Phones all look the same once you scrape away a few details. They're rectangles designed to fit (mostly) into one's hand and a display where we can tap and poke the things we see to find other things poke and tap. You can even make phone calls with them!
It's those details, though, that makes the difference. Speakers, bevels, buttons and the physical size are the things that make a Galaxy Note different from a Moto E4. They also are a big part of the price and what we use to decide which one is better for our uses. One of those details that's always a point of discussion, and sometimes a point of detraction is what the body of a phone is made of. Oddities like wood or gold phones aside, you'll find three different materials are being used to make phones is all sizes: metal, plastic, and glass.
Which one is best?
Plenty of phones use a metal band or a faux-metal finish over plastic trim, but there are also plenty that are made of metal. Usually, that means some manner of aluminum alloy that's very thin and light because the buying public is in love with thin and light. Nobody wants a 3-pound phone built from cold forged steel to lug around all day.
For many, metal equals premium. Seeing an aluminum phone polished or anodized with a crisp finish does make a phone look good, so naturally, a lot of people associate them with high-quality, even if only subconsciously. But this isn't always the case as aluminum can be cheaper than other materials. Blame our perception here.
A metal phone can be a great phone. It can also be a bad phone. Let's look at the pros and cons.
- That premium look. As mentioned, a phone that's well built will always look good with a metal design. Metal is beautiful and we can't help but feel that anything beautiful is automatically premium. For many, having a premium phone is important.
- It's "modern". Metal is a big part of the industrial design school of thought. Minimal markings and no extraneous parts to take away from a single piece of metal with a certain shape is a complete design aesthetic, and it often ties in well with a premium look. There are plenty of fans of this type of design.
- Heat transfer. That way a cold metal phone feels when you first pick it up provokes a thought. It doesn't have to be a good thought, but if you ever noticed that your phone felt cold you were thinking about it. Touch is one of our senses, and it's an important one.
All of these "pros" work together to give the impression that the small metal object you're holding is simply a superior product. Some people feel differently, but most people can't say a phone like a Pixel 2 or a Nokia 7 Plus felt bad or was built poorly.
- Bends and dents. Metal deforms fairly easily — especially light, malleable metal like aluminum —and tends to keep its new shape, at least the types used to build phones. We're not talking about people on YouTube bending phones for a living; we're talking about sitting on your phone and bending it or dropping it and putting a big dent in that premium shell. (Buy a case?)
- RF transmission. This means your LTE, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth signals. Radio frequencies of the safe variety have a tough time transmitting through dense material. This can mean your phone needs to have antenna lines or glass cutouts for the antennas and probably won't support wireless charging if it's made of metal.
- Heat transfer. The same thing that makes a metal phone feel solid and cold when you first pick it up will also make it feel hotter after you've used it for a while. Heat sinks and heat pipes (also made of metal) try to offset this, but a metal phone will always have a hot spot where the chipset is. And sometimes they can get uncomfortably hot.
The same material that can make a phone feel premium can also stop it from having premium features, like smooth lines without antenna bands or wireless charging. And they look a lot less premium when you dent or bend them.
Plastic comes in all shapes, colors, and sizes. Man-made materials have that advantage. That means plastic can also come with a number of different finishes, and phones can feel slimy or even soft when made of plastic. Plastic is also cheap and very workable which means curves and design elements can be used with plastic that isn't feasible with other materials.
Some plastic phones look and feel great. Of course, others don't. Consumers can be influenced by their experience enough to think all plastic phones are a slippery, glossy, slimy mess even when they're not and the general perception is that plastic phones are cheap. But a plastic phone can be great, too.
Unfortunately, it's becoming difficult to find phones made of plastic. Even inexpensive brands like Nokia and Motorola are moving on to metal-bodied phones, and that makes me a little sad.
- Cost. Not the cost to the consumer, but the costs of making the phone from beginning to end. Using plastic means manufacturing equipment is easier to tool, which means designers have more freedom to work with the shape, which means phones don't always have to look like a flat slab and still be reasonably priced. We love things that look nice and things that are reasonably priced. We love it more when they are both.
