Keir Thomas splashes the cash to see if screen protectors costing more than a few quid are worth it – plus, what’s the best way to keep your screen clean?
Screen protectors are cheap. In fact, they’re often entirely free, given away with other products such as phone cases. For larger items like tablets and laptops you’ll have to hand over cash, but that’s when you discover there are hundreds of different makes and price points. Some prices can be eye watering.
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If you’ve ever wondered if paying up to for a humble screen protector is justified then we’re here to provide the answer. We ordered in several of the priciest high-end examples from Tech Armor (techarmor.com), Martin Fields (martinfields.co.uk), QDOS (qdossound. com), Expert Shield (expertshielduk.com) and NuShield (nushield.com), and then put them through a handful of usage tests. The results are surprising. Read on to learn more.
What’s On Offer?
Part of the higher asking price for these screen protectors goes into marketing and packaging, with most keen to sell their advantages over the plastic film that can be had on eBay for next to nothing. The most common claim is scratch and damage protection, and the price premium sees this taken to extreme levels. Tech Armor’s ‘HD Ballistic Glass’ protector range, for example, will set you back on account that it “will absorb almost any impact”.
We were unable to test the product name’s implied protection from ammunition, as the Micro Mart service revolver was holstered firmly to the editor’s hip on the day we wrote this feature. However, it clearly suggests that dropping even a heavy weight with a pointy edge directly onto your phone or tablet’s screen should equate to no damage – or damage resulting only in a cracked screen protector. Indeed, some of these screen protectors are advertised with a picture of an electric drill attacking the screen.
To make this kind of protection possible, the screen protectors we looked at were made of thick treated plastic or – more commonly – actual glass that’s tempered to give it extraordinary hardness. In other words, it’s like applying a screen to your screen. Weirdly, the glass is so thin that it flexes under compression and, yes, it will shatter if you bend it too much (we tried). Most of the protectors use a light glue to ensure adhesion to the screen although some rely on static cling – something that we found to be surprisingly effective.
In addition to scratch and damage resistance, screen protectors might have extra features such as antimicrobial action. Some claim to help minimise reflections, which can be a huge issue when using your phone outside, or near a bright window, or in the car when using satnav functionality. An example of this is the NuShield Triple A Antiglare Protector, which we looked at and that retails at around £8.
Some screen protectors attempt to offer privacy by radically restricting the viewing angles of the LCD display of your phone, tablet or laptop so that you can only see stuff if you’re looking straight at the screen. This is ironic when you consider that many of us pay a premium for the likes of IPS displays, designed to make for the maximum possible viewing angle, but when using devices on public transport it can be a Godsend.
A third type of additional feature is a mirrored surface, allowing the phone to be used to adjust hair or makeup.
Again, this is somewhat ironic considering most display coatings attempt to minimise reflections. However, such screen protectors only act as a mirror when the screen is switched off and entirely dark. Essentially, they work on the same principle as the mirror film often applied to car or office windows, which are reflective only if the non-mirrored side of the coating is darker than the exterior.
Do They Work?
A fourth intriguing additional optional feature is anti-blue light filtering, as offered by the QDOS OptiGuard Glass Blue. This filters out some of the blue light from a screen, supposedly reducing eye strain and helping to prevent sleep patterns being disrupted by screens – a very modern problem. Again, though, we question any desire to compromise the typically good color reproduction of a mobile device.
Unsurprisingly, the clear screen protectors were essentially invisible once applied. We looked long and hard to see if they affected color reproduction or sharpness on our test iPhone 6 Plus, even employing a jeweler’s magnifying loupe to view individual pixels, but couldn’t spot any difference. This also meant that the screen protectors were just as shiny and reflective as the screen itself, however, which wasn’t as welcome. Another benefit of their higher asking price was that all the examples of protectors we looked at were oleophobically coated, which means they’re resistive to finger grease and oils. This didn’t seem to work any better than the standard oleophobic coating of the screen, but as such was a welcome addition.
