Apple says iPhone 12's ceramic screen is tougher than glass. Here's why

The iPhone 12 has Ceramic Shield. The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra has Gorilla Glass Victus. One company makes them both. What's the difference?

Vanessa Hand Orellana CNET Senior Editor
As head of wearables at CNET, Vanessa reviews and writes about the latest smartwatches and fitness trackers. She joined the team seven years ago as an on-camera reporter for CNET's Spanish-language site and then moved on to the English side to host and produce some of CNET's videos and YouTube series. When she's not testing out smartwatches or dropping phones, you can catch her on a hike or trail run with her family.
Vanessa Hand Orellana
5 min read
Patrick Holland/CNET

When you think about phone screens, Gorilla Glass is the first name that comes to mind. Corning's brand of chemically strengthened glass has been covering some of the most popular phones from Samsung , Motorola and Google for years. And while it was implied that Apple also used some version of Corning's glass on its iPhones -- Steve Jobs used Corning's glass on the original iPhone and Apple recently invested millions in the glass company -- Apple had remained relatively secretive about the subject. Until now. 

Read more: iPhone 12 drop test result are in: Ceramic shield is as tough as it sounds

The iPhone 12 -- which is now on sale (at least two models are) -- has a brand-new cover material to protect its screen, called Corning Ceramic Shield. According to Apple, the material is "tougher than any smartphone glass" -- even Gorilla Glass Victus, Corning's existing top-of-the line glass that the company launched in July and which protects the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra.

So what's the difference between Corning's Ceramic Shield and Gorilla Glass Victus -- and what does that mean when it comes to protecting your phone? While we haven't had a chance to perform any drop tests yet (Apple's iPhone 12 doesn't arrive in stores until Oct. 23), we tell you everything we know about Apple's new display material and how it compares to Corning's other toughest glass, including how we think they might survive a fall.

Glass-ceramic vs. glass: Two totally different materials

The biggest difference between Ceramic Shield and Gorilla Glass Victus is that they're composed of two very different materials: glass and ceramic. Glass is described as a noncrystalline material, which means the atoms that make it up don't have any particular order or structure, and it's often transparent in quality. Normally, ceramics are described as glass that's been superheated until it forms a crystalline structure that does have atoms that are ordered. For an oversimplified example, imagine circular magnets that snap together to form a grid. Ceramic is typically opaque.

When it comes to weathering the elements, ceramic is considered the clear winner as it's tougher than glass and even tougher than most metals, which is why some phone manufacturers like Samsung and Huawei have used it to cover the backs of some of their phones. 

Corning's Gorilla Glass is glass that has been altered (both in terms of its chemistry and composition) to increase durability against drops and scratches.

Glass-ceramics like the one found in the iPhone 12's Ceramic Shield are a hybrid between glass and ceramic -- a completely new material for the company. According to Corning, glass-ceramics start out with a specially formulated glass that has been heat-treated to develop nano crystals, like those found in ceramics, which are then embedded into the glass matrix. But unlike the usual ceramics in which the crystals form a pattern, the crystals covering the iPhone 12 are randomly oriented and smaller than the wavelength of light, which makes them transparent instead of opaque. Though Corning didn't disclose how the structure would affect the way in which the glass breaks, Apple says that Ceramic Shield is tougher than any other smartphone in the market today. 


Apple says the iPhone 12 is four times better at resisting drops than last year's iPhone 11. 

Apple/Screenshot by Sarah Tew/CNET

Which is more likely to survive a fall?

Corning says Gorilla Glass Victus can withstand drops of up to six feet, but this can change based on the phone manufacturer's design choices. The thickness and shape of the glass can greatly affect durability. In our Note 20 Ultra drop test, for example, its curved display didn't hold up to the six-foot claim. Apple doesn't mention drop height, but says that the front of iPhone 12 is four times as drop resistant as its predecessor, which survived our drop test unscathed. The iPhone 11 also had a blend of Corning's glass specifically designed for Apple. 

The iPhone 12's new design could also make the phone more durable, since the glass on both sides lies flush with the aluminum or stainless steel frame, rather than bulging out like in previous years. So it's entirely possible that it would outlast both the Note 20 Ultra and last year's iPhone during a fall, even though it has the same glass as the iPhone 11.

It is important though to point out that we dropped the Note 20 Ultra on a rough sidewalk, while the iPhone 11 Pro was dropped on smooth concrete, which means we can't truly compare results from the two. We'll drop-test the iPhone 12 on a rough sidewalk in the coming weeks, for a better comparison with the Note 20 Ultra results.    

Better fall protection doesn't mean better scratch resistance 

Corning uses an ion exchange process to strengthen Gorilla Glass and Ceramic Shield against drops and scratches, but each version of Gorilla Glass has a different degree of scratch resistance.

Gorilla Glass Victus is said to be twice as scratch resistant as the previous generation of Gorilla Glass 5, and four times as scratch resistant as its competitors. Apple says that the Ceramic Shield has undergone the same dual-ion as the glass on the back of the phone (which is the same as the glass on last year's iPhone 11). But since the Ceramic Shield is not technically a competitor, we're going to have to test it out ourselves to find out if there's a noticeable difference in scratch resistance between the two. 


Testing the scratch resistance on the Note 20 Ultra on a piece of tile. 

Vanessa Hand Orellana/CNET

The Note 20 Ultra's screen put up a heroic fight during our scratch test and came out completely unscathed from our tumble test inside a bag with coins, keys and pens. 

Which is easier to see?

Because we haven't done a side-by-side analysis of Victus versus Ceramic Shield, it's almost impossible to know which one would yield a better viewing experience both in terms of transparency and reflectiveness. What we do know is that despite having some properties of ceramic, Ceramic Shield has been engineered to be completely transparent and color-free, just like glass. 

A tough call...

The toughness claims introduced in Ceramic Shield along with the new flush edge design of the iPhone 12 definitely give it a leg up on its predecessor, at least in terms of drop resistance. But without proper testing, it's impossible to determine if the new Ceramic Shield on the iPhone 12 models is tougher than Corning's toughest Gorilla Glass Victus (and by how much), how it holds up against scratches and whether it's as easy to see through as its counterpart. We will report back once we've put the new iPhone 12s to the test in the coming weeks.