Metal, Plastic, and more: Move over what your smartphone is made of!

Plastic is cheap. Metal is premium. Or at least that’s what several smartphone manufacturers would have us believe. If you look at a list of all the various mobile phones you can purchase today, the lower end is dominated by those with a plastic shell while those with a premium aura feature a variety of materials – from metal and glass to wood panel and leather.

And this difference in price often makes us, the average consumer, forget our priorities or leave logic at the door. Suddenly, when we see a low-end phone with a metallic finish, we think it’s a premium phone; when we see plastic on a high-end Samsung Galaxy S5, we complain about it.


Materials make a difference in the feel and emotional resonance of a smartphone, but there are few actual performance benefits to it. So should you actually be shelling out a lot more money just because it comes in a nicer-feeling package?

The impact of material

That’s not to say a phone’s performance is completely unaffected by materials. Indeed, the phone’s design itself can change depending on the material used on the outside.

Perhaps the most well-known example of this phenomenon is the external antenna bands used on the iPhone 4s, which led to the infamous “antennagate”, where holding the phone a certain way would drop the network reception. Since then, several phones have used such external antenna bands. Why? Antenna bands sometimes need to be used on the outside because aluminium and glass interfere with radio signals. Plastic, on the other hand, does not significantly interfere with radio signals, and so it’s easier to make phones with an internal antenna if the back is plastic.


Also, metal phones feel hot when you’re playing games for a long time or travelling and using 3G extensively. Plastic, meanwhile, does not feel as hot when a device is used similarly. On the flip side, metal is a good dissipator of heat while plastic is a poor conductor; so the processor of an aluminium phone can be clocked higher than that of a plastic phone.

And then there are new materials focussed on providing utility, like the LG G Flex’s self-healing back or the scratch-proof kevlar back of the Motorola Razr. Leather-backed handsets like the Samsung Galaxy Note make it easier to grip a gargantuan device.

So yes, the material used in your phone does impact the design of your device as well as its performance. But what’s important is that these decisions happen beforehand, in the industrial design phase of building a phone. In simple speak, the company repeatedly runs tests to ensure that the material won’t affect how you use the device in daily life.

The big takeaway is that when we as consumers buy a phone, we don’t need to think about how this glass-backed phone’s performance will be faster than a plastic phone’s, or how the plastic phone’s antenna will be stronger than the aluminium one’s. The only consideration you should give to the material is how it feels.

Materials are all about emotions

“Feels” is a complicated word. It quickly moves beyond the pure tactile experience and into intangible emotions. Phone reviews and techies often talk about the “feel” of a phone; how sometimes a plastic phone “feels” premium, and how sometimes a metal phone “feels” cheap.

This “feel” is deeply attuned to how we have been trained to think about certain materials. When phone companies hammered it into our heads over and over that plastic is cheap and everything else is expensive, that’s the quality we associate to a plastic smartphone now. But grab a hold of the polycarbonate Nokia/Microsoft Lumia series and try saying it feels “cheap”.

Our associations with materials in the past greatly influence our reaction to them now. For example, several people commented about how the wood panel back of a Moto X “feels” new yet retro.

Smartphone leather case

“I’ve had folks laugh as I explain why I got a Moto X with wood on the back, equating that experience to wood paneling on old cars. These phones aren't just drab rectangles anymore, they elicit emotional responses and grab the attention of those around you because they are so different,” Russell Holly writes in Android Central.

Holly makes a great point in that phone materials aren’t just about what you think about them, but also about what others think. Our smartphones are with us all the time, and much like any fashion accessory, we like it when it grabs attention and gets a compliment. It’s cool to have that full-glass back because it’ll draw eyeballs.

Importantly, this is perfectly okay. It’s fine if you like something just because of some long-held influence. The point is to recognise it and see it for the emotion it is; emotions can often sway us it into making bad logical decisions. It’s a short-term high that can lead to long-term regret. You don’t want to be stuck with an expensive glass phone that performs horribly, looking enviously at your friend’s buttery smooth plastic phone that he paid less for.

A case against cases

All of this pontification about the materials in your phone stop mattering with one simple clause: a case. So many of us are used to buying a smartphone and wrapping it in a protective cover that will forever keep it from the many trials and tribulations of daily life. It’s our precious, it is.

But if you know that you’re going to put a case on your phone anyway, then why bother about the material involved in the phone? Instead, concentrate more on the cases itself. These days, case-makers now pay as much attention to the material as phone-makers.

You want to buy a plastic phone but wrap it in a carbon fibre case? You can probably do that. Like the feel of the glass black but chose a metal phone? A case can fix that.


The Nuans Neo implements a composite build with wood and plastic fused together. Image: News4c

Going ahead, it might not just be a case, but the entire back of the phone that can be changed. Take, for example, the new Windows Phone device from Japan, Nuans Neo. The Neo has a two-toned back. The "phone" is sold as a core unit, while you get different square back panels made from materials like ultrasuede, wood, and synthetic leather. Because they are square, you can fit two of them at a time—thus giving your phone's back a two-toned texture. The Nuans Neo is far too new to comment on, and we haven't even got our hands on one yet, but it signifies the attention phone manufacturers are paying to materials now.

When you’re in the shop and making your buying decision, be honest with yourself about whether you are likely to put a case on it or not. If you’re going to put a case, then checking how that phone feels shouldn’t pay a big part in your buying decision.

The bottom line

Smartphone makers are relying on your emotions to sell you phones. Given how important this little gadget is in your life, don’t ignore that emotional connect. However, also make sure you aren’t being manipulated into a bad buying decision based on your emotions.

The feel matters, but in your daily usage, it’s the internal substance that is going to dictate how much you enjoy your smartphone experience, not the external glamour.

Published Date: Dec 14, 2015 03:00 pm | Updated Date: Dec 14, 2015 03:00 pm