Tough enough: making smartphones and tablets more rugged


Smartphones and tablets are becoming increasingly rugged. In this three part blog post, I want to 1) describe what we mean by ‘ruggedness’, 2) see how enterprises are buying off-the-shelf consumer mobile devices instead of costly special-purpose smartphones and tablets, and then 3) finish with a Prediction that ruggedness may be the new “killer feature” on mobile devices, and will even become the norm within a few years.

Part I: What does ‘Rugged’ really mean in a mobile device?

A lot of things! Making the screens scratch resistant has already happened: you have to be pretty negligent to scratch a screen these days. Bodies are getting more scratch resistant too, and there is even a phone that has ‘self-healing’ skin that is supposed to automatically repair minor scratches over time, although it is not clear how important consumers have found this feature.

I don’t know about you, but the two most important things I need in a smartphone are being able to use it at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, and fire it out of a cannon. And those are just the starting points!

A number of consumer smartphones (and a possibly a few tablets) are already for sale that say they are IP67 or IP68 compliant. Those standards refer to the IP code, where the first number indicates the degree of dust resistance, the second to water resistance, and with higher numbers being better. An IP68 smartphone is dust tight, and can be immersed in water at least 15 cm deep for up to 30 minutes. That is pretty useful for the classic “I dropped my phone in the toilet” scenario, and no bags of uncooked rice needed. You can’t take the phone scuba diving, but my Marianas Trench scenario was a joke.

I may not need the cannon test either, but dropping a $700 phone onto concrete is no joke at all. Just getting a cracked screen in the happy outcome, as most phones will be totalled by a 1 meter drop, depending on the angle and the surface they hit. Is there a standard for this?

Yup: Military Standard 810 (abbreviated various ways, but most commonly MIL-STD-810.) There are nearly 30 different things this standard can test for: Test Method 508.6 is for resistance to FUNGUS. Which is good – I hear that problem is mushrooming! 🙂 It also includes testing for resistance to high heat and intense vibration – which two aspects have caused the entire suite of testing to be referred to as ‘shake and bake.’

But probably the most important to most people is Test Method 516.6 for shock. There are various sub-tests, but the drop portion (for things like mobile devices, including PCs)  is as follows: “The floor of the drop zone is two inches of plywood over concrete, which was determined to be the most common surface a device was likely to land on. Testers drop the device from a height of 4 feet on each of its six faces, 12 edges and eight corners, for a total of 26 drops. They visually inspect for damage and determine whether it still works after each drop.”

Sounds like a good test! So my IP67 phone can be dropped from over a meter up, and…

No. The MIL-STD-810 is a different set of tests, and IP67 only guarantees that it is dust and water resistant: it might still explode if your drop it onto a pillow from 5 cm up!

But surely a phone that says it is IP67 and MIL-STD-810 compliant can survive the drop test? Not necessarily: since there are various tests under that standard, you don’t know unless it explicitly mentions drop survivability! But wait – it gets worse. MIL-STD-810 is great, but there is no central testing centre to enforce the standard, so various companies may claim that they comply when they don’t. By the way, this can even be true of the IP67 standard: there are debates about whether various devices that claim to be IP67 are truly in compliance, or if they stay compliant over time.

Ruggedness is a complicated topic, and enterprises are learning all about it.

Next post: Enterprise use of rugged mobile devices

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  1. Shocking News! Or at least shock-proof… | duncanpredicts - June 2, 2014

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