No, Samsung, LG and Sony, I don’t want a metal smartphone

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HTC seems to have started a trend last year (but in fact it originated a long time ago) of building smartphones out of metal to make them look and feel premium. The company built an entire strategy out of this one claim, emphasizing on materials and manufacturing methods to win over those who have been appalled by Samsung’s cheap and flimsy plastics. But contrary to popular belief, not everyone wants a metallic phone, or thinks that it’s the best solution to the problem. And I am one of those people.

Long before the HTC One, I have owned and used a Nokia E71 and a Nokia N8. The E71 was mostly plastic, with a metallic back cover that took me by surprise the moment I held it. It looked and felt premium, and even my grandmother, who knew nothing about phones but who had seen me use dozens before, stared at it in awe and told me, “this is the most beautiful one.” I used an E71 for a year over the course of which it slipped and dropped dozens of times, but I was never worried because it was built like a tank, and it only had a small non-touch screen.

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The Nokia E71, built like a tank

Later, I owned and used a Nokia N8. It was the first anodized aluminum smartphone I had laid my hands on, and it was simply gorgeous. However, I carried it in a case because I was certain I’d scratch that beautiful orange finish, and I was more worried that it would slip from my hand and break the screen.

My experience with both devices has lead me to a love/hate relationship with metallic smartphones, where I love looking at them, I like how premium they feel in the hand, but I wouldn’t buy them. Here are the reasons why.

The temperature is never right

A metallic smartphone is always, always, a few degrees off the right temperature. It tends to be colder to the touch when not in use, and hotter when in use. Imagine hiking, or laying on the beach, or driving on a hot day, with an aluminum phone. Even plastic can get warm to the touch in such scenarios, I couldn’t think of what would happen to metal.

Premium but impersonal

There’s something about a metallic finish that makes a phone feel like a luxury item, and that’s the problem, it’s just an “item”. I’m used to phones being personal, blending in with my hand, disappearing to just leave the screen so I can interact with the content. When I’m using a metallic phone, I’m always aware of it, and that detracts greatly from the experience.

By comparison, my LG G2 does just the opposite. Because of the little bezels, the phone becomes just a screen, and everything else about it disappears while you are using it. It’s a bit like the difference between watching a movie in a theatre with all the lights on or off. If you want an immersive experience, you make everything else as invisible as possible.

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Screen, and nothing but screen

Slip-slip slippery

I am a very clumsy person and metallic smartphones, whether donning an anodized matte finish, a brushed one, or a shiny smooth finish, are always slippery in the hand. I could barely use the N8 one-handed before I got a case, and that was a tiny smartphone by today’s standards. However, I can balance my G2 just fine on one hand, and type with my thumb, without risking a heart attack at the thought of it falling.

That’s why I wouldn’t dare hold an HTC One or any of the rumored metal “Prime” devices with 5.5″ screens and huge footprints with one hand. As my friend and fellow AndroidBeat writer Abhijeet Mishra told me while we were discussing this issue, “ergonomics are where Sony and HTC both fail despite great designs, and it’s too bad consumers accept it in the name of looks.” And I wholeheartedly agreed.

Case: a necessity not an accessory

Continuing my conversation with Abhijeet, he made another excellent point, “the more premium it gets, the more a case is needed. HTC is so sure the M8 needs a case that they put one right in the box.” That embodies my experience with metal smartphones. It’s not only about ergonomics and slippery finishes though, but also about psychology. The more expensive a device feels, the more you are scared of harming it, and the more a case becomes mandatory.

And when your sexy well-built smartphone is in a case — whether for safe-keeping or for better handling — it almost feels like a waste. You can never win in that case (pun intended), can you?

There’s a right way to do plastic

I will go back to Nokia for a second and say that the company showed us that there is a right way to do plastics. Their polycarbonate finishes on the Lumia series were spectacular, ergonomic, solid, and they still felt premium. Even the iPhone 5C went for the same material. Plastic doesn’t have to be cheap, wobbly, and badly done. It can be executed to perfection, for an excellent blend of look, feel, and functionality.

