Smartphone forecast: Reflective, with a chance of water damage

Smartphones are true marvels of modern technology. Although inherently limited by their pocketable bodies, these portables have evolved far beyond the realm of cellular-equipped PDAs to become truly indispensable computing devices. They’ve got communications and navigation pretty much down pat. HD media consumption avenues abound, and the web has become increasingly friendly to smaller screens. A huge and indie-rich mobile gaming ecosystem has also popped up to serve what have become pretty decent gaming platforms.

Then there the apps. Oh the apps. The sheer number is unimportant, because most of them are crap. It’s the fact that everyone I know seems to have found at least a few really good applications—or programs, or software, or however you’d like to refer to code executing on the device—that improve their day-to-day lives in meaningful ways. And let them waste more time on social media. Some folks even manage to produce bursts of real productivity thanks to improving cross-platform compatibility and cloud support. Meanwhile, smartphones have become most peoples’ go-to camera, not only for stills, but also for video.

You don’t have to be a nerd to appreciate this new breed of mobile computers. The fact that there’s so much interest from people in the so-called mainstream is what makes the revolution such a meaningful one. Yet I still can’t shake the notion that smartphones feel a little like that nerdy kid from high school.

You know the one I’m talking about, with the translucent skin and coke-bottle glasses. He’s much older now, and his body has outgrown its pudgy, awkward youth. He’s developed maturity, style, and even some sex appeal, the latter without the aid of Bar Refaeli. But he’s still wilts under the blazing fireball in the sky. His deathly fear of water remains, too.

Sunlight sensitivity is perhaps the most depressing detriment to further smartphone evolution. Despite boasting amazing sharpness and rich colors indoors and under dark skies, modern screens look horribly pale and washed out in direct sunlight. They’re still usable, of course, but there’s no getting around the fact that backlit, reflective displays have issues with really bright environments.

The worst thing about this particular flaw is that there doesn’t seem to be a technical silver bullet just yet. While the Kindle’s paper-like display laughs at the sun, I don’t think we want to go back to the monochrome color palette of late-90s Palm Pilots. Mirasol promised to combine e-ink readability with full color, and a limited run of at least one device actually came out based on the tech. However, Qualcomm has bailed on putting Mirasol into mass production and is looking for licensees. Someone else will have to figure out how to reduce the cost of commercialization, I guess.

Depressingly, there really isn’t anything else waiting in the wings. Pixel Qi has some interesting technology, but it has for a while without any mass-market impact. Besides, the smallest screens the company makes still stretch seven inches across, too big for even one of those funky phablets.

Reflective LCDs (not to be confused with LCDs sitting under glossy, reflective outer layers) may be our greatest hope. Unfortunately, current prototypes are a long way from smartphone-ready. Not to be a Debbie Downer, but the outlook is pretty bleak.

Perhaps the best solution in the interim is the sort of thing Jeremy Clarkson might suggest. Moar power. Not to the rear wheels, mind you, but to the display’s backlight. Fight fire with fire, or in this case, the immense power of the sun with an array of tiny LEDs. I don’t like that match-up. However, I will admit that the Super IPS+ mode on some Asus tablets, which uses a backlight pumped up with more steroids than Mark McGwire in his prime, does improve outdoor readability. To a degree. Incremental improvements may be the best we can hope for in the near future.

Fortunately, we may to be better equipped to help smartphones with their reluctance to get wet. Living in the Pacific Northwest, where the sky is ripped open and rain pours through a gaping wound (thanks, Bono) for half the year, I’m far too often faced with the prospect of pulling out my precious portable computer in more than a gentle drizzle.

The seemingly innocuous water droplet is the Kryptonite of electronics devices of all shapes and sizes. Worse, smartphone makers have become incredibly adept at detecting when their products have been exposed to excessive moisture. The only thing worse than having a little red dot void your warranty is not having an expired contract to subsidize the cost of an ultimately pricey replacement.

Ruggedized smartphones that can be fully immersed in water do exist, but they’re few and far between and often well behind the technology curve. Worse, they typically employ bulky shock-proof cases that look decidedly chunky next to the slim physiques of more fragile designs.

