Nokia: A day in the life of breaking phones (photos)

CNET's Jessica Dolcourt learns that one of the most important parts of making a phone is breaking it first.


Jessica Dolcourt

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1 of 16 Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Meet Nokia's testing robots

It isn't often that Nokia opens the inner sanctum of its research and development facility in the San Diego outskirt of Rancho Bernardo to journalists' prying eyes. Luckily for us, CTIA provided just the opportunity for Nokia to show us around--but only after carefully removing all traces of the in-development Windows Phones we all strained to spot.

The objective of the three separate labs we saw is simple: test the phones for durability standards, and identify the failure points. Design engineers take it from there, fixing fatal errors before a flawed phone hits the streets. Here, a robot presses a button on the phone face, hundreds of thousands of times.

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Glass attack

Brightly painted chunks of glass rub together in a soapy solution to generate all sorts of scratching and wear on the paint, the glass, and the chassis.
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Hide 'n' seek

The test engineer, Michael Meyers, dips a hand into the swill to retrieve a phone in the middle of its rather rough wash cycle.
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Burn notice

Vegetable oil is one of the most toxic substances to an electronic device. Nokia's testers smear phones with toxins, lotions, and liquid fats now to save them from your greasy fries later.
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You've got to be flexible to survive

Flexibility and torsion were two main tests repeated in different forms throughout the building. Here, an automated robot bends a screen component across the middle. Elsewhere, a machine methodically twists a phone's base to its breaking point (not pictured).
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Ball drop

"Watching the ball drop" takes on a different meaning in the labs. Letting a metal ball crash into a phone screen tests the glass' reaction to pressure in nine different impact locations.
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Flip fatigue

A sliding or flipping mechanism will jam or break; the key is to find the last straw before the proverbial camel does. This mesmerizing machine flips a row of cell phones closed, open, and closed again.
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Big drop

Unless you've coated your fingers in syrup, you're likely to drop a phone at some point. This fun little apparatus gives the cell a spill from 1.5 meters (4.9 feet). Smack!
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Nokia elicited help from UC San Diego to create "Spanky," an enclosed testing environment outfitted with a red paddle that swings back to give the test phone a very firm whack to the other side of the box.
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USB robot

Reminding us more of a dentist's drill than anything else, this machine endlessly pushes in and pulls out a Micro-USB cable to see how long it'll go before the pins break or the port loosens.
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Wiggle room

Right next door, another robot wiggles the cable around.
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Washing out the leaks

No, no, Nokia didn't swipe this homemade contraption from a nearby middle school science fair. This drip test slowly dribbles water through a handset. The techs spray a special chemical that turns green when wet onto the phone's innards before placing it in the tank. After the test, the green spots will reveal any paths of leakage.
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Cell phone sauna

Several temperature chambers simulate extreme weather conditions and humidity, so Nokia has an idea of what will happen to your phone if, say, you left it in the car overnight during an Arizona summer, or took it to the foggy, salty coastline.
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2D and 3D

X-rays aren't just for people, but here they serve the same purpose. Instead of having the team disassemble a handset to peer inside, this machine and monitor do the job instead, without anybody having to lose a circuit board.
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Mike Mullborn operates the X-ray machine, which can also render images in 3D. It takes only a moment to render each new likeness.
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There are some things an X-ray can't surface, and for those times, Nokia's test engineers can preserve a phone component in resin and gently shave and polish it layer by layer for further, much more precise inspection.

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