Nokia Lumia 800

Nokia Lumia 800: plastic executed to perfection

This metal trend scares me

I honestly don’t know what is it about HTC that makes many reporters in the mobile industry hang open their mouths in awe. I’ve previously argued that Sony and LG are quite a long way ahead in being “Quietly Brilliant” yet HTC gets more good press than both combined. That seems to have lead everyone to believe that metal smartphones are “the” must-have item on a checklist when building a premium device.

So here we find ourselves, in the middle of 2014, with Samsung, LG and Sony, all rumored to have metal flagships in the works — although I’m hoping LG has figured a way to make plastic look like metal in its G3, for the best magic trick in the history of smartphones. And it seems that we might all be forced to get a metallic smartphone, whether we like this material or not, if we want the highest specs possible.

Abhijeet and I couldn’t possibly be the only smartphone users who have this opinion about metal. So please let us know in the comments if you agree or disagree with us.

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Categories: Editorial, Featured, HTC, LG, Nokia, Samsung, Sony

  • http://www.yashmaheshwari.com/ Yash Maheshwari

    All valid points against the metal smartphones. I face the temperature issues as well. But all said and done, having been a former N8 user myself, and a current Lumia 925 users, I would have to chip in that despite the shortcomings you have stated, I would love continuing with these metal phones in the future as well.

    I, for one, absolutely hate the cases. I use my phones without a case, while giving them their share of drops & falls. And for some reason, I love the dents & chips the metal phones get over time. I have seen friends whose non-metallic phones get cracks after their drops. I would take dents & chips over cracks any day.

    Also, I jut love how the metal phones feel in the hands!

    • http://www.symbian-guru.com khouryrt

      My heart would break if there was the smallest dent on my phone :p

      • http://www.yashmaheshwari.com/ Yash Maheshwari

        I carry mine more proudly than I would have liked :D

  • http://mobileways.de/ @janole

    I don’t like metal casings at all because they scratch far too easily and are somewhat counter-intuitive to their intention: making the phone more sturdy.

    I think Samsung has the best approach: replacable backcovers. No need to take care of the back of the phone where you usually place it on + being able to customize your device. Genius.

    One of the reasons why Samsung’s Galaxy series is so successful, imho.

    The only other casing I like is the iPhone 4 with the glass back. Almost no scratches on mine after 4 years of use.

    Still, I’ve never handled the iPhone as roughly as my S4 and the S4 still looks like new.

    • Death89

      Really your iPhone 4 is scratch free on the back? My 4s scratched after about 3 hours of being on a plastic laminate type desk (which I wiped that morning so dust and sand was minimal) maybe Apple forgot the gorilla glass on mine…

      • epdm2be

        Yeah the one flaw on the iPhone 4s (the 4 also had Antennagate).
        At least it looks IMHO much better then that fugly 5/5s. Besides if you managed to scratch that iPhone 4′s glass in 3 hours imagine what you’d have done with that brushed aluminium o/t iphone 5?

    • http://www.symbian-guru.com khouryrt

      Haha, the amount of replacement back covers you can find on eBay for Galaxy phones is STAGGERING. A bonus advantage is wireless charging. Almost any device with a removable back cover either has one with wireless charging built-in or has a cheap card accessory you can buy to add that functionality.

    • epdm2be

      “One of the reasons why Samsung’s Galaxy series is so successful, imho”
      Samsung is successful because they flood the market with devices in the hope that eventually one sticks. Every other week 2 new Galaxy’s get announced.

      In fact IF samsung did actually listen they’d made that S5 with metal as that’s what many customers actually want (according to many forums). They don’t want a premium phone technically with cheap nasty looks. They want a premium phone that actually looks and feels like a premium phone.

      A solution could be like Jolla does. Or what is possible with e.g. the Nokia X-series. and what someone at All About Symbian suggested. Creating shells/covers of different materials (not just more and different colours).

      Funny that no-one ever thought of that. I thought those engineers were so smart?

  • george

    I agree.
    Take the HTC One M7 for example.
    If you use without a case, after a few months the glorious metal looks dented and horrible.
    If you put in a metal case it has a heat problem
    If you put in a TPU silicon case you defeated the purpose of buying a metal back phone

    • http://www.symbian-guru.com khouryrt

      You said it better than I did.

