, enjoy the flood of sales, then move on. Sure, you’re covered by a one-year warranty and you’ll be given access to Android security updates (eventually), but Apple does this so much better: buy an iPhone and you can be sure you’ll get all the updates during the phone’s supported life.

With its focus on big businesses, it’s logical that Panasonic pays more attention to this – and the support it provides is built into the price too (the FZ-T1 will sell for a suggested price of over £1,400 inc VAT).

It provides COMPASS, which stands for Complete Android Security and Services. While the level of support it provides (eg 48-hour swap-outs) is above and beyond what most consumers need, shouldn’t we also expect complete security support?

If I buy a phone from HTC or Samsung, I should feel the collective support of that company. That means not waiting months for security updates, which are often incomplete when they arrive. And it means far quicker updates when a new operating system appears.

make phones tougher
Does your phone work in icy conditions or with gloves? Thought not.

Aim at niches

Panasonic is aggressively attacking niches with its new phone, which makes you think – what if phone makers actually targeted certain markets rather than releasing phones targeted at price points? That’s essentially what happens now.

Take my children. (No, please take them.) As a parent, I’m looking for something that will last for two years, that gives me a certain amount of oversight over what they’re doing, and that doesn’t cost a bomb.

Just as we’ve seen Doro target the older phone user, it seems odd that – when it’s so difficult to differentiate Android phones – we haven’t seen more attempts to produce phones for niche markets.

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About the author

Tim Danton

Tim Danton is editor-in-chief of PC Pro magazine and has written about technology since 1999. He enjoys playing with gadgets, playing with words and playing tennis. Email tim@bigtechquestion.com

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