Tell Me if I’m Carzy: what about a polyurethane backed phone?

Posted Dec 23, 2012 at 5:29 pm in Threads > Opinions

So I think everyone can agree that glass backed phones are prone to more breaks than a metal or plastic phone. The new nexus 4 and the old iPhone 4/4S all look stunning but their have always been horror stories about easy they shatter. The biggest question I have is why has no one tried to do a polyurethane based back.
The other two options we commonly see for phone backs include metal or plastic. These options both have their pros and cons including increased durability but are can also feel less “premium” than the glass. Metal has a similar premium quality that glass has but limits signal strength. This trade off is exemplified in the iPhone 5 and the two tone back. This decision, in my opinion was one based on function over form. The other alternative that is commonly utilized is plastic. Samsung is a key example of a manufacturer utilizing plastic. In my humble opinion feels cheap. The issue with signal quality is avoided but the durability is of a lower quality than metal but significantly greater than glass.
Looking at the options I will rank the three options currently on the market and then propose my “new” material.
1. Metal
I like this material for its durability and design but do not like it for the reduction of signal quality.
2. Glass
Very brittle and bad I’d you ever drop your phone. But this material can be stunning a great example is the new nexus 4 with the amazing quality it has when rotating it in sunlight.
3. Plastic
My least favorite material. The durability and signal quality is great but it can easily make a premium product feel cheap. An example of this is the Samsung Galaxy S III; while this is purely subjective, I find the phone feels horrible in my hands. The new HTC 8X on the other hand feels great in your hand.

Looking at all of the options, to me it is apparent you want a material that has the look of glass with the durability of plastic or metal. Having a phone’s back finished in polyurethane would be highly durable. It is a common material for table and floor finishes and feels nice. Like plastic it would do little to impede signal quality and makes it easy to stylize it. By using a solid black piece of plastic and then adding flashes of color one could easily recreate the nexus 4′s finish and even create something new and exciting.
I am sure there are many reasons why this material hasn’t been introduced to the phone market but if we stop innovating and experimenting we will stagnate and go back to the age of every phone looking the same. I would love to hear your thoughts and have you suggest any different materials that might be even better.

  • JonJJon

    My opinion is that the GS3 feels very sturdy and the “Olympic Union Flag” cover I got for it is actually marginally thicker than the stock back door and feels very premium in the hand, just sits so comfortably in the palm and feels very very durable. So plastic can be made to feel and look premium.

    Metal is nice but as you said signal quality is affected and of course a little drop and you have a nice scratch or worse dent for the rest of the devices life.

    Isn’t a type of polyurethane already used in phones; TPU = thermoplastic polyurethane, which leads me to think that maybe this material in it’s other forms has been considered but for some reason not used? I’m not sure to be honest as I’m a biologist haha and failed my first year chemistry on molecular bonds stuff.

    I’m just spit balling really, would be very interested if someone of much greater intellect in this area chimes in.

    • bear831

      @ JonJJon
      TPU as a material is quite nice, I have a case for my Galaxy Nexus that utilizes this. My problem with Samsung is they take plastic, which can feel quite nice and make it this slick, easy to scratch device. My idea involved using the polyurethane as a finish for the back because it is less slick than Samsung’s finishes and quite durable.

      @Bryan Stoner
      The iPhone 5 uses ceramic instead of glass on their new flagship device but I am still hesitant about its durability. Have you ever dropped a ceramic plate? Kevlar is an interesting idea but would it be like metal and reduce the signal strength? Motorola uses a plastic case and doesn’t make their phone completely out of kevlar; I just wonder how much of this goes into signal strength.

      @Bpear96
      The Soft touch polycarbonate in the HTC 8X is my favorite material I have currently seen on the market from a device standpoint and I agree that the finish on the Samsung Galaxy S III takes away from the experience but I do wonder if a better material is out there. In the future I expect to see more polycarbonate devices from manufactures other than HTC and Nokia.

      Overall I have been disappointed in Android not for the software but the hardware that is being produced. The iPhone has a great feel to their devices even if I am afraid to drop them, and the Windows phones coming out of HTC far outclass most of their own Android phones with the possible exception of the One X and even comparing the One X to the 8X makes me lean more towards the Microsoft camp in terms of pure hardware. Maybe like people with iPhones who complain about software, I complain about Android for its hardware. To me, and I’m just expressing an opinion; an iPhone 5 fully supported by AOSP and running the latest version of Jellybean (and running to the same performance levels as iOS) would be my dream phone.