    • Zaki Jaaskelainen

      And a metal case may very well dampen the reception so the phone heats up even more.

    • epdm2be

      Slipping that beautiful crafted One M7/M8 out of one these wouldn’t look misplaced at all. It would IMHO add that certain gentlemen’s flair and style. Since these devices are used to show off as well. Putting such a nice crafted pouch on the coffeetable also gets you noticed while still retaining the mystery as to what marvel of tech lives inside.

      I have the black one which looks fantastic yet distinctive. It even has that genuine leather smell. They don’t come cheap though.

  • Death89

    As an N8 user the feel of it entranced me when I first got it.

    However this quickly gave way to three and a bit years of keeping it in a case and being paranoid I’d break it. This ended only recently when despite having only been dropped once and being treated very well throughout it’s life, the camera button stopped working and many of the functions have ceased working (i think the GPS chip is on the way out for starters.

    I agree that it never felt quite right in the hand (slippery when cold, slimy when hot and making my hands sweat). I for one will not go metal again. I am using an iPhone 4s now as it was given to me by a previous employer as a leaving gift and no matter what I do it still feels wrong. Too fragile without a case, cases interfere with the gesture swipes in iOS 7.

    Would love to give the G2 a go but doubt I’ll get it free on a £15 contract with at least 600 minutes…

    • http://www.symbian-guru.com khouryrt

      Try to see if there are TPU cases with little bezel on the front for your 4S. From personal experience (S3, G2, Nexus 5, Note 2, Note 3…), the Mercury (aka Goospery) and the Nekeda cases usually have that. Not sure they are available for the 4S though.

  • Bill

    Absolutely disagt ee. You are wrong. Samsung is great except for that. We the people have asked over and over for metal and they hace not listene d. So I am switching. How can you want a non premium feel on your phone? This is a non -starter for me.
    I don’t care what you all say..We want metal! End of discussion.

    • epdm2be

      “How can you want a non premium feel on your phone?”
      The question should be: “How can you want a non premium feel on your high priced premium phone?”

      Or to put it differently: We do want to show off that we can afford such a high priced piece of technology! ;-)

      I love the look of the iPhone 4s although I’m no fan of iOS or Apple. But from a designer’s viewpoint both the Nokia N8 and iPhone 4/4s are IMHO the most beautiful pieces of generic hi-tech. The Nokia N9 could be included in here as well.

      Aesthetically I also like the Jolla-phone’s design. It’s a shame that the low-budget notification LED and the cheap feeling “TOH” white cover detoriate it’s otherwise classy B&O inspired looks. Combined with that gorgeous 80′s Vectrex inspired UI, it’s amazing. Pitty that it has too less features to be actually usable as a “smartphone”.

      Anyway to George. I have one o/t “Tom Sailor” leather pouches. It looks really good and feels definitely premium. Thick leather (or leather-like and leather smelling) material, perfect stitching. I can wholeheartly recommend them. Slipping your beautiful crafted hi-tech phone out of one of these adds that certain style and flair. :-)

  • Taftaf

    Well it is never about the technology or heat I believe. It is always about having an item that is targeting people who are willing to pay more. I used most of the recent smartphones and the only one apart from Apple products which you feel proud when holding it is the M8 HTC.

  • T.V.

    The E71 has a painted mangnesium cast frame.

  • Zaki Jaaskelainen

    I own two smartphones, both in the premium category. The first one – this my favorite – is the new Asus Padfone Infinity. Its whole body is smooth aluminium which makes it very slippery and I’m scared to scratch it so it’s always in the cheap plastic cover offered by Asus (not bundled with the phone). What makes this phone special is the 10 inch WUXGA display dock. Unfortunately the phone will not fit in the dock with the plastic cover on so several times per day the cover goes on and comes off.
    My second phone is the iPhone 5s and this one I’m keeping in Apple’s very nice leather cover. This maintains the phone’s feeling of premium although I am not sure it was worth killing an animal to clothe the phone.

  • Radu

    That glossy metal finish doesn’t look good at all, anodized aluminium would look amazing as metal case and that material holds great… also something that worths mentioned along anodized aluminium is polycarbonate, there are a few models using this material and is very scratch-resistant, after 1.5 years of using one without protection looks brand new!