- Resilience. Plastic is tough. Like football helmet tough. You might be able to break plastic but it will take a lot more abuse than metal or glass, and for the most part, it will snap right back into shape if it gets bent or dinged.
- RF transmission. Plastic can be designed to be tough but still allow radio waves to pass through with very little signal loss. When you're building or using a phone, this is important.
- Millions of colors. You can make plastic that's any color imaginable. Companies like Nokia (the Nokia of old, R.I.P.) and Sony have put this to the test and orange, lime, pink, yellow and even brown phones have all been offered and had their fans. Black is also a color for folks who like to keep things tamer.
Plastic gives a manufacturer the freedom to build a phone that's tough and beautiful. And we've seen some very high-end phones from almost every manufacturer that were plastic, and nobody complained that they were plastic.
- They feel bad. At least, they can. One of our favorite phones was LG's G2. One of the phones we always complained about when it came to the finish of materials was the LG G2. It was the phone that coined our use of slimy when talking about bad plastic. Don't even get us started on the Galaxy S III.
- They can stain. The plastic on the phone can be stained by a colorful case or spending too much time in a cup holder in Florida-style weather, and some plastic finishes can stain you or your clothes. Remember the
orangered Nexus 5? It did both.
- They look cheap. Not all of them, of course. HTC, as well as that Nokia of old, built some gorgeous phones that were plastic. The LG Optimus 3D was not my favorite phone. Not even close. But it was plastic and the body, the build, and the finish were stunning. But for every good plastic phone, you can buy there will be four or five bad plastic phones in equally bad plastic clamshells on a hook at Walmart. That makes people equate plastic with cheap.
All the plastic phones that were tough, looked good and came in a plethora of colors have to compete with the bottom-of-the-barrel plastics used in phones that have none of those qualities. It's not fair to compare things this way, but you usually won't find a phone you think is plain ugly or that feels slimy that's not made of plastic. Stereotypes are sometimes real.
We started seeing glass phones with the iPhone 4 and Nexus 4. They aren't completely glass, of course, but there are plenty of phones with full glass backs to go with the full glass front. They can be beautiful and give a look that compliments a great design. They can also be fragile; phone screens break all too often and so do glass backs.
Using glass also adds to a phone's price. Cheap pieces of soda-lime glass you may find at the hardware store aren't suitable for a phone. Instead, specially made ultra-clear low-expansion glass and composites like Gorilla Glass are used and can add a lot to the final price. Exotic materials like synthetic sapphire can be exceptionally clear for the wavelengths of light a person can see, and very scratch-resistant. They are even more expensive, often prohibitively so.
- RF transmission. Glass is dense, but still allows radio waves to pass through fairly easily. This means your LTE signal, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth will be stronger without any long antenna cutouts.
- They look great. Phones with a glass back can have a feeling of depth if anything is under the glass. Glass can also shimmer and give the illusion of being wet. Both of these effects together can make for a stunning look. Samsung is a total pro at this, and its recent glass-backed Galaxy phones are simply beautiful.
- They feel good in your hand. Glass can be polished until it's very smooth. Because it's inert it will also feel solid and cold like metal does. When you hold a glass-backed phone in your hand it just feels like a luxury product. Everyone loves luxury products, even if it's only an illusion.
- Glass breaks. There is nothing any company can do to make thin glass unbreakable. That means when you drop your phone (and you will) you have to worry about breaking both sides.
- Glass scratches. Everything will scratch, but glass seems to be the best at doing it. No matter what a company tells us about the Mohs scale or hardened polymers, glass will scratch. Scratches on a phone with the wet and deep illusion like a Galaxy S9 look terrible when they have a big scratch across the back.
- Glass is slippery. When your hands are damp, holding a glass phone is like squeezing an ice cube. It can pop right out of your grip and when you consider that glass breaks and glass scratches, you have a recipe for disaster.
