Not minutes - mere seconds - after photographing the new, top-of-the-line Samsung Galaxy Note 10, I placed it securely on top of another phone. And it promptly slipped off, plummeted just over two feet, and struck a chair strut. When I picked up the Note 10, I surveyed the damage: a thoroughly shattered glass back. Queue the sad times soundtrack.
I don’t feel responsible for this... except that I feel a bit responsible for this. Everyone knows the pristine glass backs of flagship phones are prone to splintering at the slightest impact. If I’d been a responsible Phone Parent, I would have swaddled my expensive device in a case the moment I got it back from our photo team.
But..but...glass backs for some of these flagships have been polished to such a degree that they practically hover over slick surfaces. Place one on the slightest incline and it will start to glide, trusting that your peripherals won’t notice its glacial escape into mortal peril.
Like a toddler with a death wish, my Note 10 slipped off my desk the moment my back was turned. I picked it up off the carpeted floor expecting a meager scratch for my lapsed attention - other glass phones in the TechRadar office have made the same desk-to-floor journey with such minor consequences - but the impact with the chair leg doomed the beautiful rear Aura Glow cover, too pure for this world.
If Samsung had slipped a case into the box along with its very expensive handset, perhaps the back would have survived the fall. But any case made of a non-glass material would have had the traction to stop the phone from sliding to begin with. Even the laser-etched or chemical-treated matte finishes on smartphones like the Google Pixel 3 or OnePlus 7 Pro might have been enough to keep them from slipping into free-fall.
But that’s not the world we live in. No, we exist in a time and place where Samsung and Apple release phones that gleam like precious stones - beautiful and endangered by the outside world from the moment they leave their boxes until their owners ensconce them in their case of choice.
Safe in a case–but with all that glass beauty hidden from the world. Even clear cases warp phones’ elegant designs through a bubble of translucent material. It doesn’t even seem like a choice anymore: secure your investment or tempt the wrath of an unkind universe.
It’s a logical end to a design trend away from the smartphone’s practical and industrial beginnings, ballooning in size and price to become the statement pieces and status flexes we all chase for elite looks and features, not pure functionality. The miracles in our pockets are now very precious.
Consumer tech’s views on the matter have certainly evolved over time - even those of Apple’s patron saint. Back in 2011, journalist Steven Levy wrote in Wired about Steve Jobs’s reaction to his practice of wrapping an early iPhone in a case:
“Jobs recoiled as if I had introduced something toxic into the room. His look seemed to say, why would you hide something so gorgeous? My translucent neoprene was making a mockery of all the innovation and sweat that he and his employees had expended on visual design. Besides, he told me, "I think stainless steel looks beautiful when it wears."
What would Jobs say about a world where all that visual design is only appreciated for moments in a smartphone’s lifetime?