Kyocera's sapphire screen is tougher than we expected

Few things in life are more satisfying than taking out pent-up aggression on a poor, helpless phone, and the Kyocera Brigadier gave me that opportunity this week. Armed with a 4.5-inch Sapphire Shield screen, the rugged Verizon-exclusive device claims to be scratchproof and drop-proof because the material is harder than glass. Since an increasing number of manufacturers (including Apple and Huawei) are reportedly planning on using sapphire on future products, I wanted to torture-test the Brigadier with a lot of sharp and abrasive objects to see if it really holds up to its claims.

In an earlier piece, I discussed that sapphire is four times as tough as glass and incredibly scratch-resistant, but most smartphone makers are hesitant to swap Gorilla Glass out for it. Sapphire's more difficult to produce, limited in quantity and costs more; more importantly, it's typically easier to break and harder to bend because the material is more brittle. Of course, this was all based on the claims of manufacturers, so I didn't want to just take their word for it -- I had to test out a real end-user device.

Kyocera not only encouraged me to give the Brigadier an extensive thrashing, but it also even sent me a tool kit designed to help me do just that. It came with a pocket knife, steel wool and a bucket filled with small rocks. This was a good start, but it felt too... controlled. After all, a company isn't going to send a torture kit to reporters without making sure it passes with flying colors. So I brought along plenty of other sharp objects from my house to try out: scissors, a screwdriver, Brillo Pad, cutting knives, screws and keys.

As you can see in the video, I used every single object with reckless abandon, pressing down as hard as I could and scraping them across the entire surface of the screen. I added screws and keys to the bucket of rocks, placed the phone inside and shook it all together for 30 seconds. Colleagues came in with knives of their own to work out anger issues. Finally, as a last resort, I vigorously rubbed the phone against a protruding section of the brick wall in Engadget's studio. Still, nothing.

Ultimately, it likely isn't impossible to scratch -- even Kyocera calls it "virtually scratchproof," which technically leaves some leeway -- but you'd need a harder material, like diamond. This means that the sapphire screen is going to withstand scratches from almost every object that rubs or digs into it.

Satisfied, I next turned to impact testing. I threw the phone at a brick wall. I dropped it onto concrete, facedown, from waist- and chest-level a few times. I threw it high up in the air at least four times. The case was in far worse shape than the screen itself; since the bezel is raised, the screen is safely protected from most drops. So I banged it against objects that could impact the sapphire without the phone's frame getting in the way: the top of a metal street pole sign, the corner of several tables and a couple of protruding walls.

The verdict? The screen didn't shatter, ding or even show any signs of having just withstood several severe blows. The case, however, was chipped and came apart from the screen in some places, revealing a gap underneath. The power button is also harder to press. The touchscreen is still surprisingly responsive, though oddly I now have to press the power button twice before the lock screen registers my touch.

At this point, I still haven't been able to physically damage the screen, and that's not good enough -- after all, I came into this test ready to break a sapphire display, and there are technically a few ways to break the Sapphire Shield. uBreakiFix, a smartphone repair company, managed to crack the screen by dismantling the entire phone and dropping the sapphire panel from three feet without its protective casing; the team also proved that it can't bend as far as Gorilla Glass before shattering. Granted, you're likely never going to run into a situation in which you'll use a Kyocera Brigadier display outside its casing -- nor will you ever need to bend it that far -- so can you break the screen in a real-life situation?

I discovered that I could indeed inflict damage on the Sapphire Shield by dropping the phone facedown from waist level or higher onto jagged, pointy rocks (or similar objects), because they're small enough and sharp enough to penetrate the screen. Even then, however, the phone only succumbed to a few visible marks.

The sapphire screen on the Kyocera Brigadier (which is currently $100 with a two-year contract and $400 at full retail) isn't invincible, but it does much better at withstanding force and scratches than I expected. I've never seen a Gorilla Glass phone stand up to the kinds of relentless beatings I unleashed upon the Sapphire Shield. Congratulations, Kyocera -- you've made this sapphire skeptic a believer.