This Big Question comes from a coworker who went jogging yesterday in freezing temperatures; his admirable act of temporary insanity left him with a dead phone for 10 minutes. Once he thawed out, he wanted to know whether or not it was normal for his smartphone to catch a cold.
On its website, Apple recommends you use its devices “where the ambient temperature is between 32° to 95°F.” (Sorry Minnesota, that important phone call will have to wait until April.) In covering their legal bases, Apple is likely being overcautious. While extreme cold—much colder than 32 degrees Fahrenheit—can cause your phone to go on the fritz, this problem has almost always proven to be a temporary one.
And what causes the brief blackout? According to David Linden and Thomas B. Reddy’s Handbook of Batteries, very cold temperatures will lower the “discharge capacity” of a lithium-ion battery (the kind of battery commonly used in smartphones). In other words, the battery struggles to perform efficiently in the cold and will drain faster. Still, this is only while in use, and the long-term effects aren’t too scary.
Seth Porges of Popular Mechanics took six types of smartphones to an environmental testing facility to gauge their performance in the extreme cold. They started with a slightly brisk environment (40°F) and then incrementally lowered the temperatures to points far below zero.
All the phones survived down to -10°F. Once the mercury hit -30, however, “five of the six phones experienc[ed] serious battery or LCD problems.” Reassuringly, none of the damage suffered during these tests proved to be permanent. Once the phones returned to normal temperatures, so did their functionality.
The only phone to survive a plunge to -40°F was an outdated Motorola flip phone, one whose high-tech features include texting and not much more. In fact, that same flip phone survived conditions that are positively Plutonian (-314.7°F). After repeatedly being dipped in liquid nitrogen, the phone would still perform fine after warming back up to a normal temperature.
Score one for the “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” crowd. Clip those flip phones to your belts with pride, friends, you earned it.