Panasonic ToughPads and Why the Sapphire Revolution Failed

There is an interesting article in Wired on how an Apple rumor sparked a Sapphire revolution.  It goes into how folks got all excited about Sapphire when it was clear Apple was going to switch to this material from Gorilla Glass.  They did make the switch but only for the camera lens.  The problems were massive they couldn’t get to the quality they wanted the cost was in the ugly neighborhood of 100x more expensive unless you layer it over glass which they couldn’t actually get to work (and I expect would have resulted in far more broken screens than currently plague the iPhone 6 which had a bit of an excessive flex problem.

There is a phone that did ship with the sapphire screen solution the Kyocera Brigadier but if you look at the one star reviews on Amazon this low volume supposedly hardened phone is breaking screens at an impressive rate suggesting Sapphire just doesn’t work of devices this large.  Let’s revisit why.   

Sapphire is Fracking Brittle!

This is what people don’t seem to get.  Sapphire and Quartz are crystalline structures.  This makes them both impressively scratch resistant but also incredibly brittle.  Glass will flex a little bit but a crystalline structure won’t.  You can make it thick and strong but that makes it unacceptably expensive and heavy and if you bond a thin layer of Sapphire onto glass you’ll combine that inability to flex with weakness suggesting that any flex, and all screen phones flex a little, will result in a cracked screen.  It may resist scratches a little better but that does you no good if it cracks every time you put in in your pocket and sit down. 

The reason that Gorilla Glass is better is that it is generally hard enough and it isn’t nearly as brittle so it takes far more flex to break it and as the linked video shows it is far harder to break.  

Panasonic Tough

In looking at the Kyocera Brigadier they tried to build a cheap hardened product but cheap and hardened have never worked well together.  The leader in this class is the Panasonic ToughPad line and their hardened EZ-E1 is designed from the ground up to be secure and is tested to military specifications.  But it isn’t cheap.   And they use hardened glass exclusively no Sapphire because they know Sapphire simply won’t work. 

If you truly want a hardened phone the Toughpad FZ-A1 is as close as we get to something that fits the category.  IP65 and MIL-STD-810G certified this is deigned to experience things that likely would be deadly to you.  And you’ll likely be seeing it’s slightly larger brother the FZ-R1 which is designed for transactions in a restaurant near you shortly because the iPad efforts have been plagued with breakage and security issues suggesting you need to build a very different product than a consumer offering for heavy use.  

Wrapping Up:   Sapphire Sucks

There are true hardened products like the ToughPads and wannabe products like the Kyocera Brigadier.  The reason true hardened products don’t use Sapphire but hardened glass instead is they know better, a crystalline product is simply too expensive and too brittle.  So there really was no Sapphire revolution, there was a Sapphire flop and the reason was that Sapphire was more hype than reality.  It goes to not believing everything you hear.