Smartphones are an expensive purchase and all it takes is one mishap to shatter the screen of your shiny new phone into a million pieces. You have to do something to preserve the quality and integrity of your phone!
Cases protect your phone from drops and bumps, but screen protectors are marketed as a way to protect the screen itself from damage. It sounds great on paper, but do you really need a screen protector for your phone, or is it just an expensive placebo?
Replacing a cracked screen is expensive
In the past, if you broke a phone’s glass, it could be replaced without replacing the screen, as long as it was intact. However, modern screen technology uses a lamination process, so there is no gap between the screen and the glass covering it. This results in much better image quality, but it also means that if the glass is damaged or cracked, you’ll have to replace the entire screen.
This integration has seriously increased the cost of fixing broken phone glass, which is probably why you see so many people walking around with broken phones – it’s just too expensive to repair. The real question is how likely it is that your phone will end up in this state, and to understand that, we need to talk about modern phone glass for a minute.
Smartphone glass is incredible
First of all: the glass of the smartphone screen is incredibly strong. Corning Gorilla Glass on Android phones or Ceramic Shield Glass on new iPhones are resistant to aggressive impacts and scratches. These glasses are so hard that only minerals can scratch them. Metals, like car keys in your pocket, are unlikely to leave a mark. On the Mohs hardness scale, Gorilla Glass Victus is somewhere between 6 and 7. Steel, by comparison, is between 4 and 4.5. This means that hard minerals like quartz can leave visible scratches on this glass, but most common materials shouldn’t.
The glass of your smartphone is already more than up to the task of daily use. Over the life of the phone, you may get some micro scratches, but they usually don’t affect the feel of the screen or the image on it.
Manufacturers also thoroughly test smartphones to make sure they can withstand more intense abuse. Linus Tech Tips took a tour of the smartphone factory, and as testing revealed, the average smartphone is built to withstand serious punishment while remaining functional.
So, at this point, we can safely say that most people don’t need a screen protector. There are still some cases where you might want one, but you have to know what you’re getting into.
Who should definitely use a protective film for the screen
We think phones without screen protectors (or cases) are acceptable for everyday use out of the box, but the emphasis here is on “everyday use”.
If you work or have a hobby that puts your phone in situations or near materials that can defeat the strength of its materials, then you need extra protection.
Many people overlook one source of glass damage: common minerals found in beach sand or hiking trails. If a bit of sand gets into your pocket with the phone, it can be scratched to the point where it can no longer be used.
If you work in construction or are an active outdoorsman, you may want to purchase a fully rugged case for your phone instead of a screen protector. Alternatively, you can also consider phones made expressly for these environments, such as phones made by CAT.
Be careful when choosing a screen protector
There are a surprising number of considerations when choosing a screen protector, or whether you need one at all. That’s why we’re going to take a close look at the different types of treads and the set of factors you should be aware of before making your decision.
Factory installed screen protectors
Speaking of smartphone factories, your phone may already have a screen protector on it when you first take it out of the box. For example, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra has a protector that protects it from minor scratches. When it is too worn and damaged, you can remove it without any problems.
This applies to factory protectors in general. You can remove them immediately if you want and replace them with something better or nothing at all. Alternatively, you can simply leave them on until you need to remove them. What you should not do is put a new film on the screen over the existing one that was installed at the factory. Also make sure you see the screen saver and not something important.
It is very difficult to install protective films on the screen
One of the advantages of a factory-installed tread is that you don’t have to install it yourself. That’s a good thing, because installing screen protectors is a nightmare. Not only do you have to make sure the screen is free of smudges, dirt and hair, you also have to apply the protector straight and without air bubbles.
When you buy a screen protector, it’s best to buy two. Since you’ll almost certainly screw up the app, it’s usually best to get the people at your phone store to apply it for you if possible.
Protective screens are not the same
We cannot talk about protective films as a single type of product. There are different screen protectors out there, and some have more practical uses than others. Some protectors do more than just protect the screen.
You can purchase protectors with a matte anti-glare coating to make the phone more comfortable to use in bright light conditions. Ultra-transparent protectors minimize the effect of the protector on the image and filter UV rays. Screen protectors, on the other hand, hide what’s on the screen from everyone except the person looking directly at it. So these protectors have utility beyond screen protection.
