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Question of the Day: What’s Wrong With Plastic Smartphones?

Samsung Galaxy S4

I have a completely honest question to ask the DL community as we head into the weekend that has to do with smartphone build quality. Over the years, we’ve seen devices built from aluminum, fancy micro arc oxidation processes, glass, kevlar, and of course, plastic. All have clearly had their own sets of issues, but one in particular always gets more negative feedback than the others and that is plastic. I’m just curious, what exactly is your reasoning for not wanting a plastic phone? 

Whenever Samsung announces their new smartphone, since it is always made of plastic, we hear the same groans and complaints almost simultaneously:

  • “Nice internals, but it’s made of cheap plastic.”
  • “It just feels cheap because of the plastic.”
  • “Why can’t they use premium materials like aluminum or glass?”

I’m just not sure I understand the hatred here. Plastic, is probably more durable than most of the other materials I mentioned above, for one. It’s not like the all-aluminum iPhone 5 or HTC One can last through a drop test anymore than a Galaxy S3 (go search “iPhone 5 drop test” on YouTube). Sure, it might take an extra drop (if it’s lucky) before the screen spiderwebs, but it’ll still crack like none other should you drop it a certain way. And let’s not forget the chipping paint and finish issues since these fancy aluminum devices are also starting to get paint jobs.

Aluminum and glass also scratch just as easy as something made from plastic (maybe even easier). All you have to do is ask me and my opinion on the Optimus G and Nexus 4′s glass panels. After terrible experiences with both, I’ve had to wrap my entire new Nexus 4 in a plastic case to make sure it survives more than a week.

And that brings me to my next point – don’t most people put a plastic case on their phones anyway? Or are you aluminum and glass lovers finding cases made of the same materials?

I’m trying to wrap my brain around this idea as I sit here on a plane back to Portland and am struggling to fully understand it. Is it because you pay an arm and a leg for a smartphone that you expect it to be made of the finest materials? Do you want some sort of piece of mind, knowing that the most powerful device in your life isn’t made from the same material as your child’s Legos? Or is it simply an excuse to find fault?

Hit up the comments with your thoughts.

  • http://www.facebook.com/anthonynrocco Anthony Rocco

    its made of polycarbonate, they use it in Bulletproof Glass and now there using it in the f-22 raptor fighter jet’s cockpit. Polymers are no joke people, get this weak minded stuff out of your heads. you know whats also made out of polymers oh yea Kevlar. I could keep going. Yes there are some cheap polymer plastics, but polycarbonate is not one of them.

  • Rick Lopez

    Kellex likes the tacky plastic because it matches his tacky gold watch, LOL

  • feres13

    It wouldn’t be a problem in a low end phone, but for a high end phone it feels like a rip-off. What i wanted from the S4 was not an aluminium unibody construction (but it would be nice) but from Samsung to move away from the glossy shinny faux textured thin flexible cheap flimzy dirty fingerprint magnet “Hyperglaze” back covers, just make it MATTE, and SOLID!

  • john fragoulias

    I dress all my smartphones in a case, so I could care less how glossy the plastic is. My S3 is dressed in a black http://www.urbanarmorgear.com case.

  • Beka27

    I’ve only had two Android phones… original DX and the S3. I loved the quality of the build on the DX, but after having the S3, the weight makes it feel clunky IMO. The only thing that ever really worries me with the S3 is the battery back plate. On the RARE occasion I do a battery pull, I’m always imagining the back plate breaking in half. The DX battery door was totally solid. Of course, towards the end, I had to do battery pulls on the DX sometimes several times a day, so it’s a good thing it was resilient. Both phones have always had some type of case, just because I’m klutzy.

    And for how often I see completely shattered iPhones (both front and back), I don’t know how anyone can talk up their build over Samsung.

  • http://www.matthewdlyons.com/ matthewdlyons

    I think the plastic vs metal/glass in smartphones is analogous to plastic vs leather/suede/wood/metal/carbon fiber in cars. The interior materials on more luxurious cars on the market are typically commensurate with the price and niche of the vehicle. With that said, even Mercedes Benz, BMW, Audi, Jaguar, Lexus, and other luxury brands use plastic. Get in any of those vehicles and tell me if the plastic on the dash, doors, or trim feels like the plastic used on a Hyundai, Mazda, or Chevy.

