Embracing plastic was the best change to smartphones in 2020

Samsung Galaxy Note 20
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 (Image credit: Hayato Huseman / Android Central)

We've all heard the age-old expression, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Smartphone design is about as subjective as it gets, and there's plenty of discourse surrounding the pros and cons of different build materials on phones; the aesthetic trade-offs, the different in-hand feel, and of course, the added fragility of decidedly more premium materials like metal and glass.

Throughout the last decade or so as smartphone manufacturers have gotten progressively better at making top-notch hardware, we've more or less narrowed our options down to those two materials, at least in the high-end space. Glass tends to be the more popular option of the two, partially because it's compatible with wireless charging, but aluminum has made a comeback in phones like the Pixel 5 as companies find clever ways around metal's inductive limitations.

Don't expect the next Lumia 900, but modern plastic phones feel surprisingly great.

I love metal and glass designs as much as the next person, but I've been absolutely blown away by some of the plastic phones that have launched in the flagship space lately — namely, the Galaxy Note 20 and the Galaxy S20 FE. When I first got the offer to review the former, I fully expected to be underwhelmed by a plastic shell on a $1000 phone, but this isn't the cheap, flimsy plastic Samsung used to use on the Galaxy S III. In fact, we liked the S20 FE so much we named it the best Android phone of the year. Seriously.

The Note 20 and S20 FE both feel surprisingly substantial in-hand, with just enough weight to avoid feeling like a toy while still sitting lighter than their glass and metal counterparts. It isn't quite up to the bludgeoning weapon standards of older plastic/polycarbonate Nokia phones like the Lumia 900, but these phones feel just as great as the pricier Galaxy S20+ and Note 20 Ultra they're based around.

Galaxy S20 FE in Cloud Mint

Source: Hayato Huseman / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Hayato Huseman / Android Central)

Of course, these plastic designs are a big contributor to the lower prices we're seeing lately. The S20 FE matches the S20+ nearly spec for spec, and it isn't just Samsung shifting to plastic. Google's Pixel A series has been a massive staple of the affordable smartphone space for the last year or so; the Pixel 4a 5G I recently reviewed has all of the same specs as the Pixel 5 and even features a larger screen, making only minor sacrifices like a 60Hz display and a plastic build to come in $200 cheaper.

Plastic is also a great fit for wireless charging — even the aluminum-bodied Pixel 5 utilizes a small plastic section to circumvent metal's incompatibility with the standard. Unlike glass, you don't need to worry about a plastic body cracking in most cases, either.

At the start of 2020, I certainly didn't expect to be singing the praises of plastic of all things, but well, it's been a strange year. If plastic designs mean high-end phones at lower prices with more durable hardware and few trade-offs, sign me up.

Hayato was a product reviewer and video editor for Android Central.