      • lou2cool88

        I completely agree. I’ve been thinking this for a while that the Android phones have not been as competitive in the hardware department as the other platforms. I always with Nokia had gone with Android instead of Windows Phone. The Nexus 4 and the HTC One X are the devices that, to me, come closest to making hardware that matches the great feel and look of the Android OS. My dream phone would be a Nokia Lumia 920 running stock Jelly Bean

  • Bryan Stoner

    What about ceramic and kevlar? They seem to have worked alright for HTC and Motorola respectively.

  • Bpear96

    I like the HTC One X material (soft touch polycarbonate i think). Im pretty sure the galaxy s3 is made of the same material, but has a samsung “hyper glaze” finish which IMO makes it look cheaper not nicer.

    • tanman888

      Couple that with the rounded backing, the s3 is also slippery to hold without the aid of a cover. Dropping any of these devices = very disgruntled owners.

  • tanman888

    I feel the majority of owners will place their smartphone in some sort of after market protection casing (often some sort of rubberised plastic). So in most circumstances the original phone case would barely see the light of day?

    • lou2cool88

      I agree. I always put my phone in a case but having said that, I would think twice about putting my phone in a case if it looked nice and felt nice without one.

      • bear831

        So my brother gave me his old iPhone 4 and I was using it like an iPod touch. I found that all of the cases I used on it could not compare to the feel of that phone’s glass back. A really well built phone will always feel better than a phone inside of a case.

  • cliffy223

    What’s the material used on the Microsoft Slate it looks nice and seems durable. Really I don’t think it would matter using gorilla glass if we could easily swap them. Having the ability to have glass back that can be swapped out like a plastic back would be the best option.

    • Bryan Stoner

      “The Microsoft Surface line features VaporMg (pronounced “VaporMag”), a molded magnesium casing[13] that houses Surface’s components paired with a PVD finish.” from wiki.

      • bear831

        I have held the surface and it felt amazing. The device was nice too hold but then again it has the same issues as all metals do, poor signal conductivity. I do hope Microsoft releases a Surface phone as I would like to see what they come up with.

        @cliffy223
        The backs of the old iPhone 4/4S’ were swappable, but the after market people who did it charged an arm and a leg to do it, a local guy here charged $50 for a cheap colored glass back that some people I know purchased and cracked with the slightest drop. If a replacement back for an iPhone costs so much (the most common phone on the market) how much would it cost to get one for an Android device that has nowhere near the same adoption rate?

        • Bryan Stoner

          The Asus Transformer infinity has a plastic strip at the top to allow for better signal reception. This was in response to poor wifi signals on the Asus Tranformer Prime. Those guys have the solution ;)

  • breckdroid

    I agree that the plastic does feel less than stellar and also see where glass and ceramic a too fragile. The brushed metal, IMO, looks great, but it too can suffer from a fall.

    I’m all for some innovation in hardware. That being said the first thing I do when I get a new phone is look for a case. So I’m not sure if a change in hardware would matter much if I’m just gonna cover it with anotother material. However perhaps the only reason I’m buying a case in the first place is due to my lack of trust in the build quality or if I’m trying to up the aesthetics.

    • bear831

      I too wonder if people constantly applying a case to a phone is more about our insecurities about its build quality or a statement on usage. Personally I prefer phones with cases but I buy one any way. Do you have a case for you laptop and/or tablet? I sure don’t.

      • tanman888

        I would lean towards people’s usage. We are sometimes clumsy and careless especially if we’re forever on the go and in a rush. It’s either that, or we don’t trust the world around us! :P

        • bear831

          I think it is a little of both in a way. The world is not some neoprene sleeve that keeps our devices nice; it is harsh and abrasive. You can tell the difference in a phone that has been in a case and one that has not just by looking at them. I do know that I personally am harder on my phone than my tablet or laptop but that is in large part due to a function of usage not care. Even the ruggedized phones available on the market will scratch and show signs of use. Despite this I really want a phone that is more durable than glass but has a similar premium feel.