In my ongoing project to actually use a smartphone as a practical backcountry GPS for continuous navigation (not just spot checks), I’ve been nearly shut down by how poorly most phone screens perform in bright ambient light. This especially true in situations where the sun is being reflected off snow at multiple angles, such as while in a valley or mountainside bowl. Yes, you can view your screen in the shade, but skiing with a jacket over your head is impractical.
Current LCD phone screens are lame in bright light for a couple of reasons. Most are highly reflective — they’re pretty much a mirror. Exacerbating that, to compensate for bright ambient light the display needs to be correspondingly brighter — and they’re not. Displays are limited in brightness (due to battery life and engineering limits), but the mirror-like reflectivity causes glare that reduces their effective brightness even more. Truly, “lame” is a weak word for how they perform.
What to do? First step in my process was to demo a few phones in bright light, to the point of actually purchasing and activating several, then returning for refund when they didn’t perform to my satisfaction (warning, typical Verizon, I ended up paying money for the privilege of doing this). My ultimate choice was a Samsung Galaxy Note with the larger “phablet” type of screen that’s more in line with what any useful GPS should have. The Galaxy is slightly above average in terms of display in bright light, though still marginal and nearly useless in many situations.
Enter the Tech Armor screen protector. Verizon tries to disguise that tickling feeling of their hand in your pocket by offering “free screen protector” at their stores. So when I bought the Galaxy I got the Verizon store freebie. While the Verizon cheapo laminate did protect my screen from loose change and errant car keys, it seemed to worsen performance in bright light. Thus, a project on my list was to see about replacements that perhaps at least didn’t exacerbate the glare problem.
Thus, I finally got around to geeking out on screen protectors. Tech Armor rose to the top of my list, as they claimed better performance in bright light due to a moderate amount of anti-glare texturing to the protector surface. I had to try it.
I ordered up a triple pack of Tech Armor matt anti-glare protectors for the Galaxy. A bit pricy for the Samsung, but more reasonable in price for smaller screens such as iPhone. The instructions were succinct, but a bit complex.
Missing from the instructions is to do a trial fit with any add-on case parts you might have attached to your phone. In my case I’ve got a mega capacity battery that’s attached to the phone with a rubber backing and bezel — this interfered with the edges of the laminate, which is minima sticky and lifts easily. Everything at Wildsnow.com shall be modified, so out came the sissors and the edges were trimmed. If you have to do this, hint is to use a straight edge and do a good job of marking your cuts. Luckily my pack of Tech Armor protectors included three, so I could use one as a first throw-away tester, one that was trimmed and works, and keep one as a replacement. (Really, never buy a screen protector that only allows you one try at installation.)
The Tech Armor instructions, with my take:
1. Clean off the phone screen. Well. I first used some paper towels with rubbing alcohol then changed to the lint-free cleaning cloth provided by Tech Armor. What they need to say more strongly is that virtually every piece of dust larger than a molecule will result in a bubble. So to do this right you need a relatively dust-free environment, dust free clothing (don’t wear the jacket you’ve been doing carpentry in), and max schnell with how long you take from cleaning to application.
2. Actual application is fairly easy. The protector has two additional protectors of its own with removal tabs. You strip of “number 1” which exposes the adhesive, then lay the protector on the screen and smooth it with fingers or provided cardboard paddle. Working from one end, it’s pretty easy to laminate without air bubbles (unless you’ve got dust chunks). Challenge is to align square with the screen. A good eye and feel for this sort of thing goes a long ways, but I kept wanting some sort of jig or template system that would make it a thousand times easier.
3. You’ll usually end up with a few air bubbles. Since the adhesive is weak, you can press them out to the sides with the provided smoothing paddle.
4. All good? Now grab tab number two and strip off the exterior protection layer. This went pretty well, but with a white phone I couldn’t see where the the top layer began to peel, and spent a lot of fiddling when it was actually already coming off. Since the adhesive to the screen is weak, you can’t just yank the tab, you have to fiddle with fingernail or razor and get the delam started. In the whole process this could be the most challenging. You’ll figure it out, but it could stand some improvement.
So how does Tech Armor work? I’ll confidently say it does make the screen slightly more legible in bright outdoor sunlight. But the operative word is “slightly.” I tested on the perfect glare day: outdoors, light high clouds diffusing the sun across the sky, walking a village street using GPS to locate a business. At times, my LCD display was still illegible.
This at the cost of slightly less sharp rendition due to the mat finish; a compromise I’m delighted to make but wish had more of a positive effect.
Testing with with all this is ongoing. Essentially, some of us need a smartphone with either a significantly brighter screen, or a screen that operates like a stand-alone GPS unit. Adding an anti-glare screen protector is not the ultimate solution.
Another post about using smartphone as backcountry GPS navigator.
For graphics showing how poorly most LCD phone screens perform in bright light, check here.
Recap of WildSnow posts for week 8/24 – 8/30: