Testing sapphire: how tough is it, really?

Kyocera Brigadier Sapphire screen
This is going to be fun

A sapphire screen has been on the tip of almost every rumor we've heard about the iPhone 6 for the last six months. While there have been many promises that this new material will be even more scratch-resistant and shatter-proof than Gorilla Glass, we've been lacking real-world evidence to back up those claims.

We've seen one video putting a purported iPhone 6 sapphire display through the ringer, but I set out to find proof of the material's resiliency in a product you can buy right now.

Meet the Kyocera Brigadier. I got my hands on a Brigadier courtesy of the Japanese handset maker and took the opportunity to rigorously test it in ways that would break a fragile iPhone 5S in two.

To fully batter the sapphire screen I used knives, steel wool and even bounced it off a manhole cover. It might all sound a bit excessive, but read on to find out how the Brigadier fared.

Scratch test

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Knife versus sapphire

One of the biggest promises behind sapphire is the material is significantly harder than the more commonly used chemically strengthened Gorilla Glass. Sapphire is the second hardest gem on the planet just behind diamonds. On paper this crystallized form of aluminum oxide should be impervious to scratches.

The underlying problem behind so many sad, shattered smartphone screens is Gorilla Glass develops micro-scratches, or tiny nicks, which end up weakening the screen. Once a screen has developed enough microscopic lacerations, one hard impact - such as dropping your smartphone on the floor - is enough to shatter it.

In my tests I found that the sapphire screen on the Kyocera Brigadier never developed a single scuff despite repeatedly trying to claw at the display. I tested keys and coins, typical items that would rattle against the glossy screen in users pockets.

For a few more serious challenges I also tried to rough up the perfectly pristine screen with steel wool and 100 coarse-grit sandpaper also made of aluminum oxide, the same elements that comprise sapphire. Even cutting into the screen with a knife and straight-up stabbing it had no effect.

Drop test

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Oh no!

After my full-hearted attempts to cut into the screen, I moved on to dropping and throwing the phone on the ground. This included tossing the phone onto pavement, cement sidewalks, cobble stone bricks and a metal manhole cover. Once again the Kyocera Brigadier bounced back without any issue whatsoever, even when sent flying down a flight of stairs.

The Brigadier has a slightly raised lip on its front to help protect the screen when it's flat on its face. However, this shouldn't really bolster the sapphire's screen resistance to cracking. More often mobile phone screens shatter due to the lateral force from landing on their sides rather than belly-flopping onto the street.

It's important to note the Brigadier is far tougher than most smartphone customers might typically pick up from the store. The Kyocera handset has been ruggedized to survive spills on top of being water- and freeze-proof. That's a far cry from the soft, waterproof plastic finish of the Samsung Galaxy S5. What's more, while the iPhone 6 will likely feature a stronger screen, the rest of the phone won't follow in the Brigadier's design footsteps.

Impact test

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The Kyocera Brigadier versus a shower of stones

Aside from scratching and dropping our phones, another common accident is dropping something on your handset. With this in mind we dropped stones over the Brigadier and stomped on it with our foot.

After seeing the phone survive with nary a flinch, I ratcheted up my tests. I proceeded to stuff the Brigadier face down into the bottom of a school bag while I filled the bag to the brim with thick and heavy organic chemistry textbooks before dropping it from shoulder height (about 5-feet).

Once again, the phone and its sapphire screen survived.

Hammer test

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Can't win them all

At this point the Kyocera Brigadier seemed to be virtually indestructible, so what's left? Hammer time!

This is truly a test that no smartphone is ready for, including military-standard ruggedized handsets designed for the harshest of conditions, and the Brigadier finally met its match. As expected, a few taps with a metal hammer created hairline fractures in its screen. Meanwhile, a full-on, hammering-down-a-nail strike shattered the screen.

Kyocera, Brigadier, Sapphire, iPhone 6, Apple, sapphire screen torture test, Newstrack

Sapphire can resist almost everything, almost

Obviously this is never an accident that will occur unless users are unfortunate enough to lose their phone in a series of Final Destination-style occurrences. But I wanted to test the sapphire screen against a challenge that would easily shatter the screen of any handset on the market, whether the HTC One M8, LG G3 or current iPhone 5S.

It's sad to see that sapphire isn't hammer-proof, but it is ready to take a battering from every other mishap that would break your phone regularly. We doubt the iPhone 6 will be as resilient, but a scratch-proof display is a step in the right direction.

Kevin Lee

Kevin Lee was a former computing reporter at TechRadar. Kevin is now the SEO Updates Editor at IGN based in New York. He handles all of the best of tech buying guides while also dipping his hand in the entertainment and games evergreen content. Kevin has over eight years of experience in the tech and games publications with previous bylines at Polygon, PC World, and more. Outside of work, Kevin is major movie buff of cult and bad films. He also regularly plays flight & space sim and racing games. IRL he's a fan of archery, axe throwing, and board games.