Kevin Steinhardt

On September 1, 2000, Nokia announced a phone that would go on to become not just one of its most popular handsets, but one of the most popular mobile phones ever.

Made of two layers of plastic, the legendary Nokia 3310 ended up selling a total of 126 million units (combining sales of the original 3310 with its several variants) over its lifetime. Fun fact: the original 3310 was never available for sale in the U.S., although variants like the 3390 did make it to North America.

The design of the Nokia 3310 remains one of the most iconic in mobile phone history. Its shape allowed anyone to get a good solid grip. In an interview with Metamag.org, the designer of the 3310, Tapani Jokinen, stated that the phone was created with what he called “a strong iconic smile element.” You can definitely see that in the 3310’s keys and user interface buttons, all of which seem to smile as they look back at you. Jokinen said this was done to make the phone look more friendly.

In 2017, HMD Global, which now sells phones under the Nokia brand, announced it would release a new version of the Nokia 3310. It retained much of the “smile” look of the original but swapped out the small monochrome display for a larger 2.4-inch color QVGA screen. Sales of the phone were apparently good enough for the company to launch a 4G version earlier in 2018.

As popular as both the original and rebooted Nokia 3310 have become, the original became notorious for its seeming indestructibility. Indeed, in the last decade the term “indestructible Nokia 3310” has become one of the most well-known memes in the tech industry.

Is the original Nokia 3310 really indestructible? Well…

The meme got its start, like many other memes, in a Reddit thread. In December 2011, in the r/geek subreddit, a discussion labeled “The Terminator of cellphones” got started, with a person posting an image of the older Nokia 1100 phone, and claiming the only way to destroy it is to take it to the fictional volcanic lava of Mordor. In response, another person posted an image of the Nokia 3310 and called it “the Witch King,” a reference to leaders of the Nazgul, Mordor’s evil ringwraiths from Lord of the Rings.

Reddit

The meme really got going later that month in another Reddit thread, “Nostalgia,” where a person posted an image of an iPhone next to the Nokia 3310. The image captions said the iPhone would “break the screen” if it fell to the floor, while the Nokia 3310 would simply “break the floor.” The response got the attention of various YouTube creators around the world, who quickly posted “tests” to see how much abuse the phone could really take. Videos showing off the durability of the phone continue to this day.

Some of these tests were more successful than others. One from 2017 shows a Nokia 3310 on the wrong end of a burning hot hydraulic press. Ouch.

Why can’t modern smartphones be as “indestructible” as the Nokia 3310?

The Nokia 3310 isn’t as “indestructible” as the funny internet memes suggest. However, there’s no doubt it’s very durable and can take a beating and keep on working. So, where are the modern “indestructible” smartphones?

There are certainly smartphones out there considered “rugged”, like the ones from Caterpillar. They and other phones are rated as IP68 for dust and water resistance, which means they should operate even while placed in 10 feet of water for up to an hour. They should also survive falls of up to 6 feet.

However, lots of smartphones over the years have failed what’s called the “bend test.” This trend started a few years ago, after Apple’s iPhone 6 Plus started bending with normal use. Thus, the “bend test” was officially born, and YouTube tech video creators still put out videos bending new smartphones. Some modern smartphones passed and others (ahem) didn’t. A few folks filmed the bend test on the original Nokia 3310, and as expected it stood up to the abuse extremely well.

However, with the exception of smartphones made to be rugged, most modern smartphones are simply not designed to take a lot of abuse. Smartphone makers want to make thin and light phones, which means using materials like aluminum and glass. That’s why there’s such a huge market for smartphone cases — people have learned, sometimes the hard way, that most smartphones are fragile.

Also, phones designed deliberately to be rugged are usually much more expensive than normal smartphones with the same hardware specs, and they are made for a specific audience: enterprise and business users who take phones to sometimes hazardous locations. Those rugged phones also tend to be much thicker and heavier than their normal counterparts.

It’s possible to make a modern smartphone as “indestructible” as the Nokia 3310, but it would take a lot of work to make something as tough and retain the thinness and weight we’re used to.

University of Manchester

A material solution promoted for smartphones for some time is the use of graphene. First discovered in 2004, this “wonder material” is made out of one-atom-thick sheets of carbon. When layered properly it becomes many hundreds of times stronger than steel, but still extremely light. It’s been promoted as a way to make smartphones more durable, displays more flexible, and to make batteries last longer. However, so far its promise has remained mostly in the laboratory, and there’s no indication when that will change.

Modern smartphones won’t be especially strong or durable for some time. The “indestructible Nokia 3310” meme will likely remain unchallenged by anything modern for a long time — at least until a phone using more advanced materials finally causes a new trend in YouTube videos as people try to destroy it.

Hopefully, the wait won’t be too long.