Why a ceramic iPhone 8 might be the ultimate iPhone

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iPhone 8 could look this good.
iPhone 8 could look this good.
Photo: Apple

Apple’s switch to ceramic for Apple Watch Edition could mean big things for iPhone 8. Being four times harder than stainless steel and a darn sight prettier, ceramic would be an ideal material for the next generation of iPhone unibodies.

Recent rumors have promised Apple will deliver a major redesign next year to celebrate the iPhone’s 10th anniversary, and what better way to do that than with a new material that’s better than anything Apple’s used before?

Apple has been a pioneer when it comes to adopting new materials that make our gadgets even greater. And the company usually doesn’t stop when it finds one. Jony Ive and Apple’s industrial design team have a fascination with developing new materials and manufacturing processes that are even greater than those it is already using.

In retrospect, then, it’s not that surprising that Apple did away with 18-karat gold for this year’s Apple Watch Edition and used white ceramic instead. The material is stronger than steel, with a “pearly, lustrous finish that won’t scratch or tarnish,” Apple says — and it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than gold.

Why a ceramic iPhone 8 makes sense

This combination of properties, along with other characteristics of the material, might make ceramic ideal for the iPhone 8.

For the past four years, the iPhone has featured an aluminum unibody design just like many other Apple products. Aluminum is great for smartphones and other gadgets because it’s lightweight, relatively strong, and it doesn’t scratch easily. But ceramic is even better.

Say goodbye to scratches

Its hardness makes ceramic almost impervious to scuffs and scratches. Zirconia ceramic, which is what Apple uses for the new Watch Edition, is rated 8.5 on the Mohs scale of mineral hardness. In comparison, steel is rated 4.5, while aluminum is rated just 2.5 to 3.

Unless you rest your ceramic iPhone on a bed of diamonds, the chance of it getting scratched up during normal, everyday use is next to none.

“Aluminum in almost all forms exhibits a higher likelihood of retaining scratches, scuffs and staining,” explains Brian Roemelle, alchemist and metaphysician, in a thread over on Quora about why zirconia ceramic would be perfect for a future iPhone.

Apple Watch Edition
Good luck scratching the new ceramic Apple Watch Edition.
Photo: Apple

Say hello to hotter colors

“Zirconia ceramics also can be pigmented to any color palette without the use of exterior paints,” Roemelle adds. Sadly, the same cannot be said about aluminum.

Since disappointing us with the slate iPhone 5, which was painted and notorious for chipping and scratching, Apple has been anodizing all of its aluminum devices. This prevents them from chipping and peeling, but there are only so many colors that can be created when anodizing.

What’s more, glossy aluminum color options are even more susceptible to scratching. Apple has already warned that the new jet black iPhone 7 will pick up surface scratches without a case, but the ceramic Apple Watch Edition’s “smooth surface” with “an exquisite shine” will not.

Zirconia ceramic can even be completely transparent. That means Apple could offer an iPhone you could see into. It seems unlikely, but we’ve seen transparent Apple products before. Transparent ceramic could even be used to protect future iPhone displays.

Warm up to cooler handsets

If you’ve ever used your iPhone for a prolonged period, especially during a mammoth gaming session or while it’s charging, you’ve probably noticed its aluminum unibody can get pretty hot. But zirconia ceramic is significantly better at dissipating heat.

In fact, ceramic is so good at this that it was used by NASA on the space shuttle orbiter to prevent it from melting during re-entry. If Apple used zirconia for the iPhone, the device’s shell would be more efficient at carrying heat away from the processor and other internal components.

Apple Watch Edition
The new ceramic Apple Watch Edition only comes in white, but that could change.
Photo: Apple

Enjoy better, prettier connectivity

Apple has made the antenna bands slightly better looking for iPhone 7, but they’re still there — and they’re still ugly. But if Cupertino chose to use ceramic for iPhone 8, those antenna bands could be eliminated.

Unlike aluminum, ceramic doesn’t block radio signals. All those chips inside your iPhone that need to send and receive radio signals — Wi-Fi, cellular, Bluetooth, NFC and GPS — wouldn’t be restricted by a ceramic body in the same way they are by metal.

Take advantage of easier manufacturing

Another big advantage of ceramic highlighted by Roemelle is that it’s easier to manufacture. Apple has patented production processes that allow devices containing ceramic and polymer components to be manufactured quickly and with higher precision than when using metal.

“Apple has created a system whereby injection molding can be used to form the unibody of a device and to mate that device efficiently to a screen,” Roemelle writes.

Ceramic cases can be batteries

Giving us enough power to make it through the day is one of the toughest challenges smartphone makers face with existing lithium-ion battery technologies. The only way to achieve this is with bigger batteries that take up more room and make our devices fatter.

Apple has already given us slightly bigger batteries in iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus, but that’s one of the reasons why the headphone jack had to go. However, if Apple was to make iPhone 8 out of ceramic, the handset’s entire body could become the battery.

That’s thanks to new lithium-ceramic battery technology, which is much more resilient than lithium-ion. Lithium-ceramic batteries can be cut in half and still operate normally, which makes them much safer than most alternatives. They’re also more recyclable.

However, lithium-ceramic isn’t yet as efficient as lithium-ion, so perhaps this particular advantage won’t present itself in iPhone 8. But it’s something Apple will almost certainly be looking at for the future.