    I agree with many others that suggest that it’s not merely the use of plastic, but the grade. To keep the car analogy going, a number of cars use plastic on the dash and console, but some manufacturers use processes to make the texture or “grade” of plastic more attractive. Samsung seems quite unapologetic about using shiny, lightweight plastic. While Nokia used plastic in a better, more handsome way with the Lumias.

    Plastic vs polycarbonate may seem like to-may-to / to-mah-to some, but it’s more than just optics to me. It’s about fit and finish. I don’t think too many people, putting opinions about operating systems aside, would hold a Lumia and an S3 and come away with the same impression about materials. So, in the end, I think it’s really an issue of using plastic. It’s about HOW a company uses it.

    As for the issue of covering up the phone, anyway, with a plastic case — I have never put a case on my phones, so the fit, finish, and feel of the device is important. I’m concerned far less about my phone being made of metal, glass, or plastic; so long as it feels like the quality matches the price I’ve paid (or the price being asked). The S3 is a good device, but it still feels cheaper (in my hands) than other devices on the market.

  • Wagierek

    Well, compare a plastic used to produce SGS3 cover and, for example, plastic used for Lego bricks or just old Sony Ericsson K700, lying next to me. These are all plastic, but it doesn’t feel as cheap as SGS3′s. It’s not about it’s made of plastic – it’s all about it’s made of cheap plastic.

  • grammarmussolini

    *peace of mind

  • Michael Lewis

    I think that plastic is always a better idea in most cases, especially when you put it on for the screen. If you can make a shatterproof plastic front for a phone then I’m all for it. Glass will shatter. Let’s make plastic that won’t shatter or scratch!

  • bbcnyc

    Plastic cover better than glass such Nexus 4. I had replaced my Nexus4 3 times due to the cracked back glass and its really frustrating

  • JoshGroff

    I guess it depends on how you look at it. In the one hand, it feels cheap, on the other, it causes less signal distortion, absorbs impact fairly well, and is obviously lighter than many other higher quality materials. Plastic with a glossy well polished finish could also make it easier to drop a device.

  • Jim McClain

    If iphone are so durable, how come it cost 15 bucks a month to insure them,and everyone put a big clunky otter on them to protect them

  • Jim McClain

    I have no cover on my phone , putting an otter box on a phone just makes it feel like i have a brick in my pocket , incredibly ugly and bulky, my nexus is so thin and light i cant even feel it in my pocket

  • Jim McClain

    I have no problem with plastic , it is more durable than metal and glass, i have dropped my galaxy nexus on my concrete drive several times and only have one little scuff mark on one corner, I’ll take plastic everytime over metal and glass

  • angermeans

    Maybe it’s just me but once you’ve owned a high quality and solid built phone I will never go back. What Samsung is calling their phones these days are not high quality.

  • R2

    I passed up on the GS3 for this reason (also I don’t like TouchWiz). But unlike a lot of iPhoners, I did not immediately slap a hideous otter box on my RAZR. Sure there’s a risk, but Motorola went out of their way to design a stylish device… why hide it?

    I’m an aesthetic person, so in my opinion, it has nothing to do with durability or cost effectiveness… I like the kevlar and aluminum more than the plastic. Cheers

  • gp126904

    Dont have an issue with plastic, but it does seem that all plastic isn’t the same. For example the GNEX is an awesome sleek phone made out of plastic that is light yet feels incredibly durable.The SIII on the other hand is probably just as strong if not stronger and to me feels like it would be worse off if it were to hit the pavement. Dont really know why that is, but thats my thoughts.

  • Buckoman

    Plastic is amazing. It’s how the plastic LOOKS that’s the problem. Glossy? Fingerprint magnet. Thin? It’s most likely creaky and flimsy. I’d rather have a more type of matte plastic than glossy like my S3.

    • Jim McClain

      I have a nexus, have no idea what you mean by creaky

      • Pedro

        Haven’t you had a dozen of them?
        Though you never complained about creaky.

