Apple has covered its new iPhone 12 with a brand-new type of glass called “ceramic shield”, which it says is the toughest glass ever on a smartphone. Every year Apple makes a similar claim about its glass, but this time may be different because this is no ordinary glass. While it may look and feel exactly like glass, the ceramic shield covering the screens is, as the name suggests, a combination of glass and ceramic (which is harder than most metals). It’s a totally new cover material for the iPhone and it’s unlike anything we’ve ever tested before.
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And testing it is exactly what we did. To find out how this new material holds up to the elements, we put two brand-new iPhone 12s through a few scratch and drop tests. And as it turns out, this new glass is incredibly durable. (This rival says its screen is three times harder than Apple’s ceramic shield.)
iPhone 12: Breaking down the glass
The ceramic shield only covers the front — the screen — of the iPhone 12. The back is covered with the same glass as last year’s iPhone 11, which Apple says is the toughest in the industry. Both types of glass are made by Corning.
Aside from the glass, the other factor that may play a role in how well this phone holds up to drops is the design. The glass on the iPhone 12 lies flush with the metal frame rather than curved up like in previous models which left more of the glass exposed. Apple says that design choice alone will make the back and front twice as durable as older models.
All four models of the iPhone 12 (iPhone 12 Mini, iPhone 12, iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Max) have the same ceramic shield on the screen and the same type of glass on the back. The only difference in materials is the frame. The two Pros have a stainless steel frame, while the Mini and the 12 are aluminum. The performance of the frame may vary depending on the material, but the glass should offer the same type of protection across the board. For our tests we used the regular iPhone 12 in blue and green.
Scratch 1: It survived the pocket/purse tumble
For the first test, I put the iPhone 12 in a small makeup bag with some of the common culprits that scratch up our phones: a set of keys, a half dozen quarters and a metallic pen. I shook the bag vigorously for about 30 seconds to simulate what happens after a few weeks of bouncing around in a purse or pocket before inspecting it.
After wiping the phone down with a cloth, I couldn’t find a single scratch on the glass or the frame of the iPhone 12.
Click on the video below to see the results from the scratch and drop tests.
Scratch 2: No scratches on the screen after sliding on tile
Next, I wanted to see how the screen would hold up if it came in contact with a hard surface like a marble table, kitchen counter or bathroom floor. I slid the iPhone 12 back and forth 10 times on a textured ceramic tile, first along the screen, then on the back of the phone.
The screen had a bid of debris from the tile, but after cleaning it off I struggled to find any visible damage to the glass. Testing the back of the phone was trickier. The raised camera module doesn’t allow the phone to lay flat on its back, so I did a few slides with the phone at an angle. This didn’t damage the glass, but it caused some of the metallic paint on the frame around the bottom camera to rub off. It was barely noticeable and the lenses themselves were still in pristine condition. Then I did it again with the camera module hanging off the edge of the tile. After inspecting the back closely, I finally managed to make out two microscopic scratches, one on the silver Apple logo, and another right below it on the blue glass. Both were thinner than a strand of fine hair and about a quarter of an inch long.
Scratch 3: Rubbing it on sandpaper made a mark
Having passed the two scratch tests with flying colors, I decided to conduct one more (extreme) test on this iPhone 12: rubbing with 80-grit sandpaper. This is probably the real-world equivalent of sliding your phone across a driveway or sidewalk, which hopefully won’t happen too often.
I rubbed the phone back and forth across the sandpaper 10 times on either side, applying light pressure. This time, both sides of the phone were scraped up. The screen had the most damage, with lines running horizontally through the middle of the phone. A few of them were deep enough to feel with my fingernail, but it was still in working condition. The back of the phone has significantly less damage, again because of the protection offered by the raised camera module, but it still had visible scrapes in the center and on the lower edges. The metallic finish on the lens frames had continued to peel off, but the lenses themselves were still scratchless.
Scratching the phone compromises the glass and makes it a lot more likely to break during a fall, so my colleague, CNET Managing Producer Chris Parker, used another brand-new iPhone 12 for our drop tests onto the sidewalk.
Drop 1: 3 feet, screen side down
One of the more common times you might drop your phone is when you’re putting it in and out of your pocket. While dropping a phone from hip height can be harmless, if it lands on the street or sidewalk, you’re likely to end up with a broken screen.
When dropped from hip height, the top of the iPhone 12 hit the ground first, then the bottom. Then it bounced in the air once more before landing flat on the sidewalk, screen side down as intended.
The aluminum frame had a few dents around the edges of the phone, but nothing serious.
Drop test 2: 3 feet, back side down
Next, Chris did the same drop, but this time with the back of the phone facing the ground.
The iPhone 12 seems to be top heavy: It landed almost in the exact same way as it did before, with the top (where the camera module is) hitting first, then the bottom. Finally it landed back side down on the sidewalk.
The main difference on this drop was the sound when it landed, a louder thud than before. Sure enough, once we turned it over, we noticed the bottom half of the phone was broken. The edge felt a bit rough to the touch, mainly from the dents on the frame, but there weren’t any shards falling off the back of the phone, and it still felt smooth despite the cracks.
With the back cracked, we narrowed our drops to the screen only.
Drop 3: 6 feet, 6 inches, screen side down
This is about as high as Chris could drop the phone without needing a ladder.
The top left hand corner of the screen, opposite the camera module, hit first, then the right side, then the left until it flipped on its back, landing screen side up. The most noticeable dent was on the top where it hit first and it almost looked like it had caused a crack in the screen right where it met the metal frame. But after rubbing it off we realized it was just metallic residue from the frame and the glass was still in perfect shape.
Drop 4, 5 and 6: 9 feet drop, screen side down
With the screen still holding strong, we decided to go even higher, using a step ladder to reach nine feet. Again this is not a realistic drop unless you happen to slide your phone off a second floor balcony, but we wanted to see how far we could take it.
At nine feet it became even harder to control the landing. While Chris was aiming to drop it flat on the screen, the iPhone 12 had a mind of its own and landed in almost the exact same way as the previous six-foot drop. With the top right-hand corner of the screen hitting the ground first, then bouncing off the left side and landing screen side up.
The dent on the top right-hand side of the frame got deeper, but the screen survived yet again.
We repeated this drop two more times hoping it would at some point land flat on its face, but the weight of the camera made it hard for it to land at that angle, especially at that height. The iPhone 12 finally landed with the screen down on the last drop, but only because it bounced off the side of the porch step. The frame had a few more bumps and bruises, but the screen still looked like new after three back-to-back drops from nine feet. The only way up from there would’ve been to climb up on the roof or rent a scissor lift, which we weren’t exactly prepared to do.
Let’s break it down
Because our tests aren’t scientific, we can’t say for a fact that the screen is stronger than any other phone in the market, but we can definitely say that our iPhone 12 was incredibly tough to crack (and scratch) even on tile and sidewalk.
The back of the iPhone 12, however, doesn’t seem to have the same drop resistance superpower as the screen. And while you may feel comfortable using this phone without a screen protector, we — and Apple — recommend using the iPhone 12 or iPhone 12 Pro with a case, as getting the screen or back replaced without AppleCare Plus coverage costs anywhere from $279 to $549 depending on the repair.
In a statement to CNET, Apple said, “iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro represent the biggest jump in durability ever on iPhone … iPhone 12 models have gone through rigorous real-world testing and are designed to be durable, but not indestructible. If anyone is concerned about dropping their iPhone and damaging it, we suggest using one of the many beautiful cases available to protect iPhone.”