Hands on: Phantom Glass

Phantom Glass hands-on: The last screen protector you’ll ever need?

Phantom Glass’ current line of tempered-glass protectors are made from Corning Gorilla Glass 3, which is also used on many of the top smartphones.

Unless you juggle Faberge eggs for a living, the screen on your smartphone is likely the most delicate and fragile thing you hold in your hand on any given day. One accidental fall or tumble, and that vivid display could crack or shatter like a broken mirror. That is, unless you protect it with another layer of glass.

Hands on video

Glass screen protectors aren’t new, but they are slowly gaining in popularity as more vendors get into the game. Toronto startup Phantom Glass thinks it has the best in the business, positioning it as the “last screen protector you’ll ever need.” Let’s put it to the test.

Familiar glass

Phantom Glass’ current line of tempered-glass protectors are made from Corning Gorilla Glass 3, which is also used on many of the top smartphones from 2014. The Samsung Galaxy Alpha was the first to use the newer Gorilla Glass 4, and that formulation is now also in the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge. More phones are expected to follow this year. Corning has suggested that this newer glass has twice the toughness and durability of its predecessor.

That’s not to say Gorilla Glass 3 is shabby, of course. Far from it. As the protective covering on over 1.5 billion smartphones, Gorilla Glass is synonymous with stability to consumers, and the third version was widely used.

But planting a layer of glass on top of an existing slab of glass naturally leads to questions. Richard Waters, the 21-year-old CEO of Phantom Glass, believes this is the best combination of clarity and durability, with an electroplating manufacturing process that doesn’t require any sort of spray or solution. “It’s the only way to do it if you’re going to do it properly,” says Waters.

He adds that the tempering process is about four hours during manufacturing, compared to 45-60 minutes for “cheaper and lower quality” alternatives. “Instead of a cheap adhesive, we also use a proprietary silicone that easily applies on top and fills in regular surface scratches that may already exist on the phone,” he explains.

In spite of experimenting with thinner and thicker designs, this is the ‘sweet spot’ for impact resistance.

Thickness is 0.2mm, which is half that of Gorilla Glass 3 and 4, but Waters maintains that in spite of experimenting with thinner and thicker designs, this is the “sweet spot” for impact resistance.

The company’s iPhone protectors are edge-to-edge, covering the whole front face and exposing all the crevices, such as the home button, earpiece speaker, front-facing camera, and sensor. There will be one for the Galaxy Note 4 (the current model is only close to edge-to-edge) coming soon in both black and white. Protectors exist for other phones, including the OnePlus One, Xperia Z2, Nexus 6, Galaxy S5, and more, but only really cover the display itself.

Installation

An oleophobic nano coating on the top layer means fingerprints are much easier to wipe off. The glass comes with a wet wipe to clean the device’s display and a small microfiber cloth to wipe it dry and ensure no dust or smears are evident. The newer protectors come with a clear plastic shell that hugs the phone and acts as the alignment and applicator. Peel away the inside, push the applicator into the phone, peel off the top layer, and then remove the applicator.

Generally, the silicone does a good job of covering almost all of the surface, though a bubble may appear here and there. Scrubbing harder over those areas can get rid of them fairly easily. This type of install is a far cry from plastic film protectors that need to be sprayed, aligned manually and squeegeed, though other tempered-glass protectors usually require manual alignment, too.

Waters says the applicator takes the guesswork out of the process, enabling the average user to do it on their own, instead of relying on someone who may have a perceived expertise in doing it. Everyone knows that one person who has a knack for applying screen protectors, right? Being that guys is what gave Waters the idea to start Phantom Glass in the first place.

Usability and protection

Having a glass protector becomes a factor when using certain accessories or cases. Will a waterproof case fit snugly with that extra girth now affixed to the display? What about a camera attachment or a case that wraps around the front as well?

In my experience, this was hit or miss. The Olloclip 4-in-1 lens for the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus is designed to fit snugly over either phone’s dimensions, but even an extra 0.2mm made it tricky to put on. Taking it off also required some soft handling. Removing and attaching cases isn’t easier or harder to do, though it largely depends on how much they encroach over the edges of the phone, particularly for the iPhone 5 and up. If the case wraps further over the edges and onto the front, it can complicate things.

The applicator takes the guesswork out of the process, enabling the average user to do it on their own.

However, the peace of mind these protectors offer is certainly real. An iPhone 5S I accidentally dropped led to a noticeable crack in the top corner of the protector, but the phone’s actual display showed no signs of any damage. Any micro scratches through daily usage that eventually impacted the protector never affected the original display. It still looked like it did out of the box.

It’s hard to quantify how much of a beating the protectors can handle. Waters wasn’t able to give an estimate on how much of a drop or shock the glass can withstand, but did say that the durability consumers are used to with Gorilla Glass is a good benchmark to bear in mind.

Gold, silver, and space gray

Waters showed Digital Trends a new set of protectors for the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus that mirror the same three colors the phones currently come in. For example, my gold 6 Plus was matched with a gold protector that adds color uniformity to the device without needing a special case to do it. Though I didn’t get to see what the space gray looked like, the gold and silver ones looked refined.

Phantom Glass
Ted Kritsonis/Digital Trends
Ted Kritsonis/Digital Trends

These are made of anodized aluminum, while the regular black and white ones are acrylic. The difference is obvious just by feeling them, but they’re both nice and blend in nicely.

One downside I noticed is that swiping down the notification pane or up for Control Center can take a few tries. Waters acknowledges it, and confirms that improved variants of the units I saw will come to market to mitigate that.

Conclusion

Tempered-glass protectors may eventually overtake the plastic film ones consumers have come to know and not trust, yet much like how quality varied widely with those, not all glass is likely to be created equal. This is clearly the mantra behind Phantom Glass, though any competitor can use Gorilla Glass to make a similar product of course. Waters notes that licensing the glass from Corning does mean lower profit margins: “We’re not afraid to integrate higher-cost manufacturing processes for a better quality product.”

Prices at retail (Amazon, Best Buy, or Phantom Glass’ Web Store) usually hover between $30 and $45, depending on the protector and phone. Plus there are protectors for some tablets, while select laptops are expected later this year, too.

Highs

  • Made of Gorilla Glass
  • Tough and durable
  • Easy application
  • Can be removed and reapplied
  • All iPhone colors covered

Lows

  • Not all phones supported
  • Some cases could be tricky to put on
  • Pricey compared to competitors
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