Glass-backed phones can look amazing. That silky wet look of a Galaxy S10 or the disco ball look of the Nexus 4 makes for a beautiful looking piece of gear. We want our expensive things to be beautiful.
Unfortunately, glass is also a really risky material to use in a phone. It needs to be thin (glass is heavy!) so when you use hardened treated materials like Gorilla Glass the risk of breaking increases because hardened glass is more brittle. It's a catch-22 situation that we gladly put ourselves in because of how great it looks.
The Galaxy S10+ is beautiful in ceramic, but it's not the only phone using the material.
Ceramic phones aren't commonplace in North America, though that's about to change with the Galaxy S10+. Phones that have used ceramic, like the Essential Phone or Xiaomi's Mi Mix series, look and feel amazing.
When you think of ceramic you might be picturing your grandmother's antique china, but that's not the whole story. Sure, ceramic can look beautiful and delicate but it doesn't have to be — ceramic is harder than glass or plastic, almost completely corrosion resistant, lighter than metal and it's an insulator so there is no heat transfer.
Ceramic is also expensive. that's why we don't see low-end watches, dishware, or phones made from the material. It's costly to mine and manufacture because of the special equipment needed, not easily formed like metal or plastic, and requires better handling along the assembly floor to keep the unassembled parts from shattering. Still, once you feel it, there's no denying it's nice.
- RF transmission. Like glass, ceramic allows radio waves to pass through fairly easily. This means your LTE signal, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth will be stronger without any long antenna cutouts.
- They stay cool. Ceramic is what your power company uses to insulate the transmissions lines from their metal brackets. that's because it's non-conductive in regard to both heat and electricity. your ceramic phone isn't going to get hot in your hand.
- They feel so good. Ceramic can be highly polished after it's formed to a completely smooth finish, and then take a clear coating to remove every surface line. Without any irregularities that your hand can feel, it's like holding a piece of ice. Except it's not cold because it doesn't absorb or give off any heat dues to the magic of its insulatory properties.
- Ceramic breaks. Ceramic (the type used in something like a phone) is tough, but it's still breakable. With the right amount of abuse, it will break before metal or plastic will.
- The coating can scratch. Ceramic is tough, and so are the polymers used to clear-coat it, but it can scratch. It's not as easy as scratching glass or even metal, but if it does scratch, you'll hate feeling even the tiniest blemish on that otherwise baby-smooth finish.
- Ceramic is slippery. Wet hands? That might mean an oopsie because smooth ceramic is pretty slippery when your hands are wet or your fingers are cold and hard. Keep that in mind and take a bit of extra care.
Ceramic phones look and feel gorgeous. they also stay nice and cool because of ceramic's insulatory properties. There is a reason some of the finest watches you can buy are made from ceramic.
So which is the best?
That depends on just who you ask.
If you were to ask me, I would say that glass is the best. I like the way it looks and I like the way it feels. I know it will break or scratch easily, and I'll take that risk. I'd also tell you that plastic is probably the real best because it is more workable, more resilient, and is better for radio transmission. And good plastic can both look good and feel good. But I like glass better. That might change once I spend more time with a ceramic Galaxy S10 in my hands, but right now I'm a glass kind of guy.
While there is no one winner here, there is a loser. Metal. Metal looks and feels good, but it's a horrible material to build a phone with. It's easy to bend, it's easy to dent, and radio waves hate it. But there are plenty of people to tell me I'm wrong because it also looks and feels good while you're holding it.
That's OK. The important thing is that you buy what you like, and because so many different companies build Android phones there's a good chance it's out there. I might be on Team Glass and you might be on Team Metal, but you don't have to use my phone and vice-versa!
Which team are you on? Do metal or glass look so good that their shortcomings are forgivable? Or do you just love plastic and the range of colors or the soft feel of a quality finish? Have you fallen in love with ceramic phones yet?
Get into the comments and let us all know which you like and why. Then be happy we have more to choose from than a single phone or its plus version.
Updated March 2019: Because ceramic phones are now a thing and we love having even more things to choose from!
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