  • Ben S

    Plastic can feel rugged and luxurious like the HTC 8X (which is a great phone with a crap app store). Plastic can also feel cheap like a toy – like the Huawei Ascend P1 (which is otherwise actually a fantastic phone!)

  • darkl3ad3r

    I completely disagree with all the whining about the plastic Samsung uses. It’s durable, extremely light, and CHEAP. So easy to replace for next to nothing.

    Why in the world would you want your phone made of material that’s heavier and costlier? And anyone who gives a damn about “hur dur my metal is more durable” should know better than to leave a phone naked. If you are concerned about damage you get a case. Simple.

    Bottom line: people who complain about Samsung and plastic materials are petty people looking for something to shoot down these devices and cling to their “high class” materials on their current device (see: HTC and Apple.)

  • CapnShiner

    How many phones made with metal casing have NFC? I can’t think of any. Plastic serves a purpose beyond how it looks. Sure, metal won’t crack like plastic can but in many cases the plastic can be replaced, whereas the metal cannot. When it comes to protecting a phone, the functionality should be more important than the looks. The parts that need to be protected are the screen and the internals. Regardless of what it’s made from, if you drop your phone in a hard surface it could get scratched or the screen could crack. The shock of the impact damaging the internals can be even more devastating, though. If we’ve learned anything from developing safer cars it’s that rigid materials don’t absorb as much of the kinetic energy as materials that can flex or crumple. Plastic is much less rigid than metal or glass, so I would be willing to bet that plastic phones are actually better at surviving drops.

    Anyone who puts their phone in a case should not be offering their opinion on this subject as it negates the effects of the manufacturer’s choice of materials. Cases are made of plastic and/or rubber anyway. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a 3rd party phone case made of metal.

    The only valid argument I can think of against making phones out of plastic is a cosmetic one and there can be no right or wrong in such a a subjective argument. If you care more about how a phone looks or feels than how durable it is or how well it functions, then by all means go ahead and make your purchasing decision based on looks or textures; or just put it in an aftermarket case.

  • http://profiles.google.com/unzicker.daniel Daniel U.

    It is just silly for people to complain about plastic construction. The technology used to create the polymers used in modern plastic makes it stronger, lighter, and better for heat transfer than most other materials. I wouldn’t pass up a phone made of another material, but if the only thing that holds you back from getting a phone is plastic, well that is just silly. If you don’t like how it feels, put a case on it.

  • Tony Allen

    Nothing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/stewart.yarnell Stewart Yarnell

    For me, It’s not so much the looks of the cheap glossy plastic, but being able to hold on to the thing. The glossy finish is way to slick. A case is a must, cause it IS goin to slip out of your hand!

  • Harvey

    I have absolutely no problem with plastic. At least when you take the rear of the phone off, you don’t have to worry about bending it, oh wait you can’t take the back off a iPhone. To me it is easier to replace the back and paint the won’t chip off if it is plastic. I have no problems at all with it and the rest of the materials just suck people in thinking that their phone will last longer with a bullet proof case. The other materials are all gimmicks.

  • PopeFrancis

    I now can’t take this article seriously after hearing Kellen say that the Razr HD is cheap looking lol

  • shooter50

    Is plastic the best, no. Would I like a better design than the S4, yes. Am I buying an S4, yes. Would I ever buy another HTC product, NO. After owning a “well built” Thunderbolt and suffering through dozens of problems that HTC took forever to fix, I will never buy another HTC product. I doubt I’m alone as HTC sales have fallen ever since that piece of trash hit the market.
    My S3 and Note II have worked perfectly. No issues at all. So I’ll happily sacrifice some design compromises to have a phone that works as advertised.
    Samsung is on top so everyone wants to slam them now, but the S4 will slaughter the HTC One

  • joejoe5709

    I don’t mind the plastic as long as it feels like purposefully durable plastic with some sort of grip to it. I’ve dropped my Gnex more times than I would like to admit and I’m sure if it had a metal or glass chassis, it would have looked a lot worse.

  • PopeFrancis

    I have no issue with plastic phones.. I have issue with how cheaply made some of them feel.

