Is there a Nexus 4 crack epidemic?

November 29, 2012
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nexus-4-glass-back

Availability problems aside, the Nexus 4 is in the hands of a respectable number of people by now. That means forums are already filling with reports from people eager to describe their first impressions of Google’s latest device. Unfortunately, a fair number of them reported problems with the glass back of their devices, ranging from minor nicks to complete shattering.

On the other hand, plenty of people say that their Nexus 4’s survived drops and other accidents without a scratch. So, what’s really happening? Is the Gorilla glass back of the Nexus 4 prone to breaking?

Drop it like it’s hot

We didn’t do our own drop test at Android Authority, but there is one doing the rounds that shows the Nexus 4 withstanding a 4 feet drop on concrete without much damage. The glass back did fracture when the Nexus was dropped from about 6 feet, although not as severely as I would’ve expected.

On the other side, we have people like Joshua Topolsky from The Verge, who were less lucky. Topolsky reported that he dropped his review unit from the dining table on a hardwood floor, a mishap that resulted in a cracked back plate.

nexus 4 cracked topolsky

The small crack is visible near the flash LED.

One could argue that being a review unit, Topolsky’s Nexus 4 might have been a pre-production model, and that the retail version would behave differently. But if you skim threads like this, you will see that plenty of people reported similar experiences. Some report that they dropped their devices from a foot or so with fatal consequences; others say that they just found cracks on their devices without ever dropping them or subjecting them to other stresses.

The Nexus 4 got a cold

In one extreme case, Kellex from Droid-Life claims that the glass back of his Nexus 4 cracked when he placed the phone on a room temperature stone countertop. He had the device for just two weeks, and he supposedly treated it with utmost care and never dropped it. Moreover, the same thing happened to the Nexus 4’s cousin, the LG Optimus G.

As you can see in the images below, there is no sign that the two devices were submitted to mechanical shock – usually, when you drop a device, the cracks stem from the point of impact, where they are deeper and denser. In this case, the phones display a single clean fissure along their length.

This Nexus 4 went against a stone countertop. It lost

Like the Nexus 4, the Optimus G features a Gorilla Glass panel on its back

Kellex believes that the difference in temperature between the phones and the stone countertop might have caused a thermic shock, which could explain the cracks. But I find this explanation a little hard to believe – to fail due to a difference of 20 oC (about 70 oF), the glass back would have to be extremely frail. Moreover, Gorilla Glass protects millions of devices, and if it were so sensitive to temperature variations, we would’ve known by now.

What can be the cause?

With so many reports, you can’t just dismiss them as freak accidents or negligence on behalf of the users. So, what could cause the Nexus 4 crack epidemic?

One explanation could be a faulty design. The sides of the Nexus 4 are protected by a sturdy piece of plastic, that offers a bit of protection to the glass back. Assuming that the phone is laid down on a smooth surface, the raised sides should ensure that the glass doesn’t come in contact with the surface.

I am no engineer, but I assume that the side band could create some tension in the sheet of glass. This existing tension could cause the sheet to fail under the right conditions. The outer glass panel is glued to the inner plastic layer with the holographic design – that can be another issue.

Another explanation could be a batch of faulty sheets or perhaps the glass sheet itself is too thin. If that’s the case, we should see fewer complaints once LG hits its stride with manufacturing the Nexus 4. In case you were wondering, Gorilla Glass is pretty darn strong:

Not a deal breaker

Should the wave of reports about broken glass backs on the Nexus 4 deter you from buying one? I don’t think so. As I said, it’s possible that the problem is specific to the first units that came off the production line. Even if it’s a design flaw that LG can’t fix, keep in mind that there are plenty of early adopters that have abused their phones with impunity.

The Nexus 4 shapes out to be a very popular device, and I am sure that LG will offer replacement parts. But the back plate of the Nexus is more than a casing — it includes the Qi wireless charging coil, a NFC antenna and other miscellany. For this reason, it’s unlikely that the replacement back plate will be cheap.

Photo by Brian Klug from Anandtech

You probably shouldn’t get the Nexus 4 if you are prone to accidents or you plan to use it in demanding conditions. Glass is glass, and it will fail if you stress it enough, regardless of how strong it is. An insurance plan might be in order.

To wrap up, I still think the Nexus 4 is an amazing device, offered at an amazing price. The glass back might be its Achilles’ heel, but the Nexus 4 is still worthy of your attention. Just don’t cheap out on the bumper.

Let us know your experience with the Nexus 4 or the Optimus 4.

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