When did "build quality" suddenly shift from how well a device is made, and how robust it is, to "how it feels in your hand"?
I am going to touch on a lot of things in this post but this question (and the questions it creates) will be the main subject.
Before I start, I am not any company's fanboy, I have owned and used just about every mobile device that has been on the market in the last 4 years, and I have worked in the telecommunications industry for the last 5 years. I loved my iPhone 4 and 4S, I loved my LG phones, I loved my Samsung phones, I loved my Asus, Samsung, Apple and Toshiba tablets, I liked my Sony phones, I liked my Nokia Windows phones, I liked most of my Huawei phones, I was indifferent to my HTC phones, and I wasn't a big fan of my Motorola ones. That is a small fraction of devices I have used personally on a day-to-day basis and even fewer than I have used at/for work from anywhere from 2 weeks to 4 months.
I am going to primarily be talking about Apple and Samsung because Apple are the biggest pushers of Aluminium phones and Samsung seem to cop the most from people about their plastic ones. I do mention HTC, LG, and Sony; and Apple's name could easily be replaced with HTC and Samsung's with LG/Sony/Motorola but the post would have less contrast.
Following the iPhone 6 Plus bendgate stuff, and the subsequent testing of a lot of other mobile devices on the market, there is still such a huge emphasis on how a device "feels in your hand", and the "premium materials" a device uses.
Every single review, without exception, that compares a device using an aluminium chassis/case (iPhone, HTC) with one using a plastic chassis/case (Samsung, Nokia, LG) will always give "build quality" to the aluminium phone. Usually citing that the aluminium feels more premium in your hand.
What is a premium material? What defines a premium material? is it an expensive material? or a material that is rare? a material of high quality?
If it is any of those 3 things (price, rarity, quality) or a mixture of those 3 things, why is thin aluminium considered a premium material?
Aluminium is one the cheapest materials you can buy on a global scale, especially thin sheeting. With absolutely no sources or supplier connections, and in about 5 minutes of google searching, I was able to source aluminium sheeting (the same thickness used on the iPhone 6/6+) for $1200 Per Metric Ton.
A metric ton of aluminium sheeting is conservatively enough to make 6500 iPhones (rounded down), meaning that fancy "premium" casing on your iphone is worth about 18 cents.
18 cents, and I can just about guarantee that Apple (and HTC) get their aluminium for cheaper than I can.
Now let's have a look at plastics, shall we?
Polycarbonate: $2800-$4000 per metric ton
High density polyethylene: $10000 per metric ton
Polyvinyl chloride (PVC): $3000 per metric ton
Acrylic/Plexiglass: $2500 per metric ton
Plastic is consistently more expensive.
Is aluminium rare?
"Aluminum is the most common metal in the earth's crust, almost twice as abundant as iron. And one common class of aluminum minerals, collectively called alum, has been in use since at least Greek and Roman times."
Aluminium was once worth more than gold in the mid 1800's, but less than 50 years after the first aluminium ingot was sold, the value dropped from $500 (per ingot) to less than 25 cents for the same amount.
It is hard to judge plastics rarity, but aluminium is far from a rare material.
Is aluminium a high quality material?
Yes, and no. Is air grade aluminium used on aircraft in correct thicknesses and in the correct way high quality? Absolutely.
Is the aluminium used on most electronic devices high quality? no.
Aluminium is an easily dentable and extremely pliable metal, especially when it is used as thin as we have seen for the last 3-4 years.
The polycarbonate and HDPE used on most electronic devices that use plastics are very high quality materials, they have been engineered to be high quality materials. They have high tensile strength, don't dent, and require substantial force to break.
Plastic is more expensive than aluminium, aluminium is just as abundant as plastic is (possibly even more so), and plastics used on electronic devices are of higher quality than aluminium used on electronic devices.
So why is Aluminium classified as "premium" when an iPhone is in the hands of a reviewer, while a plastic phone like the galaxy note 3 is considered "cheap"?
Just look at this (around the 1:10 mark):
This is an iPhone 6 plus bend test which the guy did out on the street in front of witnesses, it is almost effortless to bend and to completely destroy. Is this what "premium materials" and "superb build quality" mean now?
Even in the flawed consumer reports test, using a high-precision Instron compression test machine that placed all the pressure on the dead middle of the phones (not at the weak spots) showed how poorly aluminum phones stack up to their plastic counterparts.
HTC One M8, Iphone 6 (Aluminum) - 70lbs of force
Iphone 6 plus (Aluminium) - 90lbs of force
LG G3 (plastic) - 130lbs of force
Samsung Galaxy note 3 (plastic) - 150lbs of force
The iPhone 4S, which most misinformed people call an aluminium phone (only it's edge is aluminium, the sheets of glass sit in a plastic frame, and the majority of the case is plastic), couldn't even beat out the galaxy note 3 and the note 3 is thinner (8.3mm vs. 9.3mm).
Samsung seem to get the most criticism for the use of plastics and I just cannot figure out why. In a lot of the cases they have actually addressed what "experts" and reviewers had concerns about in their previous products.
For example (and I'm moving to TVs for a short moment), Back in 2010-2012 Samsung pushed active 3D over passive 3D, most reviewers and experts complained of the over large and heavy active 3D shutter glasses that this technology required, while praising passive 3D glasses for being light and comfortable.
