Phones

Your phone screen could soon be made with frickin' diamonds

A new technology promises to make screens stronger than glass or sapphire crystal alone.

Josh Miller/CNET

This isn't a pair of Tiffany earrings or an engagement ring. By the end of 2017, you'll be able to buy a smartphone, watch or fitness band with a screen made with diamond. Yep, diamond.

You may have heard of gadgets made with sapphire crystal before (like the the 128GB version of HTC's U Ultra and 2014's Kyocera Brigadier). Adam Khan, CEO of Akhan Semiconductor, a company that grows diamonds for use in electronics, says screens made of diamond glass will be stronger, harder, and cleaner than anything you've used before.

And we'll get them before the end of 2017.

More than meets the eye. This phone screen is made with diamond

Josh Miller/CNET

Even after it launches, you won't find "Mirage Diamond Glass" -- that's what Akhan's calling its screen -- on every phone. Khan says that although his company is in talks with major device makers, it's only choosing one manufacturer for phones, one for wearables, and so on. That's partly due to supply and partly to give the winning device maker something exclusive to boast about.

"Screen technology is extremely marketable," said Ben Stanton, an analyst with Canalys. "And most smartphone vendors are struggling to find a point of differentiation for their devices, especially in hardware."

Akhan Semiconductor plans to make enough diamond glass for between 10 and 30 million phones once it ramps up production, and fewer than 1 million screens for wearables like smartwatches and fitness bands. For comparison, Apple sold 78.3 million iPhones this past fiscal quarter alone (it ended in December 31, 2016).

So expect a diamond glass screen to come to a phone from a smaller manufacturer, or perhaps a more specialty device, perhaps a model variation like HTC's choice to give its highest-storage U Ultra a sapphire crystal display. .

So why diamond?

Despite advances in glass durability, screens still split on impact or form cracks and scratches after repeated drops and contact with everyday items like your keys.

Diamond is one of the strongest substances on Earth. So depositing it onto glass toppers -- like Gorilla Glass or "regular", unstrengthened glass -- will make them 6 times stronger and 10 times harder than they would be alone, Khan added.

Diamond screens may better resist your grimy fingerprints.

Josh Miller/CNET

Diamond crystal's innate hardness also helps resist grime and water, so it won't gunk up as much or sustain water damage.

But strength and toughness are only two of a diamond display's promising properties. It can also help keep electronics cooler to the touch, both on the screen and at the semiconductor level (so the processors are less likely to overheat), Khan said.

How much cooler? Over 800 times cooler during use than the usual materials, allegedly. That would make VR and AR systems much more comfortable to wear up against your face.

Diamond glass versus sapphire crystal

Diamond isn't alone in being an exotic foray into the making of more durable devices. Lab-grown sapphire crystal -- which is clear and not deep blue like the trademark stone -- has long been prized in aerospace, photography and watchmaking for its hardness and strength.

Diamond glass can also help keep a phone's camera lens from scratching.

Josh Miller/CNET

Sapphire crystal is still used on phone screens like that HTC U Ultra I mentioned and luxe brand Vertu, though it's more often found in smaller camera lenses, like on the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus.

But diamond glass may have the advantage. Nano-crystalline diamond is less brittle than sapphire crystal, Khan said, because it can be flexed to greater degrees. And since it can be grown in very thin layers on a large area, it may also be cheaper to produce.

Not everyone is as gung ho on diamond or sapphire crystals as the smarter step forward. "The problem with crystals is that they are strong except on their crystal planes," said Jeff Evenson, chief strategy officer of Gorilla Glass-maker Corning, referring to the way that the atoms line up. The fact that a crystal's surface can shear off is how a diamond cutter can shape facets out of a substance as hard as a diamond, Evenson added. When you cut a shape, the energy propagates along a plane and cleaves the material. This might be a diamond glass surface's Achilles' heel.

"To make them thin and big also makes them easy to break," Evenson said. "When we've tested sapphire for drops, that's what we see happening." Corning has used sapphire crystal in military and aerospace products since the 1960s.

Cheap and plentiful? Maybe not

Still, diamond glass will always cost more than the typical toppers, like standard glass or a chemically strengthened material like Gorilla Glass. As with sapphire crystal, making enough of it to go around will also be a problem.

"Any new display technology needs to be implementable on hundreds of millions of devices in a short space of time," said Stanton. "This is something Corning does impressively well [with Gorilla Glass]. But would be difficult for a less established company."

Pricing will be competitive to the Moto ShatterShield technology used in the Moto Z Force Droid and Droid Turbo 2, said Khan, who described Moto's tech as a plastic hard coat over the LED display. (Moto's site describes it as a "five-layer protection system"). Right now, the ShatterShield display module costs the phone-maker between $40 and $120 per phone, Khan said. While Moto declined to comment, you can buy a replacement ShatterShield lens for $30. (A Moto spokesperson said, "Unfortunately, our agreements preclude us from sharing the prices of our components.")

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Like ShatterShield, sapphire crystal and Gorilla Glass before it, the promise of a diamond display has everything to do with keeping the phone screen intact after inevitable falls -- and without having to buy a glass screen protector on top of it.

But before you get too excited, keep in mind that these things don't always work out as planned. Take Apple's supplier of sapphire crystal, GT Advanced, which filed for bankruptcy in 2014 after its relationship with Apple tanked. The company has since emerged from bankruptcy, and is "excited about our market opportunities," it said in a statement last March.

Nobody wants to see scratches on their brand-new phone, Khan said. Or pay a company or independent repairer more to fix it. "People are tired of shelling out $129 dollars when they drop their phone and it cracks," Khan said.

Is diamond the solution? If Khan's company hits its target, we'll soon find out.

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