We’re already 3/4th the way into 2015, only a few short months away from 2016, but one trend has been clear since the start of this year, consumers are giving more and more consideration to the “outer” look of their phones, and not just to the design (and abhorrence of thick phones), but more importantly to build material.
In an age where almost all the internals of flagship devices are identical, save for a Micro SD slot here, or a removable battery there; phone design and build material gain even more importance as it’s stopped being a “bonus” if the phone happens to look good, or feels solid; instead it has become yet another way to differentiate from the rest of the pack, and sway potential customers.
Only last year consumers and reviewers tore apart Samsung’s for using “cheap plastic” and “poor quality materials” in their flagship Galaxy S5. Thankfully Samsung learnt their lesson, and came out swinging with this years range of devices, from the Galaxy S6 to the Note 5, along with everything in between; one thing was clear, plastic no longer had a place in Samsung’s flagship lineups. Instead Samsung committed to a range of sleek glass and metal devices, with curves and edges that if nothing else, added a definite wow factor to their devices.
Sony, who have long ago embraced metal and welcomed it into their design language, went a step further with this years Z5, adding a polished mirror glass surface to the back of the phone, which undeniably enhances the premium effect of glass and metal.Even the budget friendly flagship, the One Plus 2 ditched last years plastic build for a more solid metal frame/buttons along with a selection of wood rear covers, ranging from bamboo to rose-wood, as well as a Kevlar carbon fiber back as well. The list of “premium” bodied flagships in 2015 goes on and on, from Apple continuing with the design of the iPhone 6 and 6+, to Huawei’s Mate S (seen above), with its full metal body design and smooth curves; as well as of course one of the original full body metal phones designs, the HTC One (M9).
In fact one of the few flagship devices release this year that didn’t go with either metal or glass, was the LG G4, which made up for its plastic build with a range of genuine leather backs, which more than compensated for the plastic frame (regardless of how poorly the leather aged with time).
With all that in mind, the fact that Microsoft have continued to stick with polycarbonate in their upcoming flagships is certainly questionable, no matter the “quality” of polycarbonate , customers will inevitably equate it with plastic. When Nokia released the Nokia N9, their first polycarbonate phone (and certainly one of the first phones to embrace the color revolution of smartphones), it was nothing short of innovative in terms of design, and build quality. Of course that was a different time, when the iPhone 4S was still one of the few phones to incorporate glass into their devices (besides the screen obviously).
Since then times have changed, yes I certainly stood by the Lumia 920 (even with its weight issues), declaring that it was an obvious evolution to the Lumia family, and of course at the time everyone else was still using cheap plastic in their phones. Since then however Nokia experimented with incorporating a mix of metal and polycarbonate into their phones, and it was definitely a success; starting with the original Lumia 925 which came with a slim profile and a metal frame, to the Lumia 930 and 830 which carried the same tradition (not to mention the beautiful limited edition gold variants of them).
With all that has been said, and after comparisons I can’t help but feel like the 950/950 XL are a disappointment (I stress that I mean this in terms of design/build and not the actual phone), as we have been conditioned to expect a certain amount of metal or glass in the most elite of phones. In my mind the Lumia 950 and 950 XL are closer to the Lumia 640 XL (seen above), than to previous flagships such as the 930, 830 or even the 920.
With so many Lumias floating around, and so much polycarbonate and plastic, it seems unfair that the flagship devices for Windows 10 Mobile, and Microsoft’s first proper flagship in well over a year is underwhelming to look at. Like anything valuable, the essence of said value is from its scarceness, and it seems that the abundance of plastic/polycarbonate Lumias with similar designs have diluted the value of the once premium polycarbonate build.