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Mobile Casing Materials: Metal VS Plastic

by kenlo on ‎06-07-2012 18:00 - last edited on ‎26-03-2014 15:45 by giffgaff Educator

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Title Image.jpgIn our on-going series of articles about mobile phones and the clever technology behind them, we’ve been looking at various aspects of your mobile phone, how they’re produced and how they all work together to bring you today’s smart and seamless smartphone experience.

 

Our series of articles has so far taken us on a journey through different types of display technology and pixel arrangements, processor technology from ARM and Intel, geolocation technology such as GPS and network technology such as 3G and 4G. We’ve also had time to look at the software that runs on your smartphone: the mobile operating system and user interface design. Finally, we explored the multitude of different ways that we can interact with a smartphone: by using a hardware keyboard or software keyboard, a touchscreen display, voice recognition technologies or a stylus pen.

 

In our latest article, we turn our attention to something that determines how your smartphone looks and how it feels in your hand. It can also be an important determinant of the coverage quality you receive and the download speeds that you receive over 3G and wi-fi. We are, of course, talking about the materials that are used in the casing of your mobile phone. In this article, we compare metal and plastic phones and ask what the choice of material may mean for your new phone.

 

Metallic Casing: Premium Feel

 

Metal.jpgMetal has long been associated with premium high-end design and style on a mobile phone. Feeling rigid and expensive, a metal case gives a phone that desired premium feel in your hand. To that extent, many smartphone manufacturers have chosen to use metal on their design-conscious phones. For example, the HTC One S features a metal shell that is made from aircraft-grade aluminium which has undergone a microarc-oxidation process to make it even tougher. Other phones featuring metal include Samsung’s Wave 3 which uses aluminium and the Apple iPhone 4S which features a metallic rim that doubles-up as an antenna.

 

Whilst metallic phones are known for aesthetics and premium feel, there are disadvantages too. The primary disadvantage of using a metal case is that it will weaken the phone signal. Just like a mirror reflects light waves, a metallic case reflects the radio waves that your mobile phone uses to communicate.

 

A metallic case essentially works as a Faraday cage. Examples of Faraday cages in daily life include microwave ovens which use a metallic shell to confine the high energy microwave radiation inside the oven. Alternatively, mobile phone manufacturers often use anechoic chambers when testing their phones: it keeps other radio signals outside so the test can occur under controlled conditions. As metallic phone cases act as a partial Faraday cage, they can weaken reception which sometimes means fewer bars of reception on your phone and lower download speeds. Battery life may also be degraded as more energy is required to maintain the connection with the mobile network.

 

A further disadvantage of metal is that it tends to be heavier than plastic. This means that it can be more difficult to build a lightweight phone using metal. Recent developments have helped to reduce the weight difference between metal and plastic by creating lighter alloys with the iPhone 5 being rumoured to use a super-light alloy dubbed Liquidmetal.

Plastic Casing: Lighter and Improved Reception

 

Galaxy Nexus.jpgAs an alternative to metal casing, many smartphones instead use plastic casing. Compared to metal, plastic is lighter so your phone is less likely to weigh down in your pocket. As plastic is an insulator rather than a conductor, it also won’t lead to an adverse impact on phone reception in the same way that a metal case would.

 

The primary criticism of phones with plastic casing is that it can cause a phone to feel cheap in the hand. Plastic can also collect fingerprints and smudges quickly, particularly on handsets with a glossy finish. This “cheap” aesthetic and feeling has been a common criticism of devices such as Samsung’s Galaxy smartphones (including the Galaxy Note, Galaxy Nexus and Galaxy S III) and has prompted considerable research into making better plastic cases. A further disadvantage of plastic is that it can be harder to grip than metal: particularly after exercise, with sweat, the reduced friction offered by plastic can make it easier to lose hold of your phone.

 

Smartphone manufacturers have tried to counter the criticisms of plastic in several different ways. ‘Research In Motion’ developed the BlackBerry Bold 9000 with a plastic backing that is textured like leather. This helps to give it a premium feel without having to switch to a different material.

 

Meanwhile, Samsung has employed a textured plastic back cover (“HyperSkin”) on their recent handsets including the Galaxy S II, Galaxy Note and Galaxy Nexus. The aim of HyperSkin is to provide improved grip and increased friction whilst also reducing the number of fingerprints. Finally, the new Galaxy S III uses HyperGlaze technology with the ‘Pebble Blue’ edition being textured like metal. According to Samsung, this gives the handset a premium metallic-like feel. However, the faux-metal look has been criticised as unconvincing by some reviewers.

 

Another approach to bridging the gap between metal and plastic can be found on the original iPhone where Apple used a part-metal, part-plastic back cover. Whilst most of the device used metal casing, the bottom part of the phone used plastic casing instead. This is the part of the phone that houses the radio antennas. The part-metal, part-plastic design allows for the phone to use premium metal materials whilst affording the improved signal quality that is offered by plastic casing.

 

iPhone Original.jpg
The original iPhone used a back cover which was part metal, part plastic. The antenna is housed in the plastic region.

 

Polycarbonate Unibody: Plastic with a premium feel

 

Lumia.jpgMore recently, several handset manufacturers have moved towards using a polycarbonate unibody case. Handsets with a polycarbonate unibody include the Nokia Lumia 800 and the HTC One X. Compared to typical plastic casing, a polycarbonate unibody case is much tougher and has much better impact resistance and scratch resistance. Polycarbonate cases can also feel great in the hand with a premium build quality that can rival metallic cases.

