Deep inside Samsung’s HQ in Suwon, South Korea, countless employees spend the better part of each day putting the company’s latest handsets through a series of gruelling and wince-inducing durability tests.
Before a Samsung smartphone is able to reach the market, the electronics giant wants to make sure that it’ll be able to withstand a significant beating and continue to function properly.
On a recent trip to Korea, we were invited by Samsung to take a tour of its dedicated testing facility, and as we made our way through the company’s labs (each more diabolical than the last) we came to understand just how seriously the company takes its quality control – even if one of these tests does involve an undeniably quirky robot butt (dressed in blue denim jeans, no less) repeatedly sitting on handsets.
Crafting a dedicated robot behind is a concept that’s perhaps a bit left of center, but it’s also one that succinctly demonstrates Samsung’s commitment to the testing of its products in real-world scenarios – and that butt’s just the tip of the assberg.
There’s plenty more going on in Samsung’s Mobile Quality Test Lab, where phones are subjected to every test you can think of – from talking dummies which test call quality through to chambers that simulate extreme weather conditions. There was plenty of weird, wild and wonderful on display.
Get your thermals on
There aren’t many professions where you can get paid for playing video games – despite the stereotype, that’s not even the case for games journalists – but the team responsible for Samsung’s Thermal Lab testing actually is tasked with playing games on various devices for extended periods of time (though general usage is tested, too).
During these intense gameplay sessions, the heat levels of those test phones and tablets are studied closely using advanced thermal cameras, with the images taken shown in a Predator-style heat vision on nearby monitors.
Testers are then able to view the images and pinpoint specific areas on a device, such as the battery or processor, which may or may not show some level of heat inconsistency.
During our walkthrough of the Thermal Lab, we witnessed real-time video game testing of an unspecified Samsung handset while it was being charged simultaneously.
In this case the phone’s heat signature remained consistent across the entire device, with no specific area showing any signs of excess heat.
Image is everything
For many potential buyers, photographic capabilities are the most integral part of the decision-making process when selecting a new smartphone – and as such, it’s become increasingly important for manufacturers to truly put their phones’ cameras through rigorous development and testing.
In Samsung’s Image Lab, new phones must go through a series of quantitative and qualitative camera tests under varying light conditions.
For quantitative testing, numerous pictures are taken to determine concrete data about a camera sensor’s photo-taking capability. In these instances, resolution charts and Macbeth color charts are photographed to accurately record what the camera can objectively achieve.
Qualitative testing, on the other hand, is much more subjective. Testers are able to take countless images and personally offer opinions on their quality, including saturation, exposure and more.
It’s that delicate balancing act between the two that gives photos a distinct appearance; one that aims for brightness and color accuracy while also attempting to improve the overall quality of a photo based on shooting conditions and the subject being photographed.
As expected, quantitative tests are performed using different light sources, including LED and fluorescent lights in both dimmed and bright rooms.
Meanwhile, qualitative tests are administered in a variety of environments including controlled indoor settings (such as faux-restaurants and living rooms) and simulated outdoor areas (complete with outdoor lighting and digital billboards to photograph).
One of the most impressive tests we witnessed involved the photographing of highly detailed miniatures, including buildings, trees and more. Using an elaborate machine, Samsung’s testers were able to raise, lower and swap out various miniature structures on the fly, giving the testers quick access to a variety of environments without having to physically change rooms.
According to Samsung, roughly 50-100 photos are taken in each test, adding up to “tens of hundreds of test photos” when all is said and done.
Moving over to Samsung’s Acoustics Lab, we were given some insight into the company’s process for achieving optimal sound quality for microphones and speakers during phone calls.
The first room we stepped into was devised to simulate a concert hall, complete with instruments leaning against chairs and other objects.
Designed to carry sound across the entire room, the concert hall simulation is used to test spatial impression, reverberation and other factors that could affect the quality of a phone call.
Just like with the Image Lab, a living room setting is also available to test the quality of a phone’s calls in a more average and likely environment.
Of course, it’s also imperative that the phone’s mic and speaker quality be tested in an extremely quiet environment, which is why Samsung has also set up a noise absorbing anechoic chamber.
Stepping inside this room is an unnerving experience (and not just because the walls are covered in cheese wedge-shaped sound absorption panels), with the absence of any kind of echo making it feel like you’re standing inside a pair of noise cancelling headphones.
In this room, we found ourselves standing beside a life-size talking dummy with a phone strapped to its head. The dummy proceeded to speak into the device in several different languages as testers listened in on the call from outside the soundproof room. This was done specifically to test the call’s sound purity.
The next acoustics test we observed was held at the other end of the audio spectrum: a noise-filled room that was set up to simulate a loud outdoor environment.
Just drop it
Next on our tour was the most perversely-satisfying lab testing environment: the Drop Test lab. Yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like – and for some reason, we really got a sick thrill out of seeing expensive handsets take some serious punishment (so long as they’re not our personal handsets, of course).
Using a number of different mechanical devices that look like the world’s most brutal skill testers (including auto drop testers, tumble testers and continuous free fall testers), Samsung’s handsets are repeatedly dropped from varying heights and angles onto a variety of hard surfaces, such as metal and marble.
