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Does Gorilla Glass 5 mean the end for sapphire screens?

Corning’s latest scratchproof surface makes it unlikely that a sapphire smartphone screen of any type will ever gain traction.

emergency break glass Andrew Balcombe / Shutterstock

A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.


A few years ago, Apple made the very interesting decision to pursue sapphire screens for use in iPhones. The reason is that sapphire is virtually scratchproof, and is one of the hardest materials next to diamonds. Apple had struck a deal with GT Advanced in Arizona, which had proven to that it had the type of furnaces that could melt this material so it could be used to create ultra-thin, scratchproof sheets that could be cut for use in iPhones.

But about nine months before GT Advanced was to deliver, the supplier ran into major difficulties in creating these sapphire screens — or "surface covers," as they are called in the industry — and the deal imploded. Thankfully for Apple, its current supplier of iPhone screens was Corning, which had not stood still when it came to making its glass screens harder and more scratchproof than ones of the past.

If there is even the tiniest flaw in a sapphire screen, it becomes even more fragile when it comes to being dropped or accidentally hit by any solid surface or object.

While not as scratch-resistant as sapphire, the newest version of Gorilla Glass at that time had become thinner, with stronger materials than the last version; in the end, Apple killed the sapphire project altogether and committed to using Corning’s Gorilla Glass for the iPhone. So did Samsung and many other vendors which to date use Gorilla Glass in most mid- to high-end smartphones.

While sapphire is a very hard material and very scratchproof, there is one major problem with it that makes it questionable for use as a smartphone screen: It is much more breakable than Corning’s Gorilla Glass and even some soda lime glass that has special composites to make it tougher.

Even worse, if there is even the tiniest flaw in a sapphire screen, it becomes even more fragile when it comes to being dropped or accidentally hit by any solid surface or object.

At a special event in Palo Alto last week, Corning announced its newest version, Gorilla Glass 5, which is by far the thinnest and strongest glass screen the company has ever made. When it was working on the specifications of Gorilla Glass 5, Corning studied one key issue that drove a critical part of its ultimate design.

Gorilla Glass was created to withstand a drop from about waist-height of most individuals. But during research, they realized that a lot of people often lift their phone much higher when using it to take selfies or take photos. With that in mind, Gorilla Glass 5 is designed to withstand a drop of 1.6 meters (a little over five feet). They showed us a smartphone using Gorilla Glass 5 that had already been dropped around 20 times, and dropped it again on a hard surface — it did not break. They showed other tests of Gorilla Glass 5 taking a direct hit from various objects and withstanding all without any breakage.

I believe that Gorilla Glass 5 makes it unlikely that a sapphire smartphone screen of any type will ever gain traction.

Gorilla Glass 5 is already shipping to vendors, and will be in some smartphones by this fall. Corning’s commitment to creating even thinner glass with harder surfaces is significant. I believe that Gorilla Glass 5 makes it unlikely that a sapphire smartphone screen of any type will ever gain traction. This product from Corning pretty much makes a need for it less likely.

However, it appears that Corning is working hard to continue to make Gorilla Glass even more durable and scratchproof. In discussions with Corning officials, they acknowledged that sapphire’s true scratchproof surface is something they would like to ultimately have in Gorilla Glass in the near future — to date, Gorilla Glass is not perfect in this area. That is why Corning has another project in the works called "Phire," which was announced earlier this year.

Phire apparently will be a new version of Gorilla Glass, with additional properties that could make it even more scratchproof, yet highly durable and fundamentally unbreakable. Corning has not given any timing for when Phire-based Gorilla Glass could get to the market, but when it does, it probably represents the final nail in the coffin of sapphire screens for smartphones, since demand for sapphire covers would be minimal to nonexistent in the future.


Tim Bajarin is the president of Creative Strategies Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981, and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others. Reach him @Bajarin.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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