Skip ahead to 2013-2014 and Samsung managed to turn those big active shutter glasses into extremely light weight and comfortable ones; Now reviewers complain that these glasses feel small and cheap.. but in the same sentence they refer to them as being light and comfortable.
If I'm sitting back and thinking in my head "what the fuck do these people want?" then I have no idea just how frustrated the higher ups at Samsung must be.
Also on the TV front, I read a review recently of the Samsung UA9000, which complained that the remote control was made out of plastic, while at the same time praising the control as the best Samsung has ever made and it being both highly functional, light, comfortable and easy to use.
Do people really want their TV remotes made out of solid metal? I'd rather have something with some texture that doesn't weigh 2 kilos and wouldn't kill a cat if dropped from standing height. I've used the remote at work and it feels fine, it's a great remote... I don't think not making it out of plastic would have improved it in any way.
The latest comparisons between the newly released iPhone 6 plus and Galaxy note 4 are similarly oblivious. The (easily bendable) iPhone 6 plus is apparently better in your hand and is a more premium device, according to just about every review out there. Despite the note 4 using a metal edge, most reviewers however mark the "faux leather plastic back" as being cheap compared to the aluminium that is worth 18 cents on the 6 plus.
The Galaxy Note 4 uses a Magnesium alloy edge around the entire phone, the same Magnesium alloy that is used to make Bugatti Veyron steering wheel paddles. I was able to source magnesium alloy for $10,000 per metric ton, which is just over 8 times more expensive than aluminium.
I was also able to source synthetic leather (which is what the "cheap plastic back" of the galaxy note 4 is made out of) for $3000 per 1000 square metres, which I am willing to bet is quite a bit lighter than a metric ton.
iPhone 6 plus case materials - thin aluminium sheeting - roughly 18 cents
Galaxy note 4 case materials - Magnesium alloy/synthetic leather - roughly $1/roughly 33 cents
Those figures are including the fact that Samsung would be able to produce more phones with their materials than Apple can (around 10,000 phones to Apples 6500 with the same metric ton of materials), and the galaxy note 4 materials are still more than 7 times more expensive per phone.
Subjectively, I cannot even begin to understand how somebody would prefer a slippery, cold, hard surface over a soft, textured and semi-grippy surface. The synthetic leather back of the Note 4 feels a lot better than the aluminium backing of either the iphone or the HTC, it's actually comfortable, it doesn't feel like it'll slide out of your hand at any second, and it isn't easily dentable (it isn't dentable at all in fact).
Samsung (and other companies) use plastic for a reason, it is a suitable material to make an electronic device out of. Cellular/wifi signals can not pass through aluminium. This is why ugly black or white lines run straight through parts of the "premium" aluminium phones, their antennas have to be external; this can create it's own problems, E.G iphone 4 death grip which caused dropped calls if holding it a certain way.
Nintendo president told designers of the 3DS he wanted it to consistently survive 5 drops from a 10 foot height onto concrete. They made it out of plastic.
In fact, every portable gaming console is made of plastic. Every water proof and dust proof device is primarily made of plastic (and laminated glass). Is being water proof not considered as being of good build quality?
How on earth do you compare a slippery, easily damaged aluminium phone to a water proof, dust proof, more robust but still just as thin and light plastic phone and come to the conclusion that the aluminium one is of better build quality? (like just about every reviewer the world over)
Now for the fun part, I said that there was a reason companies use plastic, and it is probably because their extensive R&D have uncovered it to be the best option to make these devices with.
People are constantly on Samsung's back about their "cheap plastic" devices (which I have already shown to be far more expensive than any aluminium counterpart) but Samsung spend more on R&D than any other electronics company in the world, in fact, in 2013 they were the second highest R&D spenders out of any company in the world (right under Volkswagen which own and spend tens of billions on Bugatti R&D).
Do you know where Apple was? not on the list. What about HTC? not on the list.
The top 20 R&D spenders list has been around since 2005, neither Apple, nor HTC, have ever made the list.
You might consider it unfair to name HTC, considering they only make mobile devices, but do you know who has consistently made the list? Nokia... a company who (up until very recently) only made mobile devices.
To put that in perspective, Nokia spent more on R&D for mobile/cell phones in 2013 than Apple spent on R&D for mobile phones, tablets, laptops, desktops, monitors, MP3 players, TV media boxes and streaming devices.
Samsung has been on the top 20 list ever year since 2005, as has Nokia, Samsung has been in the top 10 for 5 of the last 6 years and has outspent companies like Microsoft, Google, Intel and major car manufacturers.
Sony has even made the list several times since 2005.
I am so sick and tired of people complaining about electronics (and just things in general) being made out of "cheap" plastic. Everybody needs to take a step back and think about it for 5 seconds, before eating up all the crap Apple and HTC spew out about aluminium.
Aluminium is considered "premium" because effective marketing told you it was. An hours research (or even less) would uncover that aluminium is one of the cheapest materials a company can buy, and it is anything but premium; nor is it suitable for electronic devices.
Extensive R&D by some of the highest R&D spending companies in the world have come to the conclusion that plastic is a better (or the best) option for electronic devices. The quicker the industry moves away from aluminium, the better it will be for all of us.
TL;DR Plastic > Aluminium. It is more expensive, stronger, more versatile, more robust, doesn't block cell signals, and is of higher quality. People (especially reviewers and fanboys) need to stop listening to extensive marketing and advertisement coming from companies who have the most to gain by misleading them.