During our tour of the Drop Test lab, we personally witnessed a Samsung Galaxy S9 being dropped onto a hard surface from a height of approximately one meter at least half a dozen times.
While the phone itself appeared visibly scuffed up, somewhat surprisingly, its screen and frame remained completely intact. That said, we have no way of knowing whether the device was still fully functional after so many falls – the testing chamber was sealed, so we didn’t get to see the phone switched on.
After one particularly bad-looking fall, Samsung’s testers showed us a super slow motion video replay of the impact that was captured on a high-speed camera. Landing directly on one of its corners, the device bounced a few inches into the air before landing flat on its back.
Nearby, a more specific automated testing machine saw a handset repeatedly dropped down a set of Stairmaster-like steps so that the company could accurately record how a phone might be affected by a continuous short-range tumble.
We asked Samsung’s testers how many times a single device is put through the drop testing process, and while they were unable to reveal an exact number, we were told that each dropped phone is tested “numerous times.”
Will it bend?
While it’s important to test phones against the stresses of sudden, unexpected impacts and shocks, it’s equally important to ensure that phones are physically able to function as intended over long periods of time.
In its Durability Lab, Samsung has a number of machines set up to test the general strength and resilience of its devices, as well as the lifespan of each handset’s various buttons, ports and parts.
Remember Bendgate? The 2014 smartphone scandal that saw iPhone 6 handsets bending from excess pressure in people’s pockets? As one might expect, Samsung has taken some necessary steps to prevent its products from experiencing similar issues, including a number of machines tasked with trying to flex, twist and bend the manufacturer’s in-development handsets.
Another machine, dubbed the Tumble Tester, puts devices through a tumble dryer-like experience for several minutes at the a time. The goal is quite literally to see if a handset will survive being put through a laundry cycle.
While we didn’t get to hang around until the end of the test, the phone being jostled around did seem to be doing okay, although we’d note that no water or detergent was being used in this particular test.
Our favorite strength test, however, was the Lower Body Pressure Test… the one that involved the aforementioned robo-butt. As most phone bending issues are apparently caused by pressure from the human body, Samsung has devised a test which sees a fake human buttocks sit on and roll over a handset to see how well it holds up. As many people keep their phones in their back pockets, this is an especially important necessary test for gauging device durability.
Of course, it’s not just a phone’s frame that has to stand the test of time – its display, buttons and ports must also continue to function after potentially years of use. For volume and power buttons, a machine known as the Side Key Tester is used to repeatedly press them (we’re talking thousands of times) and check for hardware flaws.
USB ports and headphone jacks also have cables repeatedly plugged in and unplugged by dedicated machines, with expectations that each should last thousands of uses without any problems. The same goes for the SIM trays, which are frequently removed and re-inserted into devices.
Screen integrity is likewise tremendously important, so machines have been set up to deploy repeated impacts directly onto a device’s display, sort of like a smaller, slower jackhammer.
Wet and wild
Samsung has been making water resistant phones for years, but just to be sure, the South Korean company continues to dunk and drench every new handset it develops using a series of Water Ingress Lab tests.
This helps to not only make sure a new phone is indeed waterproof, but also to determine the device’s specific water resistance rating. Each machine in the Water Ingress Lab carries its own IPX rating, so that Samsung can accurately gauge a handset’s dunkability.
In the lab’s IPX1 tester, a handset is placed underneath a constantly dripping ceiling that’s used to simulate rainfall. Meanwhile, an IPX5 tester was spotted shooting water at some phones from meters away.
An IPX8 tester was next, which sees devices completely submerged in 2 meters of water for long periods of time. A traditional dishwasher and washing machine was spotted nearby, although neither were in operation during our tour.
While not expressly related to phones, we also peeped Samsung’s Swimming Tester, which places the company’s various smartwatches and fitness trackers on a carousel that travels through a tank of water on a continuous loop.
Environmental as anything
The final stop in our tour was Samsung’s Environment Lab, where handsets and other devices are put through a number of extreme weather conditions.
In 2018, we all expect new flagship phones to be tested for water resistance, but Samsung also insists that they be vigorously tested in various chambers which are used to simulate a variety of temperatures and climates, from sweltering humidity to bone-chilling cold.
It’s not enough to just place a smartphone inside one of these chambers for an extended period of time, either – testers must also place their arms inside the chambers to gauge device performance in these intense conditions.
We placed our arm inside one of the machines through a handy arm hole and were genuinely surprised by the incredibly humid and tropical heat being contained within – not bad for an otherwise cool office building in the middle of a brisk autumn day.
Of course, these aren’t the only tests that Samsung’s devices are subjected to – battery testing, for instance, is done at a completely separate facility, where additional layers of scrutiny are understandably doled out.
Overall, we came away from our tour of Samsung’s Mobile Quality Test Lab with a much better understanding of what goes into the making of a premium handset, as well as the thinking process behind these tests.
Each test is administered with an eye on real world scenarios, with a focus on how people use their smartphones on a day-to-day basis.
While these tests are mostly handled by machines, there’s something undeniably human about this approach which does seems to translate over into the quality of the handsets themselves.