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Ten years ago this week, Google announced the very first Android phone. I picked up that phone when it first came out and now, a decade later, I fired it up again to see how well it held up after all these years.
With phones getting ever bigger, more slippery, and more expensive, you might be looking for an extra-tough case to protect your investment. Will spending extra money on a “MIL-STD” model actually do anything though?
Before we dig in, let’s make sure the very thing we’re talking about is clear. MIL-STD refers to a series of standards set by the United States military, designed to create uniform, dependable items for soldiers, sailors, and airmen. The term encompasses a lot of things, including manufacturing processes and interfaces, but the part of the documentation most often applied to consumer goods is MIL-STD-810G, which is a series of tests designed to measure equipment’s specific durability. You can download a PDF copy of the document here—if you’re the “likes to read dry government documents” type of person that is (no judgement, we read it).
The 810G documentation (“G” meaning the latest revision, from 2012) is further broken down into tests for specific scenarios. Different portions of the standard are applied to different aspects of a device, like resistance to high and low temperature, ability to keep out liquids and vibration, or even resist gunshots and explosions. And each section starts with a reference to “tailoring,” meaning the intended purpose and use of the device itself.
The MIL-STD 810G standard lays out the requirements and methodology for each test. For phone cases, the most applicable portion of the document is section 516.6, “Shock.” This is the one that’s most commonly advertised as “certified” for rugged phone cases. Quoting from the section:
Shock tests are performed to:
a. provide a degree of confidence that material can physically and functionally withstand the relatively infrequent, non-repetitive shocks encountered in handling, transportation, and service environments. This may include an assessment of the overall materiel system integrity for safety purposes in any one or all of the handling, transportation, and service environments;
b. determine the materiel’s fragility level, in order that packaging may be designed to protect the materiel’s physical and functional integrity; and
c. test the strength of devices that attach materiel to platforms that can crash.
The tests include eight different categories, from “functional mode” (can the device still work when it’s encountering the kind of bumps and drops you can expect while actually operating it?) all the way to “catapult launch” (will this thing still work after we’ve strapped it to a fighter jet and launched it off an aircraft carrier?). Obviously, some are more applicable than others to the specific use case of your cell phone.
The section that seems to be almost universally applied to rugged phone cases is Procedure IV, Transit Drop. This part of the documentation says that any equipment weighing less than 100 pounds should be test-dropped from a height of 48 inches (“carrying height”) 26 times, and still be functional afterward. Those 26 drops are to be performed on each edge, corner, and face at least once. Post-test inspections ensure that the item is ready for “field use,” though that term can be applied differently for different equipment.
There’s no Department of Defense facility where privates are busily testing the ruggedness of Samsung phone cases.
It’s important to note that a “MIL-STD” label doesn’t mean that an item has been tested and certified by the military. There’s no Department of Defense facility where privates are busily testing the ruggedness of Samsung phone cases. The military does tests on the equipment it uses, but any company can approximate those tests itself and say that its product passes them. And there’s no certification for the MIL-STD on consumer goods: basically, the only thing keeping a company from fudging the methodology or parameters of the tests laid out in the document is its own integrity.
That 48-inch drop might be onto concrete in a laboratory, or the tile flooring in the manufacturer’s QA office, or in the carpet of the engineer’s living room. In fact, there’s no law or regulation that says a company has to do any testing at all to apply a “MIL-STD” label to its product: it might simply be that the case has been “designed” to pass the test, and never actually tested in a laboratory environment.
Let’s look at some specific examples. In the FAQ section of case maker Speck’s website, it says that its “Military Grade” cases comply with MIL-STD 810G. But it doesn’t specify which portion of the standard it’s using, merely that each case has gone through “multiple tests from varying heights,” with no mention of which parts of the phone or case were impact-tested, onto which surfaces it was dropped, or on which sides it fell. It also says specifically that it has done its own testing, presumably in-house.
This Spigen Tough Armor case documentation is a little better. The company’s product page says that the case was “Drop tested at a 48-inch height, 26 times.” That seems to comply with the Transit Drop portion of the MIL-STD document. But even there, there’s no mention of the surface onto which it was dropped, whether it was dropped onto the edges or faces, et cetera. This dedicated “Military Grade” page on Spigen’s website doesn’t mention any further methodology, either. Spigen says its cases are tested in a third-party lab, but doesn’t say which one or if it’s allowed to set the specific parameters.
Urban Armor’s documentation is considerably more detailed. In its Customer Support section, it says that “Military Grade Protection” means that each MIL-STD case has been drop-tested on each face, edge, and corner, and that after the tests the phone was still functioning with a non-cracked screen. That’s a much better assurance of their methods and results, but there’s still no mention of the surface onto which the phone case was dropped. Other product pages specify that Urban Armor MIL-STD tests are performed by MET Laboratories, an independent certification company.
An example of MET Laboratory’s precision drop test methodology.
In all three cases, the manufacturer’s warranty covers defects in manufacturing and not much else. Note that the phone case itself is what’s under warranty, and there are no claims that your phone will survive a drop—even under the four-foot conditions of the MIL-STD test. They specifically say that accidents are not covered. Speck goes so far as to spell it out for consumers: “Speck has no liability for any damage or destruction to consumer electronic devices or other personal property that are in the products.” Translation: if your $1000 phone gets broken while it’s in our Military Grade case, don’t expect anything from us.
This doesn’t mean that a tough case for your new phone is useless. If you’re prone to dropping your phone or you often use it in more accident-prone environments, like a construction yard or a warehouse, it’s absolutely a good idea to invest in a solid case with plenty of protection. Just don’t expect the MIL-STD label to automatically mean your case is going to protect your phone—do a little digging on the company’s website to make sure their testing is up to snuff, and spend some time checking out user reviews and practical tests from third-party sources.
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