Apple Watch Edition
Apple Watch Edition from start to finish.
Photo: Apple

Downsides of a ceramic iPhone 8

Although zirconia ceramic offers a number of massive advantages over aluminum, the material isn’t perfect. While most metals can bend without breaking, making them rather durable when dropped, ceramic is much more brittle, which means it’s more likely to shatter on impact.

A ceramic iPhone 8 might be nearly immune to scratches, but drop it on a hard surface without a case and it could break into a million tiny pieces like a china mug.

Ceramic is also more expensive than aluminum, which is why the new Apple Watch Edition starts at a whopping $1,249. However, the more Apple uses the material, and the better the company gets at manufacturing it, the more affordable ceramic will become.

Is a ceramic iPhone still an ideal upgrade?

Yes, there are downsides, but ceramic seems immensely better than aluminum for a device like the iPhone. Roemelle thinks it makes so much sense that a ceramic iPhone 8 is almost inevitable.

“There will be ergonomic curves that will mold into the new AMOLED display being driven by video chips that simply could not have thermally operated in such a small space without heat efficiency of zirconia ceramics,” he writes.

“The iPhone 8 will not just be water-resistant but waterproof and dust-proof to a level never seen before on a smartphone.”

  • Matt Hone

    Ceramic just looks beautiful, and I hope this is true because it will be a thing Apple can hold over the Android phones. Other manufacturers like Samsung have really raised their game in recent years, and Apple are no longer the only game in town when it comes to designing beautiful phones.

    Of course, iOS is still miles ahead of anything Android can offer…

    If there’s this, the AMOLED display, new Gorilla Glass, a flush camera (no bump wobble) and an integrated home button I’ll definitely take the leap and replace my ageing iPhone 6.

    • CelestialTerrestrial

      I think the cost is still an issue. It’ll cost too much.

      • James Leseke

        Economies of scale, and much of ceramic’s cost has to to with the economics of luxury products. The cost of the Aluminum in the regular iPhones it a trivial factor of the BOM, it will be a wee bit more for the iPhone, but not anywhere close to the surcharge Apple will charge. We are not making stealth airplanes after all, it’s just a micro-computer that can also make telephone calls.

    • Mac2020

      I think the brittleness is still an issue, it’s too easy to break. #brittlegate

    • Seth

      Several Android phones have already been released with ceramic bodies. A quick Google search revealed a couple. Earliest one I could find was released in February of this year by a Chinese manufacturer. Good looking phone, and found a YouTube video of a guy trying to unsuccessfully scratch it. With several Android manufacturer already using it, more are bound to use it if it is successful for the ones currently using it.

  • Tomas Puelma

    What about weight?? Apple has always tried to make the thinnest and lightest phones.

    • James Leseke

      Meh, Ceramic watches are not any more massive than their stainless steel kin. Apple can keep the weight penalty down. My guess is that fashionistas especially will be glad to pay a slight weight penalty for the phones as Ceramic is a very beautiful material to work with.

      • RES100

        Agreed

  • James Leseke

    Ceramics are rather brittle, this is not a problem with watches as they sit on the wrist and are closely fastened to the body and rarely come into contact with a hard surface. They can be smacked against a hard surface from time to time but the sapphire face of the watch will protect the watch, or the watch can be wore on the wrist with the face toward the body. An iPhone made of ceramic will not be so lucky. Drop it and it may crack, or worse shatter.

    I will say that the feel of the phone would be super-sexy as Ceramic has a polished stone feel to it. Polished up the stuff is gorgeous. Rado and Cartier made very nice luxury watches out of Ceramic, but Ceramic lost it’s exclusivity and cachet when every watchmaker and his dog put out ceramic watch. This is too bad as Rado especially had some super sexy, super nice watches in black ceramic. The bands were an issue as they did tend to chip.

    Having to encase a iPhone in a regular plastic case, say an Otter Box Defender, seems to be a less than an optimal solution for protecting one’s super-swoopy, super sexy Ceramic iPhone and right back to where we are with aluminum. Me, I say Tim Cook and company go with CroMoly steel. ;)

    • Tahir

      All benefits aside, what good is th ceramics body idea when it can “break into a million pieces like a China mug if dropped on a hard surface”?? I think it’ll b a disaster like never before.

  • Wayne Gibbons

    Hang on, did you just quote an “alchemist and metaphysician”????

  • I think it’ll be too fragile for them to use it as a material for a mainstream device. The fact it could shatter on impact is enough. The 6 Had the problem with bending and the 6S still finds a way to bend depending on the circumstance. Apple should not use ceramic for a Phone.

    The watch is fine because as it probably wont go through the stresses of being dropped too much. Being strapped to a wrist makes it somewhat less prone to dropping.

  • And who said innovation by Apple and in devices is dead? There’s much more exciting stuff to come for sure.

  • Gian Marco Ciampalini

    Very interesting article, but I’m sorry to inform you that what you said about thermal properties of ceramic and aluminum is totally wrong. Ceramic is an insulator and it does’t allow heat to pass through (NASA uses it on the space shuttle to prevent astronauts and internal gear from getting barbecued). Metal (aluminum in particular) has an excellent conductivity which means that when the inside of your iPhone gets hot il lets heat pass through the casing and therefore it feels hot on your hand. If you used ceramic the heat would remain inside the casing and you would probably end up with an expensive A10 Fusion “molten” chip.

    That’s one of the reasons behind Apple using aluminum casings for all their devices.

    That said, I really enjoyed the rest of the article :)