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If I never see a phone with a mirror back again it will be too soon
Recently, I reviewed the POCO F3 for Android Authority. The phone has a terrific build, especially when you consider it only costs €349 (~$409). The display quality far exceeds its price class, the selfie camera cutout is tiny, and the plastic rails around the phone feel almost as good as metal.
However, the entire back of the phone has a mirror finish. I don’t know about you, but for me, that pretty much ruins all the other good design elements of the phone.
The problem with mirror backs on phones is that we touch them all the time — they are smartphones, after all. Every time we touch them, we leave behind a fingerprint smudge. It’s unavoidable. Even with one fingerprint smudge, the beauty of a phone diminishes immediately. With many fingerprint smudges, you get the problem you see in the image at the top of this article.
It’s not just the POCO F3, either. The OnePlus 9 Pro has a variant with a mirror finish, as do the OPPO Find X3 Pro and TCL 10L. Even the iPhone 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max have polished stainless steel rails that are fingerprint magnets. We called this out in our review, as did a few other publications.
Honestly, it makes no sense that designers would choose to create phones that immediately look worse the second users touch them. If this will be a new trend in the phone world, I hope it dies out very quickly.
Mirror finish: So many better alternatives
Smartphones need to go through rigorous testing to go from concept to final retail product. It’s hard to believe that no one on the Apple team, for example, pointed out how ugly the $1,000 iPhone 12 Pro looks smeared with fingerprints. Sure, the phone looks classy in product photography shoots, but promoting a smartphone is like online dating: you want to look better in real life than you do in the photos.
What makes this even more confounding is that there are so many better alternatives to the mirror finish design. The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, for example, has a variant that’s matte black all over. It’s pretty much impossible for that to look bad no matter how much you touch it.
The Google Pixel 5 also has a gorgeous back panel. Not only does that design prevent any fingerprint smudges at all, but it even feels great to the touch, thanks to its textured paint job. When you combine that with the back’s metal construction, you have something that’s a joy to hold.
Let’s not forget about the OnePlus One with its sandstone backing. Many of us reminisce about that phone because of the textured back alone. So why aren’t companies replicating it? Why do our smartphones have to be shiny mirrors?
The only reason for this I can get behind is assistance with rear-camera selfies. If you can see your face in the back of your phone, you don’t need to rely on the inferior front camera for your selfies. This makes sense, but even then, your face is going to look like a smudge of fingerprints! That doesn’t seem ideal to me.
“Well, you’re just gonna put a case on it.”
I’ll be the first to admit that I have quite a few smartphone pet peeves. Outside of ugly mirror finishes, another thing that irritates me a lot is huge, off-center camera bumps. These annoy me because using the phone while it’s lying flat on a table is a wobbly, inconvenient experience.
The response I hear a lot when I complain about poor smartphone design is, “Well, you’re just gonna put a case on it.” This is usually delivered with a smug “gotcha” attitude or even some eye-roll Emoji. The thing is, though, I hate putting my smartphone into a case. Many people do put their phones into cases isn’t a free pass for smartphone OEMs to be willy-nilly with their designs.
Let me put it this way: would you buy a glass-covered laptop with a mirror finish? My guess is you would not because glass laptops aren’t very durable, and the mirror finish would look ugly immediately. But I guess that would be fine, right, because you could just put it into a case.
If you scoffed at that, why don’t you scoff at smartphones made of glass with mirror finishes? They are very similar products that we use in very similar ways. The only difference is that most people don’t put their laptops into cases, so they likely wouldn’t consider such a poorly designed product. Simple as that.
Good design also means practical design
When it comes to design, there are reasons why certain elements of a product stand the test of time. Coffee mugs have handles because the mug itself gets really hot. Computer mice aren’t square because our hands are curvy. Cars have four wheels because three would put the vehicle in danger of flipping.
For some reason, smartphone OEMs don’t think rules such as these apply to phones. Instead of durable devices that look and feel good in the hand, we get glass-covered fingerprint magnets that are as slippery as a fish. It makes no sense to me at all.
I’m not going to win the war against poor smartphone design overnight, but I hope this mirror finish trend burns out fast. I know fan reaction to the Galaxy S21 Ultra design mentioned earlier has been really positive. There’s even a rumor Apple is exploring offering a similar design with the next iteration of iPhones. That makes me hopeful that the mirror finish will be a fast trend. Until then, I’ll just be letting out an audible groan every time I take a glossy fingerprint magnet out of its box.