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The great plastic debate of 2013: is plastic really that bad?

Samsung is keeping with the tradition of using plastic cases on its flagship devices. The use of plastic is a polarizing issue, but is it really that bad?
March 18, 2013

Samsung is keeping with the tradition of using plastic cases on its flagship devices. The use of plastic is a polarizing issue, but is it really that bad as some commentators put it?

Disclaimer: I am likely to be called a Samsung fanboy anyway, but for the record, I love the design of the glass-backed Xperia Z and Nexus 4.

Let’s do an experiment. Read any post about the newly unveiled Samsung Galaxy S4, on Android Authority or on other sites. Look at the comments. I am willing to bet that most posts will have at least one comment complaining about the plastic build of the device. Ranging from well-thought criticism to downright trolling, these comments seem to suggest that having a flagship made of (gasp) plastic is a disgrace, a stigma bore only by fly-by-night sweatshops in China.

But is plastic really that bad? Do we need more aluminum, glass, carbon fiber, unicorn skin (what?) in our lives? And why do we get so worked up over the materials that go into devices that we aren’t going to buy anyway?

Plastic vs polycarbonate

First off all, repeat after me: polycarbonate is plastic. I say this because, from time to time, there will be a stray commenter or even tech writer suggesting that the polycarbonate on phone X is better than the plastic on phone Y. Well, it isn’t, just like a Mercedes isn’t better than a car.

The flexible backplate of the Galaxy S4 is polycarbonate, just like the hard unibody of the HTC One X. It’s just that they were processed, shaped, and finished in very different ways.

plastic vs aluminum

Plastic isn’t inherently bad

People seem to hate the plastic on the Galaxy S3 and the Galaxy S4, but it probably has more to do with the way Samsung has designed its devices than with the actual material.

My guess is many people dislike the glazed finish of Samsung’s phones and hate the fact that the phones feel squishy, even flimsy. So people criticizing plastic actually complain about how the devices are built.

Of course, the final design of any phone is based on many hours of research, design work, prototyping, and evaluating. There are many factors to consider, and the price of the device is just one of them. In other words, Samsung doesn’t make its devices from thin plastic just to save a few dollars per unit.

Sure, price is an important factor, but it’s balanced by many others, from production planning (where do you source 100 million aluminum unibodies from?), to design (thicker plastic adds girth), to engineering (metal bodies stop radio waves).

Plastic has advantages for users as well. It allows for lighter devices. It makes replacing a scratched back plate affordable. It doesn’t chip like anodized aluminum or crack like glass. And for many users, it feels better. I personally hate using devices that I perceive as fragile.

I know some people like their devices to look premium: “If I paid 500 bucks on a phone, it better look like it!” I guess this logic would make the new Vertu Ti (clad in titanium and sapphire crystal) the ultimate Android smartphone, right? Not really, I think we all agree.

Why all the hate?

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying you should embrace plastic. You’re free to love metal or whatever floats your boat. Diversity is what makes Android strong.

I am just saying you should live and let live. You may prefer aluminum or glass. Or better said, your favorite company might prefer those materials. But that doesn’t mean everything made of plastic is cheap crap you should dismiss. And more importantly, using a certain phone doesn’t give you the license to insult people that prefer other devices.

We’re all Android fans here. Why don’t we act like it instead of endlessly arguing over which phone is made of the “better” material?