When it comes to the main task of providing additional screen protection, different protectors focus on this in different ways.
Thin TPU or PET plastic protective films prevent micro-scratches. These protections are the least invasive and protect against the damage your phone is most likely to experience over its lifetime.
The tempered glass screen protector protects against both shocks and scratches, although it is thick and heavy compared to other types of protective glass. While tempered glass protectors do protect against scratches due to their thickness, it’s debatable whether they do anything to prevent screen cracks.
What about self-healing screen protectors?
A relatively recent development in the world of screen protectors are so-called self-healing screen protectors. The exact details vary by brand and implementation, but there is a tiny layer of substance inside the screen protector that oozes out whenever the screen protector is scratched, filling the scratch.
In theory, this increases the amount of time you can leave the screen protector on before replacing it. Whether or not self-healed scratches are invisible is up to you, so far we’ve seen mixed reviews.
Protective films may affect user performance
There’s nothing quite like using the touchscreen directly without any objects between your finger and the phone. Mobile phone screens have been designed to provide an ideal level of tactile response and offer you crystal clear, vivid images through incredibly advanced manufacturing processes that combine the screen with touch and glass layers without damaging a single pixel on the display.
So it seems a bit of a no-brainer to slap a $10 screen protector on it, undoing a lot of what made your phone so great (and expensive).
The tempered glass screen protector, which offers the best impact protection, is also the thickest. This means that the smooth curved edge of your phone now presents a sharp edge every time you swipe over the edge, and photos from your screen are absorbed and refracted by the thick layer of glass.
You might think the impact is minor, but if you’ve ever used a phone right after removing the tempered glass screen protector, you’ll know how much better it looks and feels in comparison.
Insurance may be a better solution
If your main concern is protecting your phone from minor scratches rather than cracks or breaks, then a screen protector might not be the best solution.
After all, if your phone takes a hit hard enough to break the tempered glass protecting the screen, it will likely crack and shatter the screen. So it makes more sense to save money and spend it on phone insurance. Some types of phone theft insurance include accidental loss insurance or offer cheap extras. The same is true of some carrier plans, which may provide insurance as part of your contract or as an add-on.
Phone manufacturers also offer insurance against damage. Applecare is a prime example, but some Android phone manufacturers also offer similar screen replacement deals, such as Samsung Care+. You’re paying up front to get one or two screen replacements every few years.
Considering the cost of repairing even a single screen, these protection plans are a bargain. It’s not like an extended warranty on gadgets like TVs, which are unlikely to experience accidental damage. There is a real possibility that at some point in your phone’s life you will drop it.
Wear is normal
It’s understandable that you want to keep your phone in like-new condition, but any item you use every day will inevitably show signs of use. It seems a shame to use a case or put a screen protector on your phone when it’s designed to be a sleek, high-tech device that’s made to feel lovely in the hand and in the hand.
In a way, using a protective film on high-tech devices like these is like buying a sports car, then covering the skin with plastic and rubberizing the body. Of course, you will prevent wear of the materials, but you will not be able to enjoy the appearance of the product.
The Resale Argument (And Why It Doesn’t Make Sense)
If your tolerance for micro-scratches is low, a thin plastic screen protector will probably help you sleep at night, but if your main reason for wanting a screen protector is to save your phone for resale, we think you’re doing yourself a disservice.
First, you’re keeping the device you paid full price for and diminishing the enjoyment of it for the next owner—a buyer who might not be so bothered by a few minor scratches.
Second, you probably won’t get much more for your phone than its actual resale value with some minor scratches. Resale prices for cash phones are often much lower than the phone’s value due to rapid depreciation and the fact that most people don’t buy phones for cash, but instead get them through a subsidized carrier contract.
The final verdict
At the end of the day, it’s up to you whether or not to apply a screen protector to your phone, but based on what we’ve discussed, here are some important points to keep in mind:
- Screen protectors are primarily good at preventing small scratches that will not affect the use of the phone anyway.
- Protective films always affect the image quality and usability of the phone to some extent.
- You can often get screen replacement insurance or protection for very little money.
- It’s debated whether thick, tempered glass screen protectors are effective in a drop severe enough to break the glass of a modern smartphone.
- If you use your phone in a dangerous environment, consider a rugged case or phone.
Perhaps the future technology of glass for smartphones will make protective screens completely unnecessary, but even today they are optional.