Smartphone materials

It's pretty easy to get lost in the smartphone echo chamber, especially when you play with them every minute of every day. We say things like "just put an AOSP ROM on it" or "everyone has a smartwatch" and it's easy to forget that we — collectively, as smartphone enthusiasts — are not most people. One of the big things that has been fascinating me recently is just how varied the materials used on the outside of so many great smartphones are right now. Wood, leather, 2.5D glass, self healing plastic, kevlar, aluminum, and regular plastic with smooth or coarse finishes on the back make up the devices on my desk, and there are still more options out there.

Sure, the stuff that really matters is under those materials — whether or not that backplate is removable or how nice the display is, how fast you can get a GPS lock and whether or not the speakers are loud enough to blast from the sink while you're in the shower — but those outer materials are creating an aesthetic ecosystem that carries with it a series of wildly different decisions in the life of that device, and that's worth talking about.

It's easy to forget that we — collectively, as smartphone enthusiasts — are not most people.

Over the past two weeks, I have had more people ask me about the phone I am using then ever before. At coffee shops, standing in line at the grocery store, waiting to pick my kids up from somewhere, total strangers stop me to ask what phone I'm using. I almost never have my phone in a case, so these folks are seeing the outer shell of whatever I am using. The strange curve of the G Flex 2 or the Galaxy S6 edge and the mostly unique look to the leather on the G4 or the bamboo back of the 2014 Moto X get the attention of those around me, and when I hand the phone off for these people to hold the reactions are incredible to watch. I've seen people lament the lack of grip on the back of the iPhone 6 after holding the leather G4, or hold up their thoroughly Otterboxed Galaxy S5 and express deep concern towards the glass on the S6 edge. I've had folks laugh as I explain why I got a Moto X with wood on the back, equating that experience to wood paneling on old cars. These phones aren't just drab rectangles anymore, they elicit emotional responses and grab the attention of those around you because they are so different.

Android materials

More than looks, or the way folks respond to looks, there's often some impressive technical challenges associated with these materials. When Motorola first announced wood backs for the Moto X, one of the big challenges the company faced was ensuring the different types of wood didn't negatively impact the way the radios in the phone works, a problem that was largely resolved in the 2014 Moto X by making the entire outer frame metal. Heat is another huge factor in the design of these phones, especially when using materials that act as insulators like leather or trying to design an appropriate way to dissipate heat across a surface being held by a human hand. Environmental factors are important to consider as well, and something that you think about for quite a while if you've ever tried to grab a gunmetal HTC One M9 off a dashboard mount after it has been sitting in direct sunlight for 45 minutes. Impressively, these phones all work remarkably well and perform similarly when put side by side, despite the engineering and design challenges involved in creating each one.

Inevitably, the conversation turns to cases.

Inevitably, the conversation with most of the folks I have run into turns to cases. So many users out there have adopted this smartphone strategy where you grab the thickest, most durable-looking case you can find and shove the phone in there as soon as it comes out of the box, never looking back. These people love the feel of these new phones, but it's a passing curiosity because the phone stops looking nice and feeling comfortable as soon as it slides into that layered plastic monstrosity. That doesn't mean there aren't decent cases that let you show off your phone's accents while keeping it safe, but there's almost always some kind of comfort or design tradeoff with a case. While it's true that durability technology is constantly changing, and some manufacturers have even started rolling out policies to replace your phone if it gets broken, it doesn't matter. You can put as many numbers after the words Gorilla Glass as you want, these folks know what a shattered screen feels like and aren't going to risk it. Nor should they, smartphones are expensive and culturally our dependence on these devices — be it imaginary, artificial, or peer-driven — grows daily.

Choice is the order of the day, which is the message Google has been spreading with their recent advertising campaigns. As anecdotal as all of my recent conversations are, it feels an awful lot like these visual details — many of which the smartphone echo chamber are occasionally quick to dismiss in favor of specs and benchmarks and ROMs — are selling phones. Whether it's the smooth grip of leather, the cold reflection of glass, or the rugged look of kevlar as it slides into three more layers of protections, the materials that make up our phones seem to matter more and more every day.