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Newton’s first law of motion says plastic is good for a mobile phone body

By Mike O - March 10, 2013 12

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My Android in 2012: Darren Kemp

Nexus 4 Smashed

If Samsung can been accused of anything since their rise to popularity in the smartphone game, it’s that their phones lack the build quality of some of the competitors. I can’t argue with that. To cite just one example, the Nexus 4 feels suburb in hand and looks great, but the Galaxy S3 feels cheap, almost as if the decision on the form factor was an after thought.

But for all the complaining from my friends, family and colleagues about the ‘plasticy’ feel of their Samsung phones, let me tell you why plastic is a good thing and why ‘build quality’ is an analogous term.

The best way to start this topic is with my own anecdotal experience. I and many people I know have a Galaxy S3, and being part of the human race means we’re also quite clumsy at times. To date everyone I’ve known with this particular device who has dropped it has walked away without incident (except for one belonging to a resident author, but his fell from such a great hight that no phone would have survived).

I personally have unintentionally abused my Galaxy S3 well beyond the point that any iPhone or similar device would have survived. I’ve dropped it more times than I’ve had hot dinners, kicked it when it fell from my front pocket, and once it fell out of my backpack and bounced off a wall while I was running, and in all these instances it fell on a hard floor surface. My screen is still in perfect condition.

My old Motorola Droid experienced similar abuse, and every time I dropped it the battery cover would fly off but the screen was never damaged. There’s a reason for this which I will get to soon.

The same can not be said for my iPhone and Nexus 4 bearing friends, who nearly all of them now or at one time or another had cracked screens from just a single drop. One in particular has had his iPhone 5 screen repaired three times.

So what’s going on here? Why are the devices with the allegedly superior build quality the same ones we see with broken screens more often? I’ll let Mr. Newton explain that with a single word.


I won’t pretend I’m a physicist and explain the intricacies of Newtons law of motion here so I’ll put it into terms most of us can understand. Those devices with the ‘superior’ build quality such as the iPhone, Nexus 4 and others with their aluminium bodies and glass front and backs look nice, but they’re also typically heavier or have a greater weight-to-size ratio.

When in motion heavy objects will impact with greater force than lighter objects. When that force is abruptly stopped (when the device hits the ground) all that energy has to go somewhere, and it will go to the structurally weakest part of the object – which in most cases is the glass.

When comparing the strength of aluminium to glass (even gorilla glass) in a drop contest, aluminium is going to win every time.

Yes the plastic body of the Galaxy S3 is a little flimsy, and when you physically try to flex it there is actual movement as you can clearly see and hear the plastic bend. I’m willing to bet this is the reason my screen is still perfectly fine. But until we get the transparent aluminium that Star Trek promised us 30 years ago manufacturers are still going to define superior build quality as being glass and aluminium.

When you drop a plastic phone one of two things are likely to happen:

  • There is enough flexibility in the body for the energy created from impact to escape
  • The energy might escape from the battery cover flying off

Putting it simply, the rigid heavier device covered back/front in glass is going to have a greater chance of breaking than the flexible plastic device. This very same principle applies to motor vehicles that have crumple zones built in to absorb impact. They are deliberately built to be structurally weak so that in a collision the force of the impact is distributed to the outer sections of the vehicle rather than the passengers. Except that is designed to save lives, not preserve the aesthetic of the vehicle (quite the opposite).

None of this is to say that phones with plastic bodies are never going to see a cracked screen – they certainly can. But they have a greater chance of surviving in my opinion. At least my personal experience has shown this.

At the end of the day my priorities are with a phone I am able to operate because the screen is still usable, the aesthetics are secondary. There’s a certain sub-set of people who place aesthetics and design over practicality in a mobile device and I won’t mention who they are suffice to say they actually don’t have much choice while they’re in that camp. The S3 and other plastic devices might not look as pretty as the aluminium glass variants but they’re probably going to go a longer distance before you see a broken screen.

So back to this term ‘build quality’. What does it mean? Does it mean a device looks and feels nice in hand? Or does it mean it’s going to minimise damage when abused? I’l let you be the judge on that.

In case you’re wondering, the upcoming Galaxy S4 will also be made from plastic as Samsung argues these same reasons: that the material is “more durable than those of other smartphones because it’s bendable and can better absorb physical impact” (Cnet).

When all is said and done I prefer having a smartphone with a body that feels like it was manufactured by Fisher-Price. I can think about about how I’ve already (unintentionally) abused the heck out of it and my next drop will likely result with no issue, while my friends with ‘other’ phones that have ‘superior’ build quality treat them like delicate flowers.

A smartphone is a tool, not a fashion accessory, and a nice aesthetic feel won’t mean a thing if you can’t use it because your screen is smashed.

