It's a time-honored tradition here at CNET to drop new phones on the ground -- on purpose. So when Apple proclaimed that the new 5G-enabled iPhone SE is made with "the toughest glass in a smartphone," naturally my ears perked up.
The Apple iPhone SE is an update to the 2020 version, but most of its changes are on the inside. The phone has the same body design as the 2020 SE and the iPhone 8, including the throwback home button.
CNET's Patrick Holland calls the new iPhone SE a low-cost way to get an iPhone with a familiar design but get improvements like the tougher glass and the A15 Bionic processor from the iPhone 13. Yet newer features like Face ID or MagSafe are not included in this phone.
The glass may be the most significant change for anyone concerned about the durability of the phone, even if it's not exactly new. It's the same glass that's used on the back of the iPhone 13 and the iPhone 12 lines. But on the SE, it is used on the front and back.
The front glass of the new iPhone SE does differ from the iPhone 12 and iPhone 13 line, however, with Apple choosing to use glass from earlier iPhone lines instead of Apple's Ceramic Shield coating as seen on the iPhone 12 and iPhone 13. We put that Ceramic Shield glass to the test during our iPhone 12 drop test, during which the screen emerged almost unscathed while the back did get a few cracks.
That difference in screen material became apparent quite quickly as we began testing.
For the first drop, I held the iPhone SE at approximately pocket-height, or about 3 feet from the ground, and dropped it screen down.
Some might say the test was over at this point, since the glass covering the screen suffered numerous cracks from top to bottom. Though the screen was still functional, the glass was jagged enough in places that cutting my finger was a distinct possibility.
While the front of the phone was essentially destroyed at this point, the back was still pristine, so I pressed forward.
For drop No. 2, I stayed at the same 3-foot mark and dropped the phone on its shiny Product Red back. Or at least I tried.
On my first attempt, the phone landed right on the top edge of the aluminum frame and cartwheeled toward my feet. It only suffered a couple of small scuff marks on the frame and no damage to the back glass, so I declared a do-over. My test, my rules.
Drop 2a was somewhat more accurate, but the side of the phone absorbed most of the impact.
At this point, the back of the phone only showed a small crack in the glass up near the camera lens and some minor scuffing around the edges. Not bad, considering it had been dropped three times now.
The front of the phone continued to deteriorate. Cracking was significant over the entire screen. On the bottom right corner, small pieces of glass were starting to come off completely, yet the screen continued to function normally.
The lesson so far seemed to be if you're going to drop the iPhone SE, try and aim for the back.
Standard procedure at this stage is to change the height to 6 feet and continue dropping. Since the front was such a mess already, I opted to skip that side and drop it on the back side from 6 feet instead.
What followed was yet another case of operator error, as the phone landed solidly on the top right corner of the frame instead of flat on its back glass. Another quick inspection showed one thin crack emerging on the upper part of the back glass.
I was sure I had a better drop in me, so called an audible and went again.
What we'll call Drop 3a now (or technically No. 5) wasn't my best work, but I let it pass. Mostly because I couldn't bring myself to punish this phone anymore.
The bottom half of the back of the phone developed a significant set of cracks that cascaded from left to right. Two larger cracks intersected on the upper-right corner. Nothing a good case couldn't cover up, as long as the front was OK. Of course, it's not.
There was now a gaping hole in the front glass to the right of the home button. Full pieces of glass had fallen out, and I could see directly into the guts of the phone underneath the black bezel. Amazingly enough, the Retina HD display was still functioning and reacting to touch controls. Best to keep swiping to a minimum though.
Invoking the mercy rule
Normally at this point, I would climb up on the stepladder to drop the phone from 9 feet, but I decided there wasn't much point. The iPhone SE had suffered enough. Our iPhone 8 drop test, which is the last time we run a drop test on a phone with this design, was similarly dramatic.
So this was hardly a great day for my iPhone SE, but does that mean this isn't really "the toughest glass in a smartphone"? I can't really say one way or the other. This isn't a scientific test conducted under controlled conditions. It's just an experiment to demonstrate what might happen if you do what I did. But maybe Apple should have splurged and used Ceramic Shield after all.
As always, the biggest takeaway from these experiments is that no matter how tough the glass is supposed to be, the best way to protect your investment is to put your phone in a case.
And it would appear Apple concurs. When reached for comment, an Apple spokesperson said "iPhone SE offers amazing durability and is protected by the toughest glass in a smartphone on the front and back. All models have gone through rigorous real-world testing and are designed to be durable, but not indestructible. If anyone is concerned about dropping their iPhone and damaging it, we suggest using one of the many beautiful cases available to protect iPhone."
You can find the video for this drop test and many more of them on CNET's YouTube page.