Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Plastic, Aluminum or Glass? What is the best material to build a smartphone?

With smartphones today being made of various materials: glass, plastic, aluminum, rubber, even kevlar, it's important to make sure that you're getting a phone that is not only going to hold up to the punishment you put it through, but a phone that you'll be happy with for the two years you carry it in your pocket. There is no one phone that is better than another phone. With so many choices, the frequent questions, "Which phone has the best chance of holding up if I drop it?" "Which phone is the strongest?" and, "Which phone is indestructable," becomes mute when it comes to smartphones. Why? That's what you'll find out by reading this article.

Most smartphones today have been around long enough that each company has become known for certain design aspects that they often use. Apple is known for their 3.5" screen, square design, and easily broken body. Nokia has become known for their even squarer design, aluminum body, and the unique colors of their phones. Samsung has become known for their very slim profile and plastic casing on their smartphones (to a point that even some of their Windows 7 Phones and Android phones look almost indistinguishable at first glance). HTC usually opts to leave slim to the Razrs and touts hefty hardware with a solid build. But what's the advantage of each?

I'll be honest, I have my personal preferences when it comes to hardware. I will let you know what they are while, at the same time, trying not to let it get in the way. There truly are advantages to almost every phone design.

To start out, I'll get my preferences out of the way.

In my opinion, if I can put a phone in my pocket and not notice it's there, it's amazing. The original Samsung Galaxy S II and the Samsung Focus S are my favorite in this way because they're slim, light, and hardly noticeable even in my dress pants. Even though they sport larger screens (both are 4.3") they make up for it with their slim profile and lightweight build materials and it becomes similar to carrying a large credit card in your pocket. Samsung has perfected the art of building slim phones and has come up with a design that just plain works for me. For those of you that are harder on phones than the rest of us, but still need something a little slimmer, this is the way to go because putting a case on a phone like this doesn't make it a monster in your pocket or purse and with it being so light, it doesn't pick up as much momentum to then slam itself into the ground with if it's dropped. Other phones that fall into this category are the Samsung Infuse 4G, the Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket (although that one is admittedly more beefier than the rest), the Samsung Captivate Glide (even though it has a slide-out keyboard), and the original Samsung Focus. The downside with this type of phone is that it is made out of plastic and, therefore, "feels cheap." Although I've seen zero instances where one of these phones was broken on a part of the body that is made of plastic, people start to worry. It also begs the question, "Why does a plastic phone cost $200+ dollars?" That's a good question. The simple answer? One of the smallest expenses in a phone is the exterior building material.

The Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket, a mostly plastic phone

The HTC Inspire 4G and the HTC Vivid are examples of  phones that are the opposite of this. They're big, they're bulky, they're heavy... they're everything that I don't like about a phone - but these are qualities that other people love. They want a phone that feels heavy and "expensive." The more often you have to hike up your pants while because of your hefty phone in your pocket, the better. They say this because it feels like it won't break if you drop it. The problem with this theory is that it's completely wrong. I've easily seen twice as many broke HTC Inspire screens than all Samsung screens combined. The reason is, when we drops a light, plastic Samsung phone, it hits the ground, bounces, we freak-out, pick it up, and it's fine because it didn't have all that weight driving it into the ground. When we drop an HTC Inspire, it hits the ground with a thud, flops to one side, we freak-out, we pick it up, and with all the weight behind it, the aluminum body is usually gouged and the screen... well... has seen better days. Check out the picture on top of this post for an example of this exact thing happening. Of course a case and a screen protector will help with this problem but they add another problem. You've taken a fat phone and added more weight and heft to it. I love the performance of these phones, the heft just bothers me. If, however, you are someone who loves feeling like you're phone is with you at all times and you want to think that the look makes it look more expensive, by all means... tote it around in your backpack. Just make sure it's well protected and you wear back support.

The HTC Inspire, a mostly aluminum phone

Next up we have a rather unique design... the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S. These phones are very artistically designed. That's a nice way of saying they didn't even remotely think of the consumer's experience when they decided to put glass on both sides of the phone with a slim piece of aluminum in between that also serves as the antenna. Yes, it looks amazing when sitting in a dimly-lit, padded, dry room. I'll even admit... when the iPhone 4 or 4S first comes out of the box it is one of the nicest looking phones you'll ever see. A week later when it's scratched, cracked and dented, you'll be frustrated and angry.

Here's the thing. I appreciate art. I like design. It's great when I can not only find something functional, but something that looks attractive. The problem for me is when you sacrifice functionality for form. This is a clear indication of just that. Sure, people go for years without breaking an unprotected iPhone. They're lucky. Plain and simple.

Let's look at it this way. You are carrying around a piece of glass that cost your upwards of $100 and you are keeping it in your purse or pocket. You must keep this glass from breaking or scratching for two years. It is constantly being picked up, dropped, pushed, rubbed up against (with keys, coins, wallets, buttons, fingernails, etc...), played with, handled by children, and if you break it you must pay me upwards of $550 for a replacement. Now have I got your attention?

You can say it's made of Corning Guerrilla glass all you want. It doesn't make a difference. It's glass. This phone is the phone we see more breaks with than all the other phones combined. It's most definitely the poorest design when it comes to build quality.

The iPhone 4S, both sides of which are glass with an aluminum surrounding edge that serves as the antenna

Final Thoughts
When it comes down to it, the best possible thing you can do cosmetically for any phone, no matter what it's made of, is to put a case and a screen protector on it. It adds color (or keeps it the same, if you so choose), keeps the phone looking nice, and keeps the phone working.

Not everyone does this, however. Surprisingly, the phones made of plastic have held up the best so far with aluminum not following too far behind. What's most important is that you choose something that you're going to like. If you buy a phone and hate it a week later, it's not doing you any favors. Find your fit, whether it be bulky and heavy or slim and light, and you'll be much happier. Just make sure you take care of it no matter what the decision.


  1. I laughed out loud at this: Apple is known for their 3.5" screen, square design, and easily broken body.

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