The full water-proofing of ruggedized handsets is probably overkill, anyway. Who needs to take his smartphone swimming? I’d settle for weather-proof rather than water-proof—surviving a few minutes in a heavy downpour would suffice. There’s already a standardized IP Code of liquid protection ratings that spans eight degrees between dripping water and continuous immersion. A nice threshold would be level five, which demands that devices withstand being soaked by a targeted water jet that pumps out about 37 liters over a three-minute span. Heck, I’d settle for level four, which splashes 50 liters of water in five minutes.

Sufficiently water-resistant smartphones appear to be within our grasp. A company called Liquipel has already developed a process that applies a thin hydrophobic coating to existing smartphones. It costs only 60 bucks and is purportedly good enough to protect devices from "short-term submersion." HzO, another firm, has purportedly come up with a treatment that’s applied during the manufacturing process and offers level-seven water protection, allowing for dives to a depth of one meter for half an hour.

The technology exists to allow the next generation of smartphones to outgrow their fear of downpours, seemingly without substantial sacrifice. That sort of weather-proofing might not be cheap, but neither is pursing arbitrarily thinner profiles and ever-faster performance, both of which have diminishing returns at this point.

Smartphones have become so compelling because they allow folks to bring competent computing devices with them. To really offer a good experience anywhere and anytime, though, handsets need to do a better job of dealing with the weather. It certainly looks feasible that the next generation may not need to be shielded from the rain. Too bad we’ll likely have to keep shading the screens from the sun.

Comments closed
    • chelseyhartz4xxo
    • 7 years ago
    • kellybboxo32
    • 7 years ago
    • auxy
    • 7 years ago

    I don’t really understand all this talk about being unable to use smartphones in the sunlight. 「(°ヘ°)

    Maybe it’s because my one and only smartphone is a [b<]Motorola Droid X2[/b<], the screen of which is completely visible flawlessly even in direct noonday sun. This may have something to do with the 700-nit backlight. Yes, 700.

    • anotherengineer
    • 7 years ago

    Ya seems like a common sense issue overlooked, or design team didn’t spend enough time “in the field”

    on the other hand 😉
    [url<]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D2p5svFJ9cQ[/url<]

    • CuttinHobo
    • 7 years ago

    After mainstream phones become waterproof, the race to bring strong cell coverage to Atlantis and Bikini Bottom will be on!

    • DPete27
    • 7 years ago

    My Droid RAZR is “[url=http://www.androidauthority.com/droid-razr-water-resistant-test-30812/<]splash resistant[/url<]." That gives me a little peace of mind in the rain.

    • d0g_p00p
    • 7 years ago

    I am frankly amazed that at this point in cell phone technology weather-proof phones are not the norm and the industry has not made this a standard feature. This is a no brainer thing to have on modern cell phones.

      • JohnC
      • 7 years ago

      This is not very profitable to smartphone makers… Currently if you damage your phone with water – most likely the carrier will force you to pay for a new one (unless you have extra insurance… which most people don’t), which is a good thing for a smartphone manufacturers 😉
      Even Vertu with its $10,000+ smartphones don’t do any waterproofing.

    • not@home
    • 7 years ago

    I think screen brightness is a trade off with screen longevity. The brighter the screen is the quicker the colors fade and eventually die. At least that was the way I understood OLED’s worked. I personally am content with the current state of today’s screens (based off the Samsung Galaxy Note 2, which I find to be adequate). They could be better but at what price and what tradeoffs? I totally agree with you about the lack of weather resistance. Mobile devices are in desperate need of improvement on that front. It is almost as if they want you to “accidentally” get the phone damp once, just enough to void the warranty, not enough to even do any damage to the phone, just so they will not have to fix/replace the phone when you have a legitimate reason to get it fixed/replaced. Hmmmm…

      • MadManOriginal
      • 7 years ago

      The more important tradeoff is battery life.

        • not@home
        • 7 years ago

        Very true, but all they need to do to get the same battery life is put a bigger battery in it. The only downside is the phone will be thicker, which is not a downside since most phones are too thin for my taste anyway.

