Reality Check: What Does, and Doesn’t, Protect Your Smartphone

Reality Check: What Does, and Doesn’t, Protect Your Smartphone

By BRIAN X. CHEN MAY 24, 2017

Once you get a smartphone, what’s the first thing you might want to go along with the device? For many people, it’s probably a case.

That’s because carrying a smartphone without a case is like driving a car without bumpers — and no one wants a new gadget to shatter, crack or get dented. Spending on mobile phone accessories is expected to reach $107.3 billion by 2022, according to Allied Market Research, up from about $61 billion in 2014. Protective cases are the hottest sellers in the category.

Yet here’s the truth about those accessories: Some products that purport to protect your smartphones are useless. It’s unclear, for one, whether a screen protector — a thin plastic or glass film for your phone display — actually prevents glass from shattering upon impact. Sales clerks at cellphone stores also often pressure people into purchasing expensive extended warranty plans for their devices, many of which can be skipped.

So here’s a reality check on what does and doesn’t protect your phone. To reach our conclusions, we interviewed repair and warranty experts and teamed up with The Wirecutter, the product recommendations site owned by The New York Times, which tested screen protectors and cases.

It turns out that in most situations, all you need is a case or a screen protector, or a combination of both. And you should probably think twice about buying extended warranty, but consider an insurance plan if you are concerned about damage, loss and theft.

Screen protectors are a partial solution

A shattered smartphone screen is always a sad sight. Makers of screen protectors, the plastic or glass films that can be adhered to a smartphone display, say that their products will safeguard your screen from scratches and cracks when it falls face down.

But screen protectors are an incomplete solution.

A majority of broken smartphone screens come from impact on the corners and edges, according to a survey of smartphone owners by iFixit, a company that sells components for repairing electronics. When a smartphone’s corners or edges hit the ground, the impact is in a concentrated area and more likely to cause shattering, whereas if it had fallen face down on the ground, the impact would have been spread out over the width of the screen.

On the other hand, screen protectors help protect screens from scratches, which weaken the structural integrity of a display and may eventually lead to large cracks. But don’t expect them to save your phone if you drop it on the pavement.

Kyle Wiens, the chief executive of iFixit, said that people who care about the longevity of their phone should consider a screen protector because scratches from house keys in your pocket or general wear and tear are commonplace.

“Every glass phone I’ve ever had has had scratches on it,” he said. “I think it’s inevitable.”

Fortunately, screen protectors are relatively cheap. After testing eight products, The Wirecutter recommended $8 glass screen protectors from TechMatte. The TechMatte screen protectors were extremely scratch-resilient compared to others, including protectors that cost more than $40.

Why you should buy a case

For overall device protection, a case, which covers the corners, edges and back of a smartphone, is your best bet. A good case will protect your phone from scratches and absorb impact in those areas when your device is dropped.

There are hundreds of cases available composed of different materials, including plastic and leather. The Wirecutter recommends $11 Silk cases, which are slim, inexpensive and composed of a flexible plastic that is easy to grip.

There are trade-offs to cases and glass protectors. A case adds a bit of bulk to the device, making it heavier and heftier in your pocket, and a screen protector adds some thickness.

If you were to go with just one accessory, a case is more important than a screen protector given the case’s reach over more parts of the phone.

“We’d definitely recommend a case before the screen protector,” said Nick Guy, the mobile accessories reviewer for The Wirecutter. “We don’t think most people need a glass protector, but because they’re so affordable, there’s no serious downside to having one.”

Skip the extended warranty

Many smartphone manufacturers and vendors sell an extended warranty that can replace or repair your phone if it is damaged. The downside is that the cost of the warranty programs — roughly $80 a year — often exceeds the cost of doing individual repairs for broken devices.

Consider SquareTrade’s iPhone warranty program. The cost of two years of coverage, which covers drops, spills and malfunctions, is about $150.

“That’s so expensive because if you drop it once and get it fixed locally, it’ll cost less than that,” Mr. Wiens of iFixit said.

If you cracked your screen, the cost of repairing it at some San Francisco repair shops would be about $110. Paying $150 would be worth it only if you expect to break your phone screen multiple times over two years.

Eric Arnum, the editor of WarrantyWeek, a newsletter that publishes market research on warranties, added that extended warranty programs, including those offered by SquareTrade, Best Buy and Apple, do not cover device loss or theft — two common perils for smartphones since people carry them around everywhere.

That’s where insurance comes in. Device protection plans that offer coverage for lost or stolen cellphones are insurance programs, and often these plans also include protection for damaged items. By contrast, warranty programs cover only damages or defects. The insurance programs offered by carriers like AT&T, Verizon and Sprint include loss, theft and damage protection, but they are nearly double the cost of SquareTrade’s warranty program.

“If it works when you open the box, chances are it’s going to work fine for a long time,” Mr. Arnum said. “You really have to ask yourself, Are these perils that you want to insure?”

To Mr. Arnum, the answer is obvious: If you are going to pay for coverage at all, opt for an insurance program that includes loss and theft coverage.

Probably the strongest argument against paying for any protection coverage is it does not address one major problem with smartphone longevity: the battery. Warranties and insurance programs do not offer to replace batteries free once they run out of capacity, which happens roughly every two years.

“It’s like expecting your car warranty to cover your tires wearing out,” Mr. Wiens said. Fortunately, repair shops typically charge between $40 to $80 to replace a worn-out battery with a fresh one — a worthwhile price to pay to give your smartphone a second life.

Twitter: @bxchen.

A version of this article appears in print on May 25, 2017, on Page B6 of the New York edition with the headline: Reality Check: What Does, and Doesn’t, Protect Your Phone.


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