Mike O

Michael is the founder of Android Analyse, a veteran web designer/developer & Android enthusiast. He loves designing and building mobile web interfaces and messing around with code for fun. How geek is that? For his daily drivers Mike O uses a Samsung Galaxy S3 and a Google Nexus 7.

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  1. Yousuf Haque 6 Yousuf Haque

    I would argue that many people don’t have a problem with plastic phones, they just a problem with the ‘feel’ of the plastic phones. Take the HTC One X for example, it has a poly-carbonate body, which is just fancy word for strengthened plastic. The HTC One feels sturdy in your hand and I believe that has to do with it’s consolidated body and lack of flex in the shell. There’s two things to take into consideration when judging the physical body of a phone. Build quality, and build feel. The Nexus 4 has a very solid feel, and very good build quality. The glass front and back give the Nexus 4 a very sleek feel. The HTC One is made of plastic, but it still has a sturdy feel. The Galaxy S3 has more flex in the cover so it seems like it’s build quality is slightly lower compared to it’s peers, however as you stated, flex is often what disperses the impact throughout the phone.

    The ideal situation would be super premium feeling poly-carbonate, or super durable near shatterproof, scratch proof glass. I personally hope that Gorilla Glass is on it’s way to the latter

    • 84 Jason G

      I agree, being plastic and feeling cheap are not synonymous and the HTC OneX shows this very well.

      I was super-impressed with the feel of my aluminium uni-body Desire HD, but that still dented when my wife dropped it on a granite bench top, but when my brother dropped his OneX because he missed his pocket, it just bounced off the tile floor and was fine… move on.

      Another great example of plastic not “feeling” cheap is the Asus TF300. I have the Prime (aluminium backplate) and my with has the 300 (all plastic build) and there is no appreciable difference in the feel of the products from a quality perspective (there is a clear thermal difference).

  2. I like aluminium devices, and even more those that are made of glass, like the Nexus 4 or Xperia Z. The point in those gadgets are the little border on the sides of the device, that can absorb the impact too, and not let all the energy go to the screen. Of course, the Nexus 4 is one of the most fragile devices on the market, with the weak Gorilla Glass on the back, but the temperated glass of the Xperia Z can absorb more of the energy and not break. So, in a perfect world manufacturers can make a beautiful device (aluminium or glass) and also resistant. It is noteworthy that I have a Galaxy Nexus with a whole shattered screen, and it’s made of plastic.

  3. 1 Brian

    Couldn’t disagree more. My S3 cracked on its first fall. Plastic is cheap, glass breaks when you drop it. It breaks more easily without the rigidity of a metal frame. Samsung makes phones from plastic because everything they make is plastic.

    • Nope, Mike is right (except about heavy objects falling faster; he’s dead wrong about that, all objects fall at the same speed, at least until they reach their terminal velocity anyway ).

      Plastic absorbs impact better (from the pov of the item inside the plastic) because it bends and flexes and dents inwards etc. This is why cars, even the luxury ones, have plastic bumpers now, not steel ones – it allows the plastic to rapidly absorb energy and reduce the amount of energy applied to the passenger (or glass screen). If you have a steel bumper on a car, aside from being more likely to kill pedestrians, you also ensure that the sudden stop is a lot more sudden and fragile things like human beings or glass screens don’t appreciate that.

      In short, something’s gotta give. The shell, the contents or the ground. If the ground is concrete, that just leaves your phone and I’d much rather my phone flexed a little at the shell thanks.

      • 104 Mike O

        Crap – my wording there was rather stupid now that I’m reading it awake. Sorted now. Yes I’m well aware gravity is a constant.

        Thanks for the pick up.

  4. 6 Igaal

    I’m quite sure that if Newton would have seen Sammy’s cheap plastic he would have changed his mind… Now I broke my one XL a few weeks after I bought it and I know more than a few people who broke their galaxy s3 as well, so no matter what particular sort of plastic your phone is made from or even if it’s made from glass or aluminium it will break if you drop it 90 percent of the time so I would prefer to have a phone that feels great and made of the highest quality possible than having a cheap plastic phone, having said that I would rather have the worst phone over an iPhone….

  5. Kelli 19 Kelli

    This is an interesting theory but I think it won’t make any difference if I drop my phone and it lands glass flat on concrete.

    • That’s actually better. If it lands glass down, unless there’s an irregularity in the surface it landed on, you’re spreading the energy over a larger surface area. You have problems when it lands on a corner – that’s when the energy is forced against the smallest point and why most people’s screens that are broken have the crack coming from a corner.

      That’s why a jelly rubber cases are a good idea. That said, I don’t use one because they look like crap and apparently I’m too vain.

  6. 7 Igaal


    If this is really the s4 then Samsung should change their name to Apple! that thing is f-**k ugly!! and lacks innovation just like Apple

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