An In-Depth look at Nokia’s hardware damage labs

Of all the complex and expensive toys that have become standard objects in our lives, mobile handsets probably get the worst treatment. Think about it: they’re the result of many hours of engineering and design and cost hundreds of dollars to obtain, yet within days of purchase they’re generally being smashed into coin-filled pockets or carelessly tossed into cupholders. How do they last a week, much less the years we expect of them?

To help answer that question, Nokia invited us down to their San Diego Test Center to check out some of the trials a new handset goes through before they make their way into our dangerous hands. Of course, we couldn’t leave our readers out of the fun – so we shot video throughout the entirety of the tour and brought it back for all to see.

While we captured much of the physical testing/examination process, there’s a whole lot that goes into device testing that we didn’t see – mainly because it wouldn’t be all that exciting to watch. If you’re looking for extreme code debugging videos, you’ll have to search elsewhere. Apologies for the sound quality of some of the videos. A room filled with the whirs of a dozen or so never sleeping robots isn’t an optimal recording environment, but we did our best to make things audible. If all else fails, headphones help.

Impact testing (AKA “Spanky”):

This one was probably the most visually entertaining of the lot. The device is lightly held in place, and a big ol’ mallet is dropped from a user-specified height. While it’s not often that phones go up against big metal bats, this helps to simulate overall physical damage resistance from just about any desired angle. Plus, it tells you whether or not you can play baseball with the handset.

Electron Microscope:

Got the problem area pinned down, but need to take a closer look? Once the problem area is isolated, it’s removed from the handset and encased in epoxy to ensure that no further damage occurs. After that, the surfaces of the epoxy casing are grinded down to the problem area, and polished for better visiblity. Then it’s pushed into the electron microscope, which lets you get a close look – a really close look.

2D X-Ray Machine:

When you’ve got 5 devices all showing the same symptoms, are you really going to want to tear apart each and every one unless you absolutely have to? Heck no. Instead, you can jam that thing into the X-ray machine – with the ability to see circuits running between the layers of the PCB, a quick scan is often more effective than disassembly.

3D X-ray machine:

Pft, 2D X-ray microscopes are so 1950s. Plus, sometimes you just need to look at a problem in a different way – literally.

Abrasion testing:

In your pocket. Out of your pocket. Onto the table. Into the backpack. On a daily basis, your handset is thrown into multiple epic battles with pocket lint, dirt, coins, and keys. If you can’t put your phone into your pocket without scratching it, it’ll be a faded mess within the first week. As one form of Abrasion testing, Nokia throws handsets into a big mixer with a bunch of beads of varying hardness and lets them dance.

Strap/Charm hole snag testing:

If you’re swinging your phone around by the strap, having it snap off and nail someone in the face might be a pretty serious downer. That said, if you’re holding onto your phone while hopping off the bus and the charm gets caught in the door, being dragged down the street would be a pretty big upset as well. There’s a fine balance that needs to be maintained in the resistance of that little charm port, which is exactly what this test is purposed for.

Rain resistance testing

Nobody expects to be able to take a standard cell phone with them for a swim in the deep end. Everyone, however, expects their phone to phone to survive a walk in the rain. For this test, Nokia puts the device on a rotating platter below a rapidly dripping tank of water, checking to see if it’ll make it through to see the flowers of May.

The pant leg test:

Exactly what it sounds like. Like the abrasion test, this one simulates the trials of your pants. Each pant leg contains a phone, and assorted pocket regulars: keys, coins, etc.

Flip tension test:

We’ve all done it: Flip it open. Flip it closed. Flip it open. Flip it closed. Swoosh. Snap. Swoosh. Snap. It just feels good, doesn’t it? It’s like cracking your knuckles after writing for an hour. Turns out, that’s intentional. The “feeling” of opening and closing the handset is actually fine tuned, and then tested repeatedly to ensure that it’ll feel just as good the 1,000th time.

Flip durability test:

With that flipping habit you’ve got, you’re bound to wear those springs out eventually. This test determines when.