Incidentally, touch sensitivity didn’t appear to be affected in the slightest even with the thickest screen protectors we looked at. Indeed, because these protectors are thick we were able to easily apply them without air bubbles appearing beneath the surface of the protector – something that can’t be said for the cheap thin screen protectors that cost pennies. This also helped our blood pressure level because at most we had simply to peel back the protector a little while applying if it looked like an air pocket was forming.
Alas, it wasn’t such happy news with the screen protectors that offered additional features like privacy protection or protection against reflections. These are microscopically etched or coated to achieve their goals, and this affects what you see. Both the privacy and anti-reflective protectors we tested introduced a shimmering look to the screen when looking at it straight on, a little like the contents of the screen are in the very early stage of being beamed up à la Star Trek. We also noticed an interference overlay, like a very slightly badly tuned telly from the days of the analogue signal.
As damning as all this might sound, these issues were not annoying or even all that noticeable in every day use.
However, we wouldn’t like to be editing or viewing photos with such a protector applied. These protectors are also darker than plain glass, and this can mean you have to boost the screen backlighting – something that will, of course, drain the battery more quickly. Color accuracy will also be hindered, although we noticed only a very slight dulling of vibrancy.
The NuShield Triple A Antiglare Protector didn’t exactly stop bright windows reflecting on our phone screen but instead diffused strong reflections so that they weren’t so noticeable or clearly defined. This was extremely welcome, although if you simply can’t bear any kind of light bouncing off the screen, perhaps for medical reasons, then it might not be enough. It certainly helped when using the phone outdoors in the few hours of bright sunshine this Summer offered, however.
The Tech Armor 2-Way Privacy Screen Protector blocks viewing from angles other than straight on.
However, this relies on the ambient light in the room also being fairly strong – something that’s not always the case on public transport, for example, where these things are likely to find most use. However, in ideal situations the screen appears black to any viewing angle other than around 30° outside of an eye position straight on to the screen. Weirdly, this protection only applied to viewing from the side. If you view from above then there’s simply no protection at all.
If the ambient light is more gentle, even the results from the side aren’t so good and passers-by might be able to make out what’s happening on the display, albeit through a hazy fog and with inconsistent visibility across the screen area. However, it remains impossible to discern details. The person next to you on the train who’s nosily peering at your screen might realize you’re working on an email, for example, but they won’t be able to make out any of the words – and arguably this is all that’s required. Still, if you want to watch a movie without anybody nearby being distracted by the on-screen movement then this might not be what you’re looking for.
In short, we felt a little like the screen protectors offering additional features outside of scratch and damage protection were certainly better than nothing, but they weren’t the comprehensive solutions we would’ve liked and forced compromises on the user too.
Other ThingsWe Noticed
With our selection of posh protectors we noticed a handful of additional things. Firstly, a decent screen protector vanishes existing scratches on your screen while it’s applied. It’s like returning your screen to new. Our test iPhone had a few grazes caused by putting the phone in the same pocket as keys, for example, and even a small hairline crack at the top. With the screen protectors these marks disappeared like magic.
Secondly, what might be described as the finger feel of a screen protector is different compared to the naked screen.
This doesn’t mean a great deal in everyday use, but if you’re a keen phone or tablet gamer it can help add a bit of accuracy. In fact, the various protectors had differing feels. Most of the clear glass and plastic coverings offered more swiping resistance than the standard screen, although this might’ve changed as each became worn in. The NuShield Triple A Antiglare Filter had a slightly grainy feel that was actually quite nice and a real tonic compared to the slipperiness of plain glass.
Lastly, we couldn’t help noticing that some of these screen protectors added weight to the device they were applied to. It seems silly to complain about this – a glass screen protector we selected at random for weighing on our kitchen scales came in at just 11g (0.4 ounces), for example – but phones in particular can be dramatically lightweight nowadays. The Samsung Galaxy S5 Mini is only 120 grams (4.23 ounces), as one example, so such a screen protector would add almost 10% more weight.