  • http://twitter.com/EJ1024 BRUU™

    Thers nothing wrong with it, the problem is if the phone feels to plastiky,like all samsung phones.. Htc always made better phones than samsung,all the galaxy phones are crappy,hardware wise people are blinded by the screen,my sister owns a note2 she tought it was good.. That thing is too slow,well what do u expect from an Android..the lumia 928 will come out at the same time s4 comes out i won’t be surprised if nokia and verizon eat the hell of that gimmick crappy plastic device..

  • DRaY

    i really dont care what its made out of, as long as the hardware is bleeding edge and the software has the features/apps i need.

  • http://twitter.com/SayHeyJayHey SayHeyJayHey

    Get a Case-Mate case. Who cares what the thing is made of as long as you like it. Keep it simple. I agree with this article.

  • Serpico

    Galaxy Nexus – The back cover was plastic BUT it had a quality look AND feel. Not shiny, it didn’t easily scratch, etc. – Oh, and it had a good coating on it IE it didn’t slip out of your hand easily.

  • Alexander Garcia

    Not hatin’ on plastic. Just hatin’ on hyper-glaze. Makes it look hyper-cheap. Besides, hyper-glaze reminds me of a donut.

  • gfacekilla01

    Plastic is fine by me. Every smart phone I’ve had goes into a case anyway. Plastic is slippery but again, when enclosed by a case, it becomes a non issue. My two cents……

  • mark j

    I couldnt care less. My phones always get a case.

    Maybe y’all missed that paragraph in the article?

  • Jerry Heald

    The first thing I do with a new cell phone is put it into a protective case so the material that the phone is made of is not important.

  • http://www.facebook.com/zapote21 Luis Reich

    I put mine in a case the day I buy it. So who cares if its plastic, kevlar, metal, or paper???

  • Jack

    nothing wrong with plastic but Samsung keep same desgin same corners and same desgin its like always done in 1 min copy past boring and cheap looking and fake also there plastic not hight quality like Nokia. why no one talks of nokia plastic? because its high quality and plastic it feel like metal in the hand.

  • Anon

    I have no problem with the right plastic. Reinforced, high-impact plastic, preferably with a sort of pebbled, or textured finish meant to withstand the rigors of everyday use. Something that doesn’t feel like it will (or something that doesn’t) flex if you press on it with a finger. And finally, matte finished.

    High-gloss plastic scratches easily, and attracts fingerprints. It looks cheap, like consumer-grade laptops, meant to catch your eye temporarily in a retail store, and ugly forever after the purchase. It’s also slippery in feel (hence easier to drop).

  • Tom Cavey

    Two Words=Nothing.

  • Miles Prower [690 Duke]

    Why do so many people call the plastic used by Samsung “cheap plastic?” This so called cheap plastic is actually some of the highest-quality plastic I’ve seen. And the build quality isn’t “cheap” by any means. The tolerances are amazing. All the various pieces are within micrometers of alignment. And the 3D textures are perfectly uniform — at least seen with the naked eye.

    I would call the material expensive plastic, if anything.

  • https://plus.google.com/u/0/101041881026971694523/posts DAVID HORVATH

    I prefer plastic, it doesn’t shatter like glass.

  • Dan Churco

    Most people have a plastic case one their metal phones. So who cares. My gs3 look like new because of the plastic. It has held up much better than metal. Can you say dents, or glass, with the scratches.

  • NexusMan

    It’s because Apple has brainwashed people with the iPhone, into thinking that plastic phones are bad. I, personally, like some other people, don’t mind a plastic phone, as long as it feels good in hand. The way a phone FEELS in hand is a big factor of this argument, and for example, I DO like the way the plastic Galaxy Nexus and the original Droid Incredible feel in hand, however, I do NOT like the way the plastic Galaxy S III feels in hand and since I NEVER use a case, that’s a problem. Kellen, you made very good points, particularly about people complaining about plastic phones and slapping plastic cases on them. The only material deal breaker for me is glass. I absolutely will NOT buy a phone with a glass back. It’s just dumb. And I’ve felt that since the iPhone. Why would you make a phone entirely out of glass, when it’s a small device that is always held in hand, used extremely frequently and pulled in and out of pockets and bags constantly, and often times used while on the run, or out in public…and is known to have a high rate of drops? It’s just dumb. And who cares about the “look” of that glass, when you have to cover it in an ugly, bulky, plastic case, so it doesn’t shatter when you place it on a table. It’s a classic case of looks over function and practicality, and I’d take plastic over glass any day.