          • internetsandman
          • 7 years ago

          Seconded. I once had a case for my phone that must have made it a good inch thick, but it was a ruggedized battery case that could get me through three days of moderate usage between charges, and survived being thrown across a room once.

          I know most people found the case to be incredibly excessive, but I’d much rather have a bit of added thickness for battery life than have to buy a supplementary charger, and I definitely wouldn’t mind smartphones being a little bit tougher so as to negate the need for armoured cases, for those of us in active environments that aren’t conducive to a safe phone in the pocket (or for the occasional impact against a wall or concrete floor)

    • ludi
    • 7 years ago

    Years ago, some laptop manufacturer was experimenting with a backlight panel that included a narrow optical channel across the top of the screen assembly. When the channel was exposed to bright ambient light, it would feed into the backlight panel and make the display much brighter.

    I don’t remember what happened to that idea, although I imagine it’s incompatible with the trend to make everything thinner and lighter.

    • nico1982
    • 7 years ago

    [quote<]Sufficiently water-resistant smartphones appear to be within our grasp.[/quote<] Yep, you just have to chose the appropriate product for your needs. Sony, for example, has quite a few smartphones featuring IPX5 or IPX7 certification in their lineup already. Even their latest tablet is water-resistant.

      • Sam125
      • 7 years ago

      I hate to break it to you, but no one cares about Sony smartphones. They were one of the early adopters of Android when it was still really ghetto and people just lost interest.

        • Geo2160
        • 7 years ago

        Well, I’m also sorry to break the news to you, but you are gravely misinformed if you don’t care about Sony any more. Since they bought back their share of the company from Ericsson and started to launch devices under the Sony branding, their line-up has been good, and it keeps getting better now that I’ve seen the Xperia Z / ZL. I, and the whole community over at the XDA forums, also appreciate very much the support that Sony gives to the developers.

          • A_Pickle
          • 7 years ago

          They also tend to be one of the more reliable manufacturers on the hardware quality front. They might be pricey, but there’s good stuff inside. Good components, good build quality. I’d love a Sony device, if Sprint carried one and if it weren’t saddled with stupid bullshitware.

      • bluepiranha
      • 7 years ago

      Sony does have quite a lineup of water-resistant smartphones. Where I live (Southeast Asia), they offer at least three models from their 2012 lineup all billed as possessing some degree of water resistance – and they’re all within the typical “4-inch slab” form factor too.

      The only other manufacturer that comes to mind with the same hardware is Motorola – they have at least one 2012 model touted to survive a dunking into a glass of water.

    • sweatshopking
    • 7 years ago

    nokia’s clearblack tech is seriously impressive, and anyone who hasn’t seen a 920 in the sun should check it out. it makes it easily viewable.

      • hoboGeek
      • 7 years ago

      isn’t that running Windows?

        • DancinJack
        • 7 years ago

        lol

          • sweatshopking
          • 7 years ago

          os aside, it’s actually great tech.

            • indeego
            • 7 years ago

            I read this as:
            “Besides the flaw at the very core of how you use the device, it’s actually wonderful!”

            • dashbarron
            • 7 years ago

            The OS and hardware are solid. After trying Android, IOS, and WP8, I enjoy the latter the most and find it much more productive and efficient. The hardware surpasses the iPhone 5 and S3 too, perhaps only lagging in GPU muscle. Battery, camera, NFC, etc., are all superior; it lacks a sheer number of apps, but as Geoff so eloquently put it, a large volume of apps just means most of them are crap.

            Using the phone in sunlight…I have to disagree with SSK, even at the expense of getting haters like Indeego ammunition (he equates it with Windows 8 no-doubt, and probably hasn’t tried that either). At low-light (low, medium, high, and auto) the screen is pathetic and hard to make out. I have to crank it up to high if I want to use the phone outside. It’s definitely readable and better than alternative devices I have tried, but it’s still not great.

            • sweatshopking
            • 7 years ago

            strange, maybe there is a difference in the devices. Mine is great, and its been quite well reviewed.

            • MadManOriginal
            • 7 years ago

            It’s because Canadian sun < USA sun.

            • sweatshopking
            • 7 years ago

            that’s fair.

