Plastic’s got a bad rap. We fool ourselves into thinking that plastic phones are cheap and ugly, but they’re just as good as a glass-backed and aluminum devices. In fact, you might prefer a lightweight and durable plastic phone over the greasy glass sandwich that’s weighing down your pocket.
Glass Sandwiches Are Heavy and Fragile
I’m currently using a Pixel 3a, and for all of its standout features, I’m constantly impressed by its weightlessness. It’s one of the lightest smartphones I’ve ever used, and a far cry from the weighty gigantic glass-backed phones that Samsung and Apple are releasing today.
Some people may argue that the Pixel 3a is lightweight because of its small 5.6-inch footprint. But size ain’t everything; the Pixel’s weightlessness is all because of the plastic! Just look at the new Pixel 4a, which weighs a paltry 5.04 ounces despite its 5.8-inch display. That’s significantly less weight than the new 4.7-inch iPhone SE, which pushes the scale to 5.22 ounces and feels like a shiny $400 bludgeon.
Not that I would use the iPhone SE as a weapon—it’s too fragile! There’s no landing on your feet with a glass-backed phone. If it drops hard enough, you’re gonna end up with a cracked display or a shattered backside (or both). A plastic phone that lands on its back probably won’t need any repairs, although it may come out with a scuff or a scar.
Lots of Plastic … Looks Fantastic!
Samsung’s Galaxy S5 marks a turning point for phone design. Not because it was especially attractive or ambitious looking, but because critics thought that its dimpled plastic backside looked cheap. Complaints were so bad that Samsung replaced its design chief and spit out the S6 and S6 Edge, two phones that set today’s design standard for glass backs and curved displays.
Phone critics were probably envious of the aluminum-wrapped iPhone 6, which looks futuristic next to the Galaxy S5. But the complaints about plastic suddenly extended to every device from 2014 onward. Even phones that look modern today, like 2014’s Nexus 6, were criticized for their “cheap” plastic appearance.
But we both know that plastic looks fine. Ugly phones don’t look that way because they’re made of plastic; they look that way because of poor design choices. Plenty of phones rock the plastic look, and even years-old devices like the Sony Xperia XZ1 Compact look futuristic thanks to a satin finish and smart color design.
Speaking of satin finishes, don’t you hate the fingerprints and smudges on your glass-backed phone? Plastic phones are perfect for people who like to go without a phone case, as they’re (mostly) fingerprint-proof and resistant to unsightly cracks or blemishes. (And if you use a phone case … then why do you care what the back of your phone looks like?)
Plastic Doesn’t Interfere with 5G or Wireless Charging
One of the difficult things about 5G phones and wireless charging technologies is that they don’t have a lot of range. They’re also easy to obstruct, which is just one reason why manufacturers like to make their phones out of glass instead of aluminum. But it just happens that plastic is perfect for wireless charging, and it may be better suited for 5G than glass.
You know the white or gray lines that run on the top and bottom edges of your phone? Those are antenna bands—although they aren’t actually antennas. Instead, they’re strips of plastic that allow your cellphone’s antenna signal to slip past the metal frame that holds all that glass together.
But plastic is practically invisible to radio waves. Phone manufacturers don’t need to worry about antenna bands or signal strength while working on plastic phones, which makes it a lot easier to deal with sensitive 5G technology. It’s also (maybe) the reason why both the $1,000 Galaxy Note 20 5G and the sub-$500 Moto G 5G Plus rock our favorite material—plastic! Turns out it’s not just budget phones, even in 2020.
Repairs Are a Breeze! (Kinda)
When the lead designer behind Samsung’s Galaxy S5 was asked why the company stuck with plastic, he answered that it makes battery-swaps and repairs easier. You can open the back of an S5 and replace its battery using just your fingernail, which is a far cry from the hour-long process of replacing the glass-backed Galaxy S6’s battery.
While plastic phones aren’t as repairable as they used to be, they’re easier to fix than their glass-backed counterparts. Take the Pixel 3a and Pixel 4a—two phones that are easy to open and secured by light manageable adhesive. The newer Pixel 4a is also notable for its accordion design, which allows you to quickly navigate the phone’s internals by removing the display and taking out a single midframe screw.
Repairing a plastic phone is still a frustrating time-consuming process that most people won’t (or shouldn’t) bother with. But hey, at least you know that your Pixel 4a will be refurbished and resold after you’re done with it. Phones that are more difficult to repair don’t always enjoy the same fate.
You can’t judge a book by its cover, and you shouldn’t buy a phone based on its backside. Plastic phones have a lot to offer. They look fantastic with satin or matte finishes, they don’t screw with 5G signals, they’re practically weightless, and they’re slightly easier to repair than your average glass-backed phone.