Is the iPhone 4 the Ming vase of smartphones? A new study by third-party warranty provider SquareTrade concludes that the latest version of the signature Apple device is the most reliable smartphone but also the most fragile. Out of 50,000 phones analyzed in the study, the iPhone 4 had the lowest non-accident malfunction rate, with just 2.1% of owners projected to have a problem in the first 12 months.
But the iPhone 4 was projected to have the highest accidental damage rate after a year, at 13.8%. It had a higher damage rate than other smartphones from being dropped, in particular, likely related to having front-and-back glass panels.*
"With dual-sided glass, the iPhone 4 has twice the fragile surface area of the other smart phones. Both Motorola and HTC, whose most popular phones feature full glass screens, also have higher than average drop damage rates," stated the report. The study didn't mention the iPhone 4's much-publicized early problems with its external antenna that led Apple to issue free plastic cases for the handsets.
The most durable device was the BlackBerry, with a 6.7% accident rate. However, when it came to overall failure rates -- combining the malfunction and accident rates -- the iPhone 3G performed the best. The iPhone 4's predecessor had a failure rate of 11.7%, followed by the BlackBerry (13%), Motorola (14.5%), HTC (15.9%), iPhone 4 (15.9%), and other smartphones (16.9%).
The findings on the iPhone 4 could provide fodder for rivals like BlackBerry or Motorola to position their phones as more rugged alternatives to the delicate Apple device. Verizon Wireless already took that approach with its high-profile campaign for the Droid, with ads casting the iPhone as a socialite accessory in contrast to the high-tech utility of the Motorola phone.
Maybe BlackBerry-maker Research in Motion could come out with an update on Timex's iconic "Takes a Licking and Keeps on Ticking" campaign to highlight the greater durability of its devices. Could a BlackBerry withstand a once-over from a steamroller? There's no question smartphones get a lot of wear and tear since they're carried everywhere, from ballgames to the bathroom.
"Today's smartphones see more use and abuse than any other portable electronic device in history," declares the SquareTrade report. As a group, smartphones hold up well compared to other gadgets, with the average one-year malfunction rate of 3.9% bettered only by the 3.4% malfunction rate of digital cameras among laptops, netbooks and regular mobile phones. And if you must have the latest iPhone, just remember not to use it as a drink coaster.
*Check out Monday's Online Spin for a first-person account of this phenomenon.