 

The downside of a polycarbonate unibody case is that it is not possible to remove or change the battery in the device. This can be a huge issue for users that require a replaceable battery – power users for instance. It can also more difficult to insert your SIM card into a polycarbonate unibody phone: the phone will often have a push-in SIM card slot. In a plastic handset with removable battery cover, it is possible to instead insert the SIM card directly into the holder.

 

Your thoughts…

 

In this article, we’ve explored mobile phone casing materials and discussed how the choice of casing material is a trade-off between reception quality and aesthetics. Whilst metallic cases are typically tougher, more durable and premium-feeling, they can be heavy and have an adverse effect on coverage. The alternative, plastic casing is lighter and provides better coverage but can sometimes feel cheap and gather fingerprints. More recently, some manufacturers have been moving towards a polycarbonate unibody which can give your phone more of a premium feel whilst maintaining many of the benefits of plastic.

 

Are you more concerned about design and the way that your phone looks or is the quality of reception on your phone more important? Do you normally buy an additional external case for your phone or do you prefer to use it without an extra case? If you could design your perfect smartphone, would you build it from metal, plastic or a polycarbonate unibody? We’d love to hear your thoughts… please drop us a comment below and let us know what you think!

 

Ken Lo writes about mobile technology and the mobile industry at Ken's Tech Tips.

 

Comments
by stealthybigboss on ‎06-07-2012 18:30
good blog I like a well designed phone but quality of reception is a must!
by mezzi92 on ‎06-07-2012 19:24

I absolutely love a metal casing on a phone, BUT I still prefer plastic, better reception means more to me, plus, the plastic cases I have look well nice on my phone :smileytongue:

Very Good Blog and Great Information! :smileyhappy: 

by almus on ‎06-07-2012 19:58

I'm definitely a design man and that's why I'm a sucker for apple products. To me plastic just seems a bit cheap and tacky. Also I don't think a metal casing makes much of a noticeable difference to a phone's reception; I've never had a dropped call with my iphone and as technology gets better it's pretty much a non-issue.

by illy1965 on ‎06-07-2012 22:08

since i work on the building trade i always have a cover or case on my phone so i wouldn't notice any benefit from the so called premium feel of a phone casing made out of metal, but personally speaking the feel of a casing doesn't really bother me it's the users experience that i find the most important. having held and used an i phone i don't think it feels any better than what my phone does, but like i say function is more important to me than style

by matt1111 on ‎06-07-2012 23:06

I've got a rubbery sort of case on my iPhone 4S. Makes it better to grip with, and feels like to grip on itself. 

by iceqntrider on ‎07-07-2012 08:17
I really dislike the iPhone 4S as it is too slick, to be able to hold securely in your hand, and slips about when placed down anywhere. I'm not surprised that when they were testing this phone that they used a case, to hide its identity. If they had not had a case on it they would have noticed how slippy the thing actually is. Though, I guess all those iPhone case manufacturers love Apple for it? :smileywink: I mean twenty pounds plus, for a piece of "special" plastic and rubber, to protect your super slick iPhone. Lubberly Jubberly… :smileyhappy:
by iceqntrider on ‎07-07-2012 08:19
And it can't even put a return in this website either... :smileysad:
by groovemaneuver on ‎07-07-2012 10:11

How's about a metal casing THAT IS PART OF THE ANTENNA? Ah, then there'd be static-discharge issues as the antenna would be directly-connected to the chips inside the phone producing the signal, right? If not, why would a metal case be poor as an aerial/aerial extension? Is it unhealthy to touch directly or something?

Why I personally don't like plastic casings is that they BREAK. Sorry if so many fanbois never notice this as they change their phones so often, but I've had mine for five years or more, a candybar phone, cost me £50 total (£10/year, not £210) and it's TOUGH. It's had a whole pint of beer poured onto it in a freak accident, been dropped hard many times and I've been able to open it up and change the screen, keypad etc when required (which is once only!) You can't easily do that with Apple devices, they break too easily when opening, as they're not designed to be serviced outside a full-blown lab with special pressure / suction machines etc.
That reminds me, I have an ipod to solder and fix the screen back to. Been saving this task for a rainy day and here we are!

by groovemaneuver on ‎07-07-2012 10:19
by iceqnrider on 07-07-2012 08:17
I really dislike the iPhone 4S as it is too slick, to be able to hold securely in your hand, and slips about when placed down anywhere. I'm not surprised that when they were testing this phone that they used a case, to hide its identity. If they had not had a case on it they would have noticed how slippy the thing actually is. Though, I guess all those iPhone case manufacturers love Apple for it? :smileywink: I mean twenty pounds plus, for a piece of "special" plastic and rubber, to protect your super slick iPhone. Lubberly Jubberly… :smileyhappy:
by tim74 on ‎07-07-2012 12:02

groovemaneuver wrote:

- Er, so why are you advertising APPLE in every post you make with your phone, then? Are Apple paying you? No, methinks it's the other way round, and a pretty penny besides, right? Switch off the Apple marketing b.s. mate, please!


 The forum adds that not the poster.

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