HowTo Fit A Screen Protector
The expensive screen protectors we looked at came with some very detailed instructions on how to fit them, and we’re happy to provide a summary of their wisdom here. Many even came with cleaning and preparation kits. Start by washing your hands thoroughly with soap and water. This will remove most finger grease and therefore lessen the possibility of fingerprints accidentally appearing.
A surprising amount of clear work surface is required to effectively apply a screen protector too, because you’ll need to clean and unpeel things and put them down safely without the risk of them getting dirty.
Give the screen a good clean before starting too. The manufacturers of our screen protectors advise using the likes of 3M Scotch-Brite products, while some came with their own cloths and alcohol wipes, but we recommend clean microfibre cloths of pretty much any variety. Give the screen a firm rub to remove all grease and dirt. We particularly liked the sticky pad that came with the QDOS OptiGuard whose sole purpose is to be used to remove dust by dabbing it on the screen. You could do the same with Scotch or electrical tape, of course, although here’s a pro tip for any price level: A blob of Blu-Tack fresh from the packet is an excellent screen cleaner, removing dust particles and soaking up grease and oils. Just rub it across the surface (don’t roll, which won’t work as well). Blu-Tack can also be depressed lightly into the likes of speaker grilles to remove debris, although you aren’t advised to insert it into deeper crevices like the earphone jack.
Peel the adhesive backing of the screen protector using its tab and then line up the protector with the screen surface.
The speaker grille at the top of most phones usually provides an excellent orientation point. Wrap a tissue or microfibre cloth around your finger, and then use it to smooth and flatten the screen protector as you apply it to the surface while simultaneously pulling back the adhesive protection. Note that we fitted upwards of five screen protectors to our phone during the writing of this feature and not once did we manage to get perfect accuracy. The screen protector was always a millimeter or so out of alignment with the speaker grille and home button.
Unfortunately, it seems the best plan is simply to accept this as an inevitability.
Some iPad protectors come with suction cups that can help position the protector before applying. Should you be left with air bubbles post-application then use the cloth or tissue to push them out to the edges. Resist the temptation to remove the protector and reapply it because most are designed to be applied only once. Some screen protectors might show glue blemishes that look like air bubbles. These should disappear within 24 hours.
To remove a protector at the end of its life, stick a piece of sellotape to the corner so it overlaps the edge, and then lift.
Cleaning And Liquids
While glass screen protectors offer clear advantages over cheap plastic film counterparts, and are therefore worth the investment, we find it harder to recommend specialised screen cleaning products. For example, the microfibre cloths we picked up at our local pound shop work just as well – if not better – than any of the cloths supplied with the products reviewed above.
Some liquids such as the Monster iClean Screen Cleaner claim to reduce static electricity on the screen, avoiding dust being attracted to it, but anything wet in contact with an electrical device is surely questionable. Simple rubbing with a cloth is best. Alcohol-based screen cleaning wipes – usually identifiable by their distinctive sharp smell – should be used sparingly because they may wear away the various screen coatings. You definitely shouldn’t polish a touchscreen device using any commercial polish because you could even wear away the touch sensitive coating!That brings us to perhaps the only valid use of protective liquid on a touchscreen device, which is to either apply an oleophobic coating if the device doesn’t have one (as with some cheaper tablets or phones), or to reapply a coating to a device that’s become worn through use. Products such as Crystalusion Liquid Glass are a good example, although no-brand oleophobic liquid products can also be found on eBay. In most cases a few drops are applied to the touchscreen surface, and then wiped over the entire surface with a cloth. Drying occurs almost instantly.
If you have some spare cash after buying a phone or tablet our main recommendation is to get a decent quality case.
The number one cause of death of phones and tablets is a cracked screen caused by dropping on the floor, and a case will help minimise the possibility of damage.
However, the screen protectors we reviewed were a revelation, and if you’ve written off protectors because of bad experiences with cheap examples then they’re worth a look. Above all, if you apply a screen protector early in your phone’s life then you’ll protect the surface from scratches. Add in a decent case, and in one or two years’ time when you come to upgrade to a newer model your old model will look like new – and should fetch excellent resale value. Second-hand Apple products in particular can sell for incredible amounts of money, and near mint examples are rare.