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Plastic has its plus points, but give me solid metal any day

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 27, 2013

Plastic or metal?

Surprisingly, the choice of materials in mobile phones has generated heated debate among consumers, especially after Samsung unveiled yet another phone, the Galaxy S4 smartphone, wrapped in plastic.

Some seem to prefer a metal body, because logic dictates that it would be sturdier and more resilient than a plastic one; although aluminium, the choice of some manufacturers, is a soft metal.

Glass is a viable third alternative but, having seen too many cracked screens, few would believe any glass to be shatterproof.

Still, when it comes to mobile devices, neither metal nor plastic has measured up when it comes to providing adequate protection.

The aluminium frame of the iPhone 5 is prone to dents and dings, partly because paint has been slapped onto its back plate, making dings more obvious.

The dents on an old Motorola Milestone show up also after extended use.

There have also been numerous reports of cracked back covers, casings and phones in the Samsung Galaxy S series, even when the devices were not dropped.

Though flexible plastic may seem sturdy, if you have ever had to remove the back cover of a phone made of the material to replace your SIM or memory card, then you know how flimsy the material feels.

In a hilarious video by BlendTec, both the iPhone5 and Samsung Galaxy S III were turned into dust in a blender. The video shows the plastic S III faring slightly better than the metallic iPhone 5.

So if neither material is significantly better, why give Samsung grief for sticking with plastic?

After all, sales of the Galaxy S range of phones have exceeded 100 million units. Apple's iPhone series has also fared well, from the glass back of the iPhone 4 and 4S, to the aluminium one of the iPhone5.

If anything, sales numbers show that consumers care less about what material a phone is made of than what it will do.

My gripe with plastic, though, is the impression it delivers.

If you have to shell out hundreds of dollars for a gadget, would you see more value in one made of plastic or metal?

Let us take a look at the bigger picture here.

The Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 is a 10.1-inch tablet with hardware great enough to show off to others, but try using it by holding the screen and base with your fingers and pressing on it. The screen stays firm, but the back cover flexes under the pressure.

On the other hand, the iPad, with its sturdy aluminium finish, does not.

With the Galaxy S4, Samsung defended its choice to use plastic by saying its decision was influenced by the phone's production and its ability to make them to meet demand.

Which is ironic, because when news of the Galaxy S4 came out, competitor HTC made fun of the plastic build. A week later, rumours surfaced that HTC had to delay the launch of its HTC One phone, which comes in a unibody aluminium shell, partly because of production issues with its metal body.

Another rumour concerns Apple's upcoming cheaper iPhone, which supposedly comes in a plastic body.

By that time, Apple's superior marketing push will have no doubt convinced users that a better finish means quality, while plastic serves its purpose for the budget-minded masses.

Hopefully, this debate will force Samsung to look at classier materials for its next flagship device.

sherwinl@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 27, 2013

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