Smartphones in a sub-zero environment: Can your phone stand the cold?

PC World Finland put devices to the test

By Ossi Jääskeläinen, MikroPC |  Consumerization of IT

Some smart phone manufacturers don't allow their devices to be used in cold weather while others guarantee smooth functioning even in -20 degrees Celsius (-3⁰ Fahrenheit).

According to Apple, its iPhones can be used only in temperatures between 0 and 35 degrees Celsius (32 to 95⁰F). In other words, an iPhone user taking his device outside in typical Scandinavian winter conditions will do so at his own risk. If the phone breaks down, Apple claims they will not be responsible and it is not covered by the phone's warranty.

HTC and Nokia have not given out operating temperature guidelines in user manuals or on their websites. Samsung, on the other hand guarantees its phones to function in temperatures between -20 and 50 degrees Celsius (-4--122⁰F).

Bring On the Freeze!

MikroPC (PCWorld Finland) decided to test if the manufacturers can back up their claims in real life.

We picked up the 15 most-sold mobile phones in Finland and three others for comparison, and took them into the Technical Research Centre of Finland and their "Weather Room", a specialized research lab where the temperature can be adjusted to a fraction of a degree. The initial temperature was set to 0 degrees Celsius (32⁰F). From there, we kept lowering it by steps of five degrees Celsius (9⁰F) until even the most persistent devices gave up and stopped working.

Failing First: iPhone 4S

At 0 degrees Celsius / 32⁰F, it was business as usual. At -5⁰C/23⁰F, iPhone 4S and Nokia N9 started showing symptoms: the iPhone reported a sim card error and the N9 claimed its battery was nearly empty.

Lowering the temperature even further to -10 degrees Celsius / 14⁰F was more than the iPhone could handle. The Apple device suddenly announced a dead battery and shut down. All phones with LCD displays experienced difficulties when the temperature dropped below this. Amoled displays proved to stand cold much better and kept on going.

In addition to displays, the dropping temperature also affects the device's connections.

The Cheaper, the Better?

The majority of smart phones couldn't handle temperatures colder than -15 or -20 degrees Celsius / 5⁰F to -4⁰F. Even if they managed to stay on, most died when put to actual use.

Feature phones did better. Apart from slowness in the display, they showed no symptoms until the temperature dropped to -25 ⁰C / -13⁰F. By this time most smart phones were completely useless.

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