            • Deanjo
            • 7 years ago

            Actually the sunniest place in NA resides in Canada. Not that yanks could tell what the sun is through all the smog. 😛

            • MadManOriginal
            • 7 years ago

            And here I thought Canadians had a good sense of self-deprecating humor.

            • sweatshopking
            • 7 years ago

            some of us just don’t like canada.

            • JohnC
            • 7 years ago

            “The OS and the hardware are solid”??? LOLz, tell that to dozens of Lumia 920 owners on WPcentral forums who had various issues with erractic battery life and hardware defects like dust getting under front camera’s lens or light leaking at the sides of display… I went through 2 replacements of my Lumia 920, the current unit still have an erratic battery life (one day I can last for 10-12 hours on single charge, next day the charging drops at a rate of 20% per hour when idling and only a “soft reset” helps to close whatever crap is running invisibly in background and bring the discharge rate to previous level).

            I’ve had a few dozen of phones in my lifetime (using various mobile OSes – Symbian, Windows CE, webOS, Android, iOS), starting with Motorola MicroTAC – the Nokia Lumia 920 (and its WP8) is by far the worst of them.

            • sweatshopking
            • 7 years ago

            tell that to the 10’s of thousands of iphone users who have issues. a “couple dozen” people having problems is a drop in the bucket. as for your choice of OS, some of us like wp. I do, and others as well. luckily you don’t have to take what the government forces you to use (not yet, anyway. I bet these socialists will force us to use government issue phones so they can spy on us before too long), and you have a choice. personally, i can’t stand android, but i don’t mind iOS. it’s preference, that’s all.

            • d0g_p00p
            • 7 years ago

            You don’t need a government issue phone to be spied on. The tech is already built into the hardware and the cellular network.

            • MadManOriginal
            • 7 years ago

            Curious whether you’ve tried any Android 4.0+ devices, or especially 4.2?

            • sweatshopking
            • 7 years ago

            geez guys. i wasn’t serious…

            as to android 4.0+, yeah. i still hate it

            • MadManOriginal
            • 7 years ago

            Hmm? It’s cool, you can like what you like, although my experience with the Nexus 4 isn’t nearly as negative as you say in various posts. No crashing, bad apps, lag, and I like the UI. If it comes down to UI preferences that’s your choice. It’s way better than pre-4.0 so I had to ask.

            • sweatshopking
            • 7 years ago

            That’s good to hear. I’ve had nothing but bad luck I guess.

            • MadManOriginal
            • 7 years ago

            You probably did silly things like [url=https://techreport.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=6&t=86694<]taking ownership of files when you know you shouldn't[/url<] 😛

            • sweatshopking
            • 7 years ago

            I CAN DO WHAT I WANT! IMMA MAN, DAMNIT!

            • dashbarron
            • 7 years ago

            I think a lot of times location services gets turned on inside an app (little dot with a circle around in in the menu), and continually pings battery life until it drains it completely. I’ve had that happen a few times and my battery life would plummet. Lazy apps, but an incredibly easy fix.

            • JohnC
            • 7 years ago

            I’m not sure about that… I rarely see that indicator appearing and it always disappears after few seconds. Also, I’ve seen reports on forums about various “fixes” which helped some people to prolong the battery life on their WP8 devices, such as turning off LTE, turning off WiFi, re-installing apps, manually closing all of IE tabs after finishing browsing, etc. – all those “fixes” doesn’t seem to work for everyone, and the issues with battery life seem to exist for users of other devices, not only Nokia (but also HTC)… Which seem to me like there’s a major issue with OS itself and not necessarily just “bad apps” (and even if some “bad app” decides to “abuse” the location service – the OS should be able to prevent that, or at least have “per-app” setting to manually disable access to location services for an “offending” app, rather than using a single global setting for ALL apps)…

            Hopefully MS will figure out what’s causing this by the time of next major OS update (“Apollo” or whatever its name will be). I do want the WP8 to be a viable alternative OS, however in its current condition (and especially seeing how MS treats its own apps for it, like Skype “preview” and half-assed Facebook app) I just don’t see it ever becoming one…

            • NeelyCam
            • 7 years ago

            Breaks too easily

            • sweatshopking
            • 7 years ago

            lol.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This