Kudos to Apple for unwittingly managing to sound like both something out of an Austin Powers movie and a high-end adult shop at the same time. Yeah, I know, mind-gutter-outof - 'fraid I'm a lost cause there, Guv...
Apple has patented a method of embedding sapphire glass within a bezel made of the new, exciting-sounding (but rather dull) material LiquidMetal. US Patent number 8,738,104 is titled "methods and systems for integrally trapping a glass insert in a metal bezel", and the design is at least six years old. Since then, Apple has …
To clarify this before the fanbois get the wrong end of the stick, LiquidMetal is not Apple's invention. They're licencing the use of the material from the company that did invent it, and Apple's licence covers only its use in portable electronics: the Swiss watchmaker Omega currently produces watches made from the same material.
About ten years ago, silly-phonemaker Vertu produced a phone that made extensive use of LiquidMetal, but the company didn't pursue the use of the material, as customers preferred gold, platinum or even (bizarrely) brushed steel as finishes.
LiquidMetal is very good for removing panel gaps, but it was always possible to do this with glass or ceramics - the problem was to find a metal that didn't react to heat or force at such a different rate to the glass that the glass would shatter or simply fall out.
The patent is from 2008, and that's about when Apple initiated their licensing deal, so they've known what they wanted to do with it for a long time.
Presumably the delay has been making the process work, or it wasn't reliable for large scale manufacturing, or it wasn't cheap enough. Maybe that's one of the reasons they're switching to sapphire. There's an issue making this work using glass, but not with sapphire, so a billion dollar investment to increase the world's sapphire production by an order of magnitude later, and presto!
The more I think about it, the more I believe this is about making a phone that is for all practical purposes indestructible under normal use. That would certainly be an advantage over the competition that would not be easy to replicate.
But the competition's devices are already practically indestructible as it is. The vast majority of cracked-screen phones I see have Apple logos on the back of them.
Sapphire crystal (another material already in widespread use on watches) is not indestructible, by the way. It is indeed very scratch-resistant, but at the expense of being much easier to shatter than glass. (generally, with materials: if you can't shatter it, you can scratch it; if you can't scratch it, you can shatter it). Sapphire is also heavier, more expensive and has much lower light transparency than glass, meaning you need a brighter display under it.
Don't fool yourself that Android phones are any more durable than iPhones. Perhaps you should review that video that compared the iPhone 5 and GS3 in drop damage shortly after the 5's release? All phones will shatter if they land wrong, and I see plenty of people walking around with Android phones with damaged screens, just as there with iPhones.
I've dropped three different iPhones on concrete from shoulder height once each, and never had anything beyond a few scuffs (I don't use a case) My girlfriend dropped her 4S on concrete like a dozen times (talking on your phone while drinking coffee and walking your dog is asking for it) She scuffed the heck out of it but it never broke, but I finally convinced her to get a case (because the argument against talking on the phone while drinking coffee and walking the dog got nowhere ;))
There doesn't seem much point in Apple building capacity for sapphire screens and using a hard to work with material (based on how long they've been working on it without using it) like Liquid Metal if it doesn't confer some significant advantages. If not durability, what else could it be? I know haters will say it is all some Apple scam to get people to spend more money, but customers don't care what a phone is made of, they care about how the material affects things like durability, appearance, and so on.
I'm aware that sapphire is far from shatterproof, but presumably that's why having a bezel with elastic properties bonded to it would come in handy. It would act as a shock absorber and distribute the force of impact throughout the entire bezel and entire sapphire screen. Shattering of smartphone screens occurs because of a significant force in a small area, and can be avoided if you avoid that concentration of force. Its like the difference between hitting a car's side window with your fist and applying a much smaller force using something with a firm sharp point, which results in shattering.
..using Liquid Steel to fix forever the exhaust manifold on my Morris to the engine block, some twenty plus years ago. Yeah, total bodge, but far easier than drilling the snapped bolt out and it worked a treat, well, outlived the rest of the original steel / iron oxide, it was made from.
Remember that the lines "hasta la vista, baby" and "come with me if you want to live" came from Arnold Schwarzenegger's (subverted) "traditional" T-800... *not* Robert Patrick's newfangled liquid metal T-1000.
Anyway, given how the T-1000 went around killing people in that film, the combination of "liquid metal" (*) and network-enabled consumer electronics suggests that HatfulOfHollow's dream is close to becoming a reality:-
(*) Yeah, I know the stuff discussed in the article isn't actually like that. Sadly.
Liquid Metal has elastic properties, so once bonded to the sapphire glass (the patent describes the process to make that happen ) it will not separate again.
Assuming it comes off as described, it would be an amazingly durable device. Scratchproof face, and likely impact resistant to normal drops from head height or less at most/all angles. Liquid Metal itself isn't scratchproof, but it is significantly more scratch resistant than the machined aluminum Apple currently uses. If they waterproof it as well, no one will need a case unless they want to bling it out.
Though I wonder, if the bezel is bonded to the glass, what will they use for the back side? If the back side was also sapphire and also bonded, it would be essentially impossible to open. Not that this is really a problem, since 99% of iPhone owners will have Apple service it anyway, but iFixit might have to add a zero to their "repairability" score range of 1-10 if that happens!
Actually, I don't think it would matter WHAT the backside/case is made of. My first thought was of an older-style mono body iPod/iPhone case with a lip at the top making a channel around the opening. Pop the glass in and squirt the liquid metal between cover and case. Presto...! You have your glass locked in by a metal gasket locked in a metal channel. The only way to repair any parts would be to break the bezel out and re-install with another MIM machine. Not only would this not be something that the average home hobbyist would be likely to own, it would probably be too expensive for most commercial electronics repair services.
And people complained about the hot-glue-sealed-screen models being hard to repair!
I'm asking this because AFAIK LiquidMetal is supposed to revert to its normal, poly-crystalline state in two or three years, due to very small thermal stresses. I see this as a very clever way for Apple to 'hard code the warranty time' in their products.
And I'm curious as to what will be the price for replacing this bezel+screen after the warranty period/insurance period/extended warranty/whatever. If I could choose, I'd like to keep at least one of my eyes, thank you, Apple. :-)
The sim ejector paper clip things they've been supplying for many years are made of the stuff, it doesn't change.
It does bend though, they're ridiculously stiff for the size and weight and feel like they would shatter if over stressed but the one on my keychain is now kinked.
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