    • Miles Prower [690 Duke]

      Exactly.

      But unlike NexusMan, I actually own a Nex4 (on the $30 per month prepaid unlimited T-Mobile plan that I read about here) as well as a GNex. My GNex (on VZW) is my daily phone. And I do NOT have it in a case. I like how sleek it is. And I also love how durable it is. I’ve dropped the sucker so many times, I’ve lost count. It has yet to crack, and sure, it’s got the scuff marks to prove it’s taken some hits, but I’m more concerned with it working and staying in one piece versus impressing my iPhone-carrying friends.

      I actually LOVE how the GNex dissipates impact forces by flying apart!!! The battery door pops off and the battery might go skidding across the pavement, but everything snaps back together, and all is good.

      I fly RC planes, and the same concept holds. During a crash, your plane has a much better chance of surviving if it flies apart (pun intended) when it hits the ground too hard.

      My Nex4, on the other hand, is in a thick rubbery plastic case.

  • fanboy1974

    This entire issue has been blown way out of proportion. I’m very happy with Samsung’s decision to use plastic because it still gives me 2 of the most important options; removable battery and sd card support.

    The only time I see my Note 2′s plastic body is when I take off my premium case to replace the battery. The one phone that had better quality would be the Droid X with it’s metal battery door. But again; I only saw the body when swapping the battery.
    If the HTC One had a removable battery door and sd card support then all off this crying would be relevant. As it stands Samsung sacrificed build material options for added functionality and I agree with them 110%.

    But lets face it. Android has 2 beautiful flagships to pick from with good devices from Sony and LG. I’m only upset that HTC does not have the muscle to put the HTC One out on Verizon at the same time (I don’t care about the DNA).

    This should not be a Samsung vs HTC issue guys. It’s Android vs (Apple+WP+BB).

  • http://www.Nave360.com Sebastian Gorgon

    well it’s cheap plastic that’s what’s wrong…

    • fanboy1974

      Do you currently have a case on your phone? If not get the HTC One so that you can look and feel the phone every time you use it. If you do use a case does it really matter?
      My wife’s iPhone 5 is so delicate it’s been in a otterbox commuter from day one. At that point does build material really matter? It blows my mind that the iPhone has tons and tons of cases on the market for people to hide/protect the premium body from wear and tear. Why even make a case for phones made from quality material? Otterbox has the most cases for the iPhone in a range of different styles and colors. It just blows my mind how people think.

  • http://twitter.com/mrjayviper Jayel Villamin

    nothing wrong with cheap plastic. Just don’t ask for premium price for it!

  • Kerry Davies

    I think the problem is that people want to feel like the device is worth the money. I can’t see the inside of my phone, as much as I might like to see all those beautiful chips. So the price of the phone directly reflects the fit and finish. Have been paying full price for phone as to keep my unlimited data, I use about 10g a month and I’m never stepping away from my 90$ plan. When I spend #600+ on something I use almost as much as water, I want to feel like my money was well spent. The way my phone looks in my hands is almost as important as the function. Looking at my DNA and Nexus make me happy. I don’t want to look like the kid who had the knock off Nike’s. Plastic doesn’t reflect this at all, why do you think $1000+ with gold keys exist. Welth, power, and status are massively important to a huge number of people, apple made a killing off people not wanting to be out shown. Google can produce one of the best phones on the market with wonderful high end materials, and it only cost $350. This is why plastic gets a bad name and has no appeal.

  • http://www.gizmoninja.com/ Tabe

    Wow Kellex, its not like you to post trolling posts (I don’t buy for a second that you can’t wrap your MIMD around this)… People want a device that looks and feels high quality. That can be accomplished with plastic, but in many cases its not accomplished. I don’t care what my device is made of as long as it looks and feels high quality and solid.

    • aBabyPenguin

      I think that is what Kellex is saying. Everything seems great about the S4, but people are groaning about it being made of plastic. I think the S4 “looks and feels high quality,” (even though I have never held it) so why are people complaining?