Inside the $10k Android smartphone: How Nokia's 'black sheep' built the Vertu Ti

With a retail price in the thousands and technology that smacks more of middle-of-the-road than high-end, how does Nokia spin-off Vertu justify the $10,000 price tag on its devices?
Written by Ben Woods, Contributor
Vertu Ti

I wince a bit when the man sitting across from me confidently takes a smartphone costing thousands and bangs its screen against the corner of the table. After doing that a few times, he takes a spike of titanium and jabs the screen again. It remains unmarked.

Vertu might make smartphones for the ultra-rich, but they also build them tough.

The Vertu (pronounced 'ver-too', rather than 'virtue') started off in 1999 as a small, secretive unit within Nokia, with the aim of selling high-end mobile phones to high rollers. While its early devices focused more on form over functionality, the company hoped to lure people in with its personalised services, such as Concierge, which allows Vertu owners to request virtually anything they need, whether it's a freshly ironed shirt waiting in their hotel room, a cab home from the middle of nowhere, or something more extravagant.

Catering to the whims of the rich is a strategy that seems to be paying off too, over the last eight years: with the exception of one minor blip (the financial crash of 2008-2009) the company has seen growth of between 30 percent and 100 percent, according to Hutch Hutchinson, its head of concept and design. There are around 300,000 Vertu owners — with China a big market for the company.

While it was part of Nokia, Vertu handsets used its Symbian operating system, but in 2012 Vertu was sold off to private equity group EQT VI in a deal that was thought to be worth around €200m. The Ti is the first smartphone it has unveiled since the sale, and in a break with the past, it runs Android.

Vital statistics

Vertu Ti

So how do you justify an €8,000 ($10,000) price tag on a phone running the same operating system as two-thirds of the smartphones on the planet (and not even the latest Android, either)?

"You have to be able to say it is better. Better by virtue of being posher or 'blingier', is not a defensible position I'd say," Hutchinson said.

Unlike earlier generations of Vertu devices, the Ti has been mostly brought up to speed in the tech-spec department. It now includes a Qualcomm dual-core 1.7GHz processor, 64GB of onboard storage, an 8-megapixel rear camera and the Ice Cream Sandwich version of Android operating system.

The Ti is manufactured to survive more than the average wear and tear, though it doesn't sport actual Mil-Spec ratings.

As such, it's designed to survive being dropped, bashed around or sat on — anything that puts a phone under excessive bend or impact. The company achieves this by layering and laminating components.

Sapphire and steel

"[We take the] sapphire screen, the touch sensor, the display behind it and the steel plate creates an incredibly strong package, and it's all laminated together with no gap," Hutchinson explained.

This is then optically aligned by a micrometer that illuminates the pixels, switching them all on and making sure the screen is sitting absolutely square to the sapphire that goes on top.

"You then marry that up with a billet of aluminium behind it. Drop in the electronics, battery, etc. Bring on the covers, integrating antennas, NFC and all those bits and pieces, and then put what is effectively an RSJ made of titanium down the side of it."

Vertu Ti side rail
The side rail of the Vertu Ti requires 93 processes to manufacture. Image: Ben Woods

This side rail alone (pictured) takes 93 different operations to manufacture, giving a glimpse of the engineering that goes into each one of these hand-assembled devices.

Once assembled, Vertu tests the devices. For example, metal bars are placed across the handset and weights are then to the middle of the device to test the amount of flex.

With a 50kg weight placed the device, the handset flexes less than one millimetre; an average phone would be about five times that, according to Hutchinson.

"We picked a weight which was a very heavy person, with a very bony bottom — 50kg (one buttock) on a specific point — we picked an extreme test case and that was our target."

In order to test the screen strength, engineers aim a narrow tube directly at the screen and drop ball bearings on it; where most handsets on the market break at around 32g, the Ti can take a 110g ball bearing dropped straight at its screen, which is why Vertu uses sapphire rather than any other material.

Luxury process

The idea of using sapphire for its displays was taken from the world of luxury watch makers.

What most people also don't understand, according to Hutchinson, is that you grow sapphire.

"To grow that you create a seed crystal, you arrange a seeding bed of aluminium oxide crystals, you have a molybdenum letterbox — molybdenum melts at above 2000° centigrade because that's what you have to do to melt sapphire — and you take the seed crystal, put it in the letterbox and blow inert gas through all the aluminium oxide powder, which then froths around and gets caught in the blast from the furnace arranged in a ring," Hutchinson explained carefully.

Vertu phones
The Vertu Ti comes with a specially grown sapphire screen. Image: Ben Woods

"As you pull the stick up, it solidifies on the tip and grows. Those sticks form themselves but it'll take two weeks to grow a piece one window wide."

As is evident in the Vertu manufacturing process, the company doesn't make things easy for itself.

Using a sapphire screen means that diamond is the only material on earth strong enough to cut, grind, or polish it, with the result that Vertu needs to use diamond saws, diamond grinding wheels and diamond paste just to finish it.

While the final assembly only takes around half an hour, other parts of the manufacturing process take months — growing just one of the sapphire screens takes at least two weeks.

Engineering vs design

Listening to Hutchinson talk, it's clear that engineering is as big a focus for him (and the company) as design ever has been.

"I first trained as a draughtsman and then became a design engineer. I've spent the last 20 years of my life working in design but in my veins runs engineering," he told me at the launch of the Vertu Ti handset.

"Price itself doesn't seem to be a barrier" — Hutch Hutchinson, Vertu

The Ti will attract criticism for its price tag as much as for claiming to have the tech specs to run with the best of the pack.

True, the Ti runs a version of Android that is a year old (Android 4.04) and it doesn't have 4G ("watch this space" was the official response on this one) but when your average customer is a self-made multi-millionaire for whom cost is not the primary concern, it gives you leeway to focus on other factors.

"Price itself doesn't seem to be a barrier. It's analogous to, if I were to take my wife out for our anniversary, I might consider spending £500 at Heston Blumenthal's restaurant or somewhere. Our clients might consider spending this [Ti] kind of money on that dinner."

Nokia's 'black sheep'

While price might not be a barrier for its clients, Vertu's progress hasn't always been plain sailing. It is only since being sold off by Nokia last year that the company has found the freedom to really experiment with what software it wanted to use.

"We were always the black sheep of the family, it didn't help that when we were first conceived we were forced to work in secret [to protect the untapped area of the market it was aiming at]," Hutchinson said.

"They were very scared we'd be found out and someone would beat us to it. We weren't allowed to tell anyone else within the organisation what we were doing for four years, and then when we did come out, there was a lot of resentment because we'd spent four years in silence working in luxury."

Additionally, being a part of a large organisation like Nokia that was used to making production runs of millions of phones didn't suit the hand-crafted ethos of Vertu.

"We just didn't fit their model at all. If we ran by Nokia systems, we incurred the overhead of using the SAP structure with all of its incumbent headaches that you'd normally have to create a million phones, but just to create one phone. It was horrible, it's an absolute relief to be able to operate in the way that we want, which includes the OS in there."

Despite making the leap across to the Android platform for the foreseeable future, the company had previously been working on a Windows Phone 8-based model, although the complexity of building for Windows Phone has ruled the platform out for now.

The high-end styling of the handsets has inevitably attracted the interest of fake makers, with occassionaly embarrassing results.

"The fake market is immense. They tend to be zinc die casting with chrome plates, so the actual benefits of the materials aren't there, but some of them have been taken to our service centres to be mended and we have to explain 'sorry, sir, that's not one of ours'," Hutchinson saud.

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