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Plastic and aluminum phones are making a comeback, and my clumsy fingers are thrilled about it

Pixel 5 vs Pixel 4a 5G
Pixel 5 vs Pixel 4a 5G (Image credit: Hayato Huseman / Android Central)

Ever since the best smartphones started getting features like wireless charging and NFC payments, manufacturers have needed to build their devices out of materials that could transmit and receive the necessary signals as efficiently as possible. For many, this meant transitioning away from more durable materials like aluminum or plastic to more fragile, albeit more signal-transparent, materials like glass.

This move to the glass slabs and sandwiches we are all familiar with today was also accompanied by some of the most dramatic price increases we'd seen in the smartphone era, with devices like the iPhone X and Galaxy Note 9 pushing up to and well-beyond the then unthinkable $1,000 price point. However, now that we're in the middle of a global pandemic with its far-reaching economic ramifications, companies are realizing that many customers just want a good, reliable phone that won't break the bank, nor break on impact if dropped. Enter the new golden age of plastic, "glasstic," and aluminum-hybrid value smartphones.

I'd wager that most customers in 2020 just want a good phone that won't break and won't break the bank.

When Apple introduced the iPhone 5c, then SVP of Marketing Phil Schiller was mocked for saying that the device was "unapologetically plastic" when referring to its outer casing. Despite some marketing snafus and other sacrifices that Apple made with that particular device, the construction was actually really well done, and the phone looked and felt great in the hand. My daughter had the blue one at the time, and even when she dropped it in the street and shattered its screen, the polycarbonate shell came away with nary a scratch. Try that with an iPhone 11 Pro or Samsung Galaxy S20. Yeah, I didn't think so.

Galaxy S20 FE in Cloud Lavender

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

Over the past year, I've come to realize that for as nice as the upper-tier, ultra-premium flagships are, I just don't want to spend a ton of money to get what is essentially a disposable piece of jewelry. The top-end SoCs like Apple's A14 Bionic or Qualcomm's Snapdragon 865+ are amazing, to be sure, but they're more than even I need in my daily life. I also don't relish the thought of babying the computer that I carry around with me literally all the time, or being forced to use a case.

Needless to say, I've been thrilled with the crop of mid-tier and value flagships that have burst onto the scene in 2020 to offer customers all the performance and style they need, along with cameras that can compete with the best of previous year's flagships. I'm of course referring to devices like the TCL 10L and 10 Pro, the Moto G Power, Google Pixel 4a/4a 5G, OnePlus Nord, and of course, the brand new Samsung Galaxy S20 FE and Google Pixel 5.

These manufacturers have made various compromises to achieve these lower price points, like not including the best-of-the-best Snapdragon processors or not having as many cameras as the ultra-premium flagships. However, the most noticeable cost-saving measure has been the change in materials — significantly, the use of plastics (and in Google's case, aluminum).

Pixel 4a Alex Back Outside Wall

Source: Alex Dobie / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Alex Dobie / Android Central)

Saving money on a quality device that you're proud to own is one thing, but there are some other important benefits to this materials shift, both tangible and intangible. Allow me to explain.

Shame me all you want, but I've been noticing fewer repetitive stress injuries now that I've switched to plastic-backed phones

For starters, plastic phones are lighter than glass slabs, and this makes a difference when it's sitting in your pocket or purse, or when you're holding it for far too long texting, Zooming, or Tik Tok-ing your troubles away. I'm not ashamed to admit that I've had some RSI (repetitive stress injury) issues from holding my phones for far too long (ok, I'm a little ashamed), but this ailment has noticeably improved with the lighter plastic-backed devices I've been using of late.

The plastic phones also (often) feel better in the hand, at least to me. I know that's entirely subjective, but these materials can be textured to be more grippable and less susceptible to grimey fingerprints in the way that glass phones so often are. Additionally, plastic phones lend themselves to more daring and dramatic color schemes than many glass phones do; just look at the rainbow of options with the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE. Sure there are beautiful iridescent options from OnePlus and Samsung, but most glass phones don't have a lot of drama to them, in my opinion.

Teracube 2e Hero

Source: Jeramy Johnson / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Jeramy Johnson / Android Central)

As compelling as these usability examples may be, I would argue that some of the best reasons to switch to plastic-backed phones have to do with sustainability. Wait, what, you may say?! He's arguing that plastic devices can be more sustainable? Well, hear me out.

For one, plastic phones are often more durable than glass phones, which means they are subject to fewer repairs and outright replacements. This can mean they stay in use longer, and we all know that the most sustainable phone is the one you're currently using and not dumping in a landfill on that endless upgrade cycle.

It may seem counterintuitive at first glance, but using plastics in phones may actually be more sustainable in the long run.

Because plastic phones are more durable, that means you can get away with not buying unnecessary cases for them. Cases are a huge source of e-waste (or e-waste related waste), and billions of them are produced each year. The majority of these end up in a landfill in less than a year, all for the cycle to repeat itself. While there are many companies that are taking steps to mitigate this waste with cases that are made from recycled materials, or are made to be recyclable or biodegradable, a better solution is to produce, use, and purchase fewer cases. A more durable phone helps with these efforts.

On the subject of sustainable materials, there are already several phone companies practicing what they preach. Manufacturers like Fairphone have been working on repairable phones made from sustainble and ethically-sourced materials for years now, and new entries like Teracube are highlighting recyclable materials and extra-long support (both hardware and software) to discourage frequent and unnecessary upgrades. Both the Fairphone 3+ and Teracube 2e also have backs that are made from 25%-40% recycled plastics.