24 Comments
  • My phones are never naked anyway, so the material ends up covered by the case.
  • Which means you are paying a premium for materials no-one will ever see.
  • Which also means I'm not paying a premium for repairs. Phone cases have saved each of my phones on more than one occasion.
  • The note 20 has a 120hz display?
  • It definitely does not. Ultra yes, base model no.
  • Rubber/textured backs like BlackBerry's and the Note 4 are awesome
  • I never considered glass to be Premium, I thought it was a gimmick that was thrust upon us and many fell for it. Always missed my plastic backed phones with the ability to change batteries, never understood the logic of doing away with an exceptional feature.
  • With Inders99 here. Glass seemed like an Apple gimmick. My BlackBerrys took dozens of drops without a problem and i loved the grippiness. My blue S10 is wonderful to look at and feels great but i am only now occasionally using it nekid. Give me beautiful plastic or ceramic backs (a la Essential) and full, high-end specs.
  • I totally agree, the polycarbonate build quality is much better than the glass sandwich? So much more durable!
  • Definitely agree with plastic. I used to laugh at the Apple folks who were all impressed with how sleek and beautiful their phones were only to put on a thick case to protect it. Meanwhile people would see my yellow Lumia 1520 and love it without any case at all.
  • Glass is fragile...period. I have no problem with "plastic" backs. Some types of plastic can be very "premium" in quality of looks, and durability. But even if we are using a boring black plastic Pixel...do we not still put a case on it? Especially if we hope to sell it some day do we not want it to be as scratch free as possible? I like the idea of showing the pretty color of my phone...I think it looks cool...but when you're shelling out major $$$ for a phone (They all are basically overpriced and expensive) then it seems logical to invest another $10.00 for a protective case. Most people put a case on their phones for protection, and a more solid grip.
  • Plastic can be nice, and I've bought plastic backed phones as gifts, but not all glass is fragile. Samsung glass is fragile, and my S7 Edge shattered instantly on the first drop. But both of my glass HTC's have been dropped dozens of times, without a case, and without damage. Worst drop for the U11 was onto a cast iron table leg. Twice. Worst drop for my U12 Plus was when I missed my shirt pocket at a wedding, while standing on a granite floor. The people sitting at my table were almost as shocked as I was that there was no damage at all. Your mileage may vary, but not all glass is created equal, and some designs are tougher than others.
  • Just picked up my S20FE with it's plastic back and I'm pleasantly surprised how good it looks and feels. I had visions of the thin and flimsy, cheap plastics of the S3 and S5. The back's never been an issue for me anyway tbh as mine all go in cases but when its saving money then I'm absolutely all for it. Plus the fact this one has a flat screen so is much better protected by the case all round I can be a lot more confident it won't smash and spiderweb on the first drop like my S20 Ultra did or Note 8 and S8 Plus before that
  • Plastic dominates --> tech press screams about "the cheapness of plastic" Glass & Metal dominates --> tech press jonesing for plastic
  • So, I guess Android Central will be apologizing to all those plastic phones they dissed? Probably not, lol. Glass is more scratch resistant though, and won't look like it had an encounter with sandpaper after a year like most of my plastic phones.
  • So funny what a difference three years makes. Tech folks hated plastic 3-4 years ago. Suddenly, it's the next best thing again. It's like the fashion industry. Don't get caught with glass in your pocket when plastic is coming back in vogue.
  • Hopefully they get rid of those God awful curved screens next
  • Here here!
    But it looks nice, even if it is a bad idea.
  • Ohh Yes please.
  • I always put a clear tpu case on my phones which helps with grip, means you can still see your phone, has a raised lip to protect the screen and stops the phone getting scratched up. Fit a screen protector on day one and 3-4 years down the line your phone looks brand new.
  • Media is just a mouthpiece for the phone industry. If the manufacturers tell them something is better they just proclaim the new paradigm. I especially loved their baloney justifications for the elimination of replaceable batteries...now we need to get new phones...who in the heck thought that was a good idea other than the media types. On another note...who cares what your phone looks like??????? I've never head ONCE in my life someone actually say my phone (or another's) looks nice or even ask what it was. Nobody cares (at least in my circles), phones are ubiquitous now and more of a PIA than novelty.
  • This is an excellent point! No one ever complimented my phone as an amazing design. Some cases over the years got mentioned. I vaguely remember some mentions of my bright blue Lumia (plastic, how ironic) There's been conversations with friends and family about what different phones do, (something far more important) but almost never about how they look. The curved edge Samsung's are some of the only phones I would say people talked about the design. (and rarely in a good way in my experience.) Currently fold-able phones likely grab some attention as well as LG's twisty phone will very likely grab people's attention. But it could still be argued that these grab attention first for what they do and secondly for how they look. All the other slab phones? Nobody cares what they look like.
  • The way I see it, if it keeps the cost down there ain't nothing wrong with the polycarbonate build quality. It helps with weight & durability!
  • Most people use cases, most people see the problem of glass and Edges after dealing with phones who have it.