Drop testing:

You’re 4 shots of tequila in and your phone just dropped your call for the 15th time. “Just do it.” says the pavement, “Don’t worry – I’ll catch it.” It’ll catch it, no doubt. It’s just not very gentile. This one raises the phone to a user specified height, and then “drops” it at various speeds. The impact is caught on a high FPS camera, allowing you to watch the destruction frame by glorious frame.

Dust/Particle testing:

The phones, they dance! Besides being fun as all hell to watch, this test checks how resistant a handset’s various nooks and crannies are to dust and other small particles.

Cover/SIM/Battery removal and insertion:

Dang, my battery died. (cover off) Good thing I have a new one! (battery out, battery in, cover on) Crap, I forgot to put the SD card in. (cover off, battery out, sd card in, battery in, cover in). Done daily, that’s a lot of wear and tear on those little plastic tabs and metal pins.

Plastics vs Household chemicals testing:

“Oh crap! I got nail polish on my phone. Good thing I have this AJAX here, we’ll just put it on.. scrub a little.. and OH MY GOD MY PHONE IS MELTING.” A few years after a chemistry class, it’s pretty easy to forget how destructive some household chemicals can be. This test is to ensure that it’s not too easy for end users to wreck their phones.

Ball Drop test:

This one’s just in case you have your phone beneath a metal tube that happens to drop fairly hefty ball bearings from time to time. Fine; it’s really just to check resistance against direct screen impacts. But it’s that first one, too.

UV testing cage:

Congratulations – you’ve found it! The most riveting video of the lot: the UV test. Scared and alone, the handset is locked into a pitch black cage. Big bad UV rays are blasted at it from every direction, running across every inch of the surface for a spot weak enough to allow the kill – can it survive the horrors?! This is intense stuff, folks – look for the bear that walks by.

(There’s no bear.)

USB/Headset insertion testing

Another repetition test. Are you seeing a pattern here? Actually, you should see lots of patterns. That’s kind of the point.

As the title implies, this one tests the repetitive insertion/removal of the USB and headset plugs. And yes, everyone realizes that it looks kind of dirty.


This one is meant to simulate the only way I’ve ever managed to severely damage a phone. Because I have far more crap to carry then I have pants pockets, my phone occasionally finds its way to my shirt pocket. There it sits, until I bend over, jump, or back flip, at which point it finds it makes a quick trip to the floor. There are actually two tumblers: one meant to simulate repetitive falls from a shirt pocket , one meant to simulate repetitive falls from a pant pocket.

Temperature testing:

While the weather doesn’t really get too radical here in California, things can get a bit more intense in Nokia’s Finnish homeland and other parts of the world. Cell phone components stretch and shrink with temperature changes just like anything else – this one sees just how hot or cold the device can get before damage is done. Though I didn’t grab video of them, they also have “shock” temperature test chambers; they look exactly the same, but get hot/cold at a much faster rate. If you suddenly catch fire while snowboarding, at least you know people can still call you.

Over-extension tests:

While they say this one is to see how an open phone fairs against someone blindly sitting on it, I’d imagine it’s more about how well it can handle angry girlfriends and little kids playing strong man. Gradual pressure is applied to the screen in effort to find the point of failure.

Screen Clarity testing

This one is almost as riveting as the UV testing chamber. Light shines from point a, passes through the screen, and is measured at point b. Different plastics and protection coatings are tested to measure their effect on screen clarity.

LCD intensity measuring:

If one half of the screen is two shades darker than the other, things aren’t going to look right. Through the magic of heat maps, design engineers can adjust lighting arrangements to make sure that things are coming through as intended.

Screen Scratch resistance:

Just how tough is that screen? To find out, a sharp pin is ran across the surface. More weight is added gradually, determining just how much pressure it would take to leave a mark.

Paint adhesion test:

Scratching your phone sucks. Having a small scratch grow bigger and bigger as the paint around it chips off is even worse. This test checks to see how well paint (damaged or not) adheres to the handset over time.

Key press testing:

One. Two. Three… each button on the test models are pressed up to one million times. Dang robots, taking all the good jobs.