• ScuffGate: making a case for better design ...

    There are some things in life that utterly and completely irk me. Car bras. Dash mats. Seat covers. Condoms. Okay, the last one is a necessary evil, but the point is every one of these things is designed to protect the thing they are placed on, but nine times out of ten they end up ruining the experience of actually using the thing they're designed to protect. Put it this way, I didn't buy a meticulously designed beautiful looking car only to put a stupid black bra over the front—just in case it might get a stone chip or two. And this is definitely how I feel about iPhones and iPads.

    One of my previous articles discussed the bulk and tactile disaster that my current iPad cover turns an otherwise smooth and sleek device into. And for the last four years I’ve refused to put my iPhone 3G and then iPhone 4 into a clip-in style case because for me it just ruins the joy of using it. I’ve kind of hit a bit of middle ground though where a leather case with a belt clip is where the phone lives most of the time, however every time the device is in use it’s removed from the case and is hanging in my hand, or lying on a desk, just begging for the cold bony fingers of gravity to latch on to it and pull it towards its inevitable shattered demise.

    The recent ‘ScuffGate’ saga has really made me reflect on the design of the iPhone 4 (and 4S). After seeing countless photos on the interweb showing macro-style closeup shots of tiny nicks and scratches, it occurred to me to actually take the time to examine my current phone to see how it’s held up. And I have to say considering it’s just over two years and one month old, and has had a LOT of use—all without a case attached—it’s looking pretty darn good. There are a few microscopic hairline scratches in the rear glass that you can only just see if you hold at just the right angle, but really the phone when inspected closely looks almost unchanged from when I first peeled back the clear plastic maternity wrap.

    Have a look for yourself: this is a front and back photograph of my actual phone taken just yesterday ...

    (And yes I merged the two photos in Photoshop to make one nicer looking image for you fine folk ...)

    Personally I’m impressed that a hand held consumer device that has endured a few minor drops and goes literally everywhere with me, presents in photographs as well as the brand new phones used on Apple’s own website. And it’s this durability that I’ve experienced with the 4 that makes the whole ‘ScuffGate’ issue with the 5 all the more surprising.

    So what has gone wrong?

    The 4 was made of reasonably tough glass that only really shatters when the device is dropped directly on one of the corners (which is a known weak spot on both iPhones and iPads), and the silvery rim that adorns the perimeter of the device is actually stainless steel. It looks great and it’s extremely durable. So why not use stainless steel for the back of the new 5? In short: cost and weight. Stainless is more expensive to buy and harder to work with, therefore takes longer to process and manufacture. Aluminium on the other hand is very easy to machine, dramatically cutting machining time and therefore cutting manufacturing costs quite substantially. Aluminium is also very light. Kilograms per cubic metre for aluminium is around 2600kg compared to stainless which comes in at nearly 8000kg.

    The other issue is heat dissipation. Computers and devices get hot, and if they can’t quickly and efficiently remove that heat from the componentry, they’ll cook in their own body work. This is one of the main reasons we still haven’t seen a carbon fibre backed iPhone, as carbon fibre reinforced plastic has very poor thermal conductivity. Stainless steel has a conductivity of 15 Kelvin-metres per watt, whereas aluminium has an impressive 170 Kelvin-metres per watt.

    Okay, so it’s cheaper, lighter, acts as a virtual heat sink, looks nice, feels nice ... but then the elephant in the room stomps on your favourite DVDs and knocks over your grandma’s antique vase: aluminium has less than half the hardness (scratch resistance) and less than half the tensile strength (crush resistance) of stainless steel. And this is where the issue with ‘ScuffGate’ has come into full effect. Alloy is great on my iMac which patiently sits on my desk at work, or even the keyboard and mouse. None of them do any hard outdoors work. None go on any hinterland day trips to wineries or sit in nightclubs waiting for me to finish my ridiculously overpriced $18 cocktail. But iPhones do and here lies the problem.

    If you’re going to make a football boot, it should be able to withstand kicking a football. Coffee cups need to be able to withstand boiling water. Leather lounge suites shouldn’t fall apart when someone sits on them. So in my opinion iPhones should be built strong and sturdy enough to withstand daily use, getting chucked in a bag or pocket, and ultimately withstand the fact that at some point in its lifetime it WILL be dropped, most likely onto a nasty hard surface.

    Internet drop tests have shown that the front glass of the 5 is quite hard and appears to have a very high tolerance to breakage. So why then have Apple cut corners with the back? They claim it’s been anodised, which if true means they’ve used the cheapest, softest Type II anodising which obviously isn’t much tougher than the bare aluminium itself. Proper hard anodising takes bare alumium from 2.5 mohs of hardness up to 4.5 mohs (to compare grade 5 titanium is 3.5 mohs and stainless steel is 5.5 mohs). There is even a process called a Hardcoat Type III Anodise that creates a surface that is almost as tough as diamond. Now that would be a go-anywhere iPhone!

    So what’s the answer? I think the iPhone 5 was almost the ultimate design. A very robust glass screen, a lightweight heat efficient single piece alloy back. If they’d just paid a couple of extra bucks per phone for a proper anodising process instead of scrimping and saving, they really would have made the most amazing iPhone yet! So I put it to Apple to stop cutting costs and built an iPhone that their loyal customers and avid users deserve.

    Here’s hoping that the iPhone 5S will get an upgraded anodised back suitable for withstanding everything that an iPhone goes through in its daily life. Until then, I think I might hang onto my iPhone 4 that’s lasted so well ... with the only alternative being getting a 5 with a protective clip-on cover-bloody-awful-bra-condom thingy ...

    Ben is marketing communications manager for Britax Automotive Equipment. He also owns and runs his own creative company called Evocative (www.evocative.cc) that does graphic design, photography and creative writing. Holding an Honours Degree in Design majoring in Corporate Identity, Ben has over ten years commercial experience—most of which was achieved using a Mac. He's also into technology, audio gear, drums, music, cars and coffee.

    Follow Ben on Twitter @BenJohnston_ or on Google+
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