Titanium iPads Could Fix Bending—at a Cost

Apple’s last fling with titanium didn’t end well

Key Takeaways

  • Apple may be working on a titanium iPad.
  • Titanium can be much stiffer and harder than aluminum, but also heavier and more brittle.
  • Apple’s last titanium computer was 1992’s PowerBook G4.
iPad Pro 12.9-inch

Lifewire / Charlie Sorrel

Would you trade a bendy iPad for an iPad that collected grubby fingerprints? 

According to a supply-chain report, Apple may be working on a titanium iPad, which could be stiffer and more durable than its aluminum models. Titanium certainly sounds cool and offers some properties that aluminum can never match, but it also has some significant downsides. 

"Titanium is definitely stronger than stainless steel and aluminum and will be way more resistant to scratches," tech consultant and CEO of gaming computer maker WePC Kaitlyn Rayment told Lifewire via email. "However titanium isn't very resistant to oily dirty fingerprints. Reports have been saying that Apple has been researching thin oxide surface coating to reduce its effects."

Aluminum Expert

Apple is a master of aluminum. If it uses metal to build a product, that metal is almost always aluminum. All the Macs, the iPad, and the non-Pro iPhone, AirPods Max, even the keyboards and trackpads are aluminum of some kind. Over the years, Apple has gotten really good at using it.

Apple mills its aluminum bodies from solid billets of alloy. These "unibody" shells are stiff and light and manage to do a great job—most of the time.

Close-up on the power button of a PowerBook G4 Titanium.

raneko / flickr

Pick up a modern MacBook Air by one corner, and you’ll feel no flex. Ditto the iPhone. But be careful with the iPad Pro, especially if you have the 12.9-inch version. This is still Apple’s slimmest computer, and it is also—in my somewhat scary experience—the bendiest. Don’t cram one into a backpack without first putting it inside the almost-unbendable Magic Keyboard case, or you eventually will regret it. 

Alloy

Aluminum and titanium are seldom used neat. They are baked into alloys that offer different properties. Titanium alloys can be used for super-flexible materials that spring back over and over—for instance, a pair of titanium eyeglasses. 

And it can also be used to make incredibly stiff components. A titanium plate inserted into a broken leg needs to be flex-free to keep your bones in place. 

Apple would presumably opt for a stiff alloy. This would mitigate or even cure the problem of bendy iPads. The hard metal also would resist deforming when dropped on a corner. But these advantages come at a cost. 

Hard Work

Titanium has several disadvantages when compared to aluminum. One is that it's harder to work. Forget milling it from a single block, for example. Apple would have to change its production techniques, although it’s pretty good at designing those, too.

Someone creating an illustration on an iPad Pro.

Sorin Gheorghita / Unsplash

Another drawback is weight. Titanium is heavier than aluminum. Some of this could be offset by making the shell thinner, but that may or may not bring its own problems. 

Also, titanium is a fingerprint magnet. Those prints show up like CSI has been all over your gear, only instead of using fingerprint dust, they slather on grease. This can happen after the titanium has been anodized, which is what Apple does to its aluminum devices to finish them. 

And titanium is also a poor conductor of heat. Pure aluminum has a thermal conductivity of 235 W/m K. Titanium has just 22 W/m K

In practice, these problems are solvable, especially by Apple, which is an often-unacknowledged materials expert. And don’t forget, Apple has already made a titanium laptop, which was something of a beloved disaster.

Past Experience

Apple’s Titanium PowerBook G4 was launched in 1992. It was the first of the modern era of Mac notebooks, a squared-off metal box, a big change from the curvy black plastic powerbooks before it. But it had problems. The alloy used was brittle, and the hinges would snap off.

Titanium PowerBook G4

Waleed Alzuhair / flickr

"My daughter, who was a toddler at the time, grabbed the top of my Titanium PowerBook G4 one day and snapped it clean off," writes veteran Apple journalist Jason Snell.

To mitigate the fingerprint issue, Apple painted the titanium silver, and the paint flaked off. 

This time, Apple is more likely to get things right. It might mean a redesign of the iPad, but we’re unlikely to get flaking paint and snap-off corners. In fact, Apple already has patented a method for finishing titanium that gives it a textured, blasted surface that can be polished to a shine. The patented method promises to circumvent the difficulties of etching titanium using a new process.

Despite these drawbacks, the result may be worth it. When you pick up your $1,600 iPad Pro and see that it has bent in normal use, it’s not a good feeling. If titanium can fix that, I’m all in.

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