Phones

Cracked! Samsung's Galaxy Note 7 mysteriously fractured in my bag

One minute the Note 7 was totally pristine. And then, it wasn't. What cracked the delicate curved screen remains a mystery, and a cautionary tale.

Jody Gianni
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Oops, I did it again. I broke another phone. But this time I didn't even have to drop it, unlike my colleagues who tested the Samsung Galaxy Note 7's screen durability against the also-curved S7 Edge. (Check out the video above.) In fact, all I had to do to break this bad boy was to put it in my purse.

I'm honestly not sure how the Note 7's upper right-hand corner smashed like it did. I was out with work buddies, my purse hanging on a pair of hooks below a counter. I slipped the Note 7 out of my bag for a group photo ("Does anyone have a camera that takes good lowlight pics?" someone had asked.) A stranger snapped the picture and handed me the phone. I slipped it back into the interior pocket it shared with another device I'm testing.

The last time I saw the Note 7 screen whole was to take this photo. (But I used the broken phone to annotate the pic -- still works!)

CNET

In between this and the time I discovered the breach, my sturdy leather purse accompanied me into a booth, hung on my shoulder, rode alongside me in a taxi and sat on my carpeted bedroom floor overnight. Yet, the Note 7 emerged with a noticeably mashed corner and only a hint of spiderwebbing. The glass is cloudy and ground down, like old ice. Small chunks have fallen away.

My best theory is that someone pressed up against my purse while at the bar and another phone crunched against this one. Strange that there's no glass dust on these other devices, and no damage either. And stranger still that the Note 7's screen survived repeated drops onto concrete in our drop test only for a different unit to unexpectedly crumble here.

There's a lesson, of course. The same lesson derived from the shattered back of a Samsung Galaxy S7 when it tipped onto a ceramic tile floor: It's worth money to protect your investments. Buy a case that covers corners and buy a screen protector, too. (I like glass ones. When they break, you just replace the sacrificial screen while the original glass underneath remains scratch-free.)

So why don't I learn from my own numerous mistakes? Because I test a phone's out-of-the-box experience to see how it stands up in real life, not just in our office and labs. If mine breaks first and I tell you about it, maybe your better-protected one won't have to.

Ouch! Looking at this hurts.

James Martin/CNET

I don't blame Samsung any more than I blame Apple or Motorola or Huawei if one of their phones tumbled from my hands to crash on unyielding pavement. Gravity happens. Glass breaks.

That's why some companies go an extra mile to make their phone screens as shatter-resistant as possible, like this Motorola Droid Turbo 2. The funny thing is that Samsung went the extra mile, too. The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 is the first phone to use Corning's strongest glass topper, Gorilla Glass 5, which is meant to remain scuff-free when you drop a device 5 feet.

Samsung said this when I asked for comment: "Our Galaxy Note devices are some of the most durable smartphones available today. The glass on the Galaxy Note 7 was developed specifically to increase drop protection while securing damage resistance, optical clarity and touch sensitivity."

You'd think that makes the Note 7's screen the "best," but there's a catch. Corning's claim applies to the glass on its own, not to products that have altered it, as a curved screen does, Corning told CNET at its Gorilla Glass 5 launch in June. Fragile corners are especially susceptible to damage, inherent drop-resistance or no. If the Note 7 lands flat on its face, that screen is tough to break, like we showed in our drop test video. But better watch those edges!

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Here's what Corning said when I reached out: "Corning Gorilla Glass 5 is our most advanced and damage-resistant cover glass innovation. However it is a glass and is subject to damage introduction and potential breakage. Breakage in phones typically results from events like drop but does not have to be limited to that alone. There are many combinations of damage introduction with impact or pressure that could lead to glass breakage."

Except for roughly one inch on the side and corner, this compromised Note 7 is still completely usable. It's just been roughed up a bit. In fact, I used the phone and its stylus to annotate the photo above. But I absolutely will get a case before this crack cluster widens -- and if you have the phone or are planning to buy it (or any phone, really), you should immediately pick up a case, too.