Plastics are by no means perfect, but I do think that they can make our smartphones more affordable, more durable, and even more sustainable if done correctly. And I think those are lifestyle features that we'd all welcome in such personal and important devices, don't you?

Jeramy is proud to help *Keep Austin Weird* and loves hiking in the hill country of central Texas with a breakfast taco in each hand. When he's not writing about smart home gadgets and wearables, he's defending his relationship with his smart voice assistants to his family. You can follow him on Twitter at @jeramyutgw.

14 Comments
  • There are two reasons your daughter's 5c broke: Either the screen hit first, or because the flimsy plastic back offers no structural strength. Speaking as an engineer who spent years testing mobile devices, even when dropped on the back, the 5c body flexes, and the torsional stress breaks the glass. We had 6 of them, and I've got a blue one on my printer stand right now, busted of course. Not a very compelling argument for plastic. I do like a plastic back, but only if done properly, like my Note 3, or the rubberized plastic of the Lumina series or the HTC X, and I think those would make a better argument supporting plastic. The other points are good, especially weight, though examples of spectacular colors certainly can be found in the glass world. Remember "Optical Spectrum Hybrid Deposition"? That was nothing but spectacular on the U11, and in person, people's mouths would drop open. It was hilarious when I'd leave it sitting on the table with friends, and get up for a minute. I'd come back to find it covered with fingerprints because everyone had passed it around to look and feel it. For durability, it depends on what aspect you are talking about. Shatter resistance? Definitely plastic, though the 5c screen breakages can be attributed to the plastic back's weakness. There is also the case to be made that Samsung and Apple glass designs contribute to their fragility. Drop a Samsung glass phone, and it often shatters because of the design. My S7 Edge utterly destroyed itself on the FIRST drop. My old U11 has been dropped at least a hundred times over four years, with only a paint scuff from the time it hit an iron table leg. My U12+ has been dropped onto steel, slapped onto thinly carpeted cement, and dropped from chest high onto granite, with no damage. What makes the difference? Design, and if Android Central hadn't been so busy ranting about the buttons (which are better than the Note 10+ FP reader, by the way), perhaps they would have noticed that the back glass is flexible and bounces from most hits, or that the screen has a stainless steel rim embedded in the glass to distribute impact forces. The other aspect of durability is resistance to everyday wear and tear. Some plastic backs are great at this, some are not. Of the sixteen phones I have in my room right now, most of the plastic ones have the finish worn off the corners, or the back has a forest of scratches. Take your pick. The metal ones have dings and nicks, leaving the only phone that I can put back in the box and pass for brand new, is the two year old glass sandwich that was dropped onto granite without a case. That being said, I still like a good plastic back, even bought one for my closest friend.
  • When the majority of people put cases or skins on their phones, a plastic backing should not be a con, especially if it lowers the price of the phone. I'm all for it as well as flat displays making a comeback.
  • Good point. With that in mind, most phones will have a plastic or leather back anyways. I go without a case when I can, but I know I'm an exception.
  • Yes, but are the prices *truly* reflective of this much cheaper, easier-to-mold (literally) material? Only if it is noticeably so will I consider going back to plastic as opposed to paying a premium for glass. And mind you, falls will scuff, chip, *and* break plastic just as well as it would glass, perhaps slightly less easily.
  • I never cared if it was plastic or aluminum as long as internals are great. Going plastic they could go back to replaceable batteries lol. Which is what I would prefer.
  • I'm with you, let's get back to replaceable batteries!! And bravo on the flat screens too!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • Lol you tech reviewers are the reason they moved away from those materials in the first place because you would whine and complain about "premium materials."
  • Oh yeah...they jumped right on that marketing train. Glass blah blah blah, premium feel blah blah blah, show your friends how cool you are with glass (like anyone really cared) blah blah blah. Next they'll be carping away on replaceable batteries and how good it is to get back to basics. Blah blah blah. Don't forget how they jumped on the pathetic curved screen marketing gimmick too.
  • The curved screen has to be the worst thing that phone makers went to. That was definitely a "form over function" idea. 
  • Doesn't anyone remember the days of Nokia Lumia phones?? Rock solid polycarbonate phones that felt tough and had no cheap glossy plastics on them either. That's the types of plastics we need to use. I hate these glossy plastics some use but still most people slap a case on their phones regardless of materials. I for one prefer a metal frame with mat plastic back or metal back with what Google have done with Pixel 5 using a unibody design or like Nokia Lumia's used to be. I don't like a cheap plastic frame like some of Samsung's A series have. Better to use a solid unibody or metal frame. I had the Galaxy A71 and the frame was so flimsy. Glass backs are just silly
  • I was thinking the same thing. I loved my plastic Nokia windows phone, but there was a whole lot of bad press back then. Glass glass glass in every review. Currently have an aluminum phone. Never had glass because I simply can't trust it.
  • Until they make the camera carbuncle's even with the back of the phone...I don't care if they make them out of indestructible Sci-Fi transparent aluminum! My S20 FE has what I feel (both literally and figuratively) is a fantastic back material...call it what you want...but I will still put a case on it for at least two reasons. 1) It makes the back FLAT as it should be. Make the phone a little thicker and put a larger battery in it...WOW, what a concept! 2) keeps the phone scratch free for a good resale price.
  • Hmmm, I seem to recall most reviewers basically shaming manufacturers into glass and metal over the last decade by saying cheap to all plastics.
  • Get ready for the plastic media train.