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Dear phone companies: I want a flagship I can use without a case
I distinctly remember the first time I held the HTC One M7 in my hand. The smooth aluminum chassis felt cool to the touch, as if it had just come out of a refrigerator. It had a good weight to it that made it feel as if I was holding a device that cost twice as much as it actually did. I had a lot of thoughts at the time, but the last thing on my mind was putting that phone in a case. It was made of metal!
I had a similar feeling the first time I used a OnePlus One. That sandstone back was almost like a built-in case. Holding it made you feel that even if you loosened your grip on it entirely, it would still stick to your hand. I never owned a case for my OnePlus One.
Eventually, though, these designs vanished. As wireless charging became more prevalent, manufacturers were forced to abandon metal builds and other alternative solutions. Apple went all-in on glass for the iPhone 4, and Android OEMs followed suit very quickly. In 2020, there isn’t one bonafide flagship smartphone that doesn’t incorporate a “glass sandwich” design.
As many people reading this will agree, it’s unfathomable to use a glass sandwich phone without some kind of case. Even if you’re not afraid of dropping it and cracking the glass all over, the slipperiness of the glass makes holding it awkward.
I really miss the days of letting my phone go naked and free.
People who religiously follow the smartphone industry will quickly point out that there are plenty of 2020 devices without glass backs. The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 has a plastic back, as does the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE. The Google Pixel 4a and its 5G-powered sibling also have plastic backs. The Google Pixel 5 even has a weird aluminum/plastic hybrid back that still allows for wireless charging.
However, you’ll notice that most of those phones are mid-rangers. In the cases of the Samsung phones, they are watered-down versions of flagships. The closest thing to a total flagship package launched this year without a glass back is the Xiaomi BlackShark 3 series. Those phones have aluminum backs and high-end specs. But guess what? They aren’t officially available in the United States (and have pretty mediocre camera systems).
In other words, I am left with a tough decision: do I want a flagship-quality smartphone that lives in a case at all times, or do I want to live a case-free life with a watered-down flagship?
Frankly, I think that decision sucks. I want my cake and to eat it, too. I want a flagship quality phone I can use without a case. Why is that so difficult to find?
I’ve got the taste for it now
A few weeks ago, I used the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE as my daily driver for a few days to give a second opinion on our review. I knew I would only have the phone for about three days, and Samsung didn’t send us any cases with our review units. This forced me to use the phone without a case. Since the back of the device is plastic, doing so felt natural anyway.
When I was done with the Galaxy S20 FE and went back to my beloved OnePlus 7 Pro, I was disappointed. My 7 Pro lives in a sandstone bumper case at all times (thank you, OnePlus, for keeping the sandstone design alive, if only in case form). I wished I could have removed the case and used the 7 Pro as-is.
I gave it a shot, but I just couldn’t keep it going. Every time I went to pick up the phone I was nervous it would slide right out of my hand because the back is just so slippery. Taking the phone out of my pocket was also harder than it was with the Galaxy S20 FE because it’s tricky to get a good grip on it (the curved display sides don’t help here). It just wasn’t ideal for daily use without that case.
Now that I've spent a few days using a phone without a case, I am desperate to keep doing so.
Of course, there’s the option of foregoing a case and getting a custom skin instead. Skins are vinyl stickers cut to the exact specifications of your phone. The stickers give your phone more grip as well as a custom look that you can truly make your own. However, you’re still putting stickers all over your device (which never looks as good as you imagine it). They don’t offer any real protection against glass-breaking drops either.
Interestingly, I didn’t really care much about my 7 Pro’s case before using the Galaxy S20 FE. Now, though, I think about it multiple times a day. I think about the beautiful Nebula Blue colorway OnePlus designed and how it shifts in different lighting. I think about how I never get to see it because that damn case is on it all the time.
The Pixel 5 proves it doesn’t need to be this way
The aforementioned Google Pixel 5 is not a flagship phone. It doesn’t have the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865, has only two rear camera lenses, and keeps it old-school with a fingerprint sensor on the back. However, the Pixel 5 does have a perfectly-grippy back panel that isn’t made of glass.
Google was able to make a phone people would use without a case while still allowing for wireless charging (and even reverse wireless charging). That phone is proof positive that there’s nothing stopping smartphone OEMs from abandoning the glass sandwich trope. For whatever reason, they just aren’t bothering to try.
I can only hope that Google is setting the example here and that other OEMs will follow suit. I know that if I was choosing between a Pixel 5 and a comparable phone with a glass back (like, say, the OnePlus Nord), I would definitely lean towards the Pixel 5 simply because of its build materials. I’m sure there are plenty of people reading this who would do the same.
Hear my plea, smartphone OEMs: we’re so, so sick of the glass sandwich design. Get innovative. Make something unique. Don’t spend thousands of man-hours designing your beautiful phones just so they can be encased in ugly slabs of black rubber for the rest of their lives.