What's in a touch? The Samsung Galaxy S III polycarbonate debate

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
What's in a touch? The Samsung Galaxy S III polycarbonate debate
Earlier we told you all that the Samsung Galaxy S III has a case and battery cover that is made of polycarbonate, not just regular plastic, which means the case is much stronger, more durable, and more scratch resistant, even though the case may still look and feel like normal plastic. Probably not to anyone's surprise, there was an outcry by those who stood by the idea that it doesn't matter if it's polycarbonate or regular plastic, because it will still have a similar "feel and look" to plastic. It seems to us that there's a fundamental problem with this line of thinking, which is tied directly to one of our favorite topics: word usage. 

One of the main reasons why we wrote the article earlier, and were careful to not lump polycarbonate together with regular plastic despite the fact that polycarbonate is a type of plastic, is because of the general connotation that "plastic" is cheap and flimsy. This is not at all the case with polycarbonate, which we found can be on par with the Kevlar fiber case found on the Motorola RAZR. Trying to lump together polycarbonate and regular plastic is like lumping together the Samsung Galaxy S III and the G1 in the same "smartphone" category. Sure, it's technically correct, but you lose quite a lot of meaning by doing so. 

Still, this idea that plastic is cheap and generally bad came through along with the cries that the phone still looks and feels bad. The trouble with making statements like this is that, unfortunately for polycarbonate, not only is the word "plastic" tied to the idea of being cheap and flimsy, but the look and feel of plastic is tied to that idea as well. And, with the rise of polycarbonate, it may be time to reset our definition and ideas about plastics. Polycarbonate isn't just a "fancy name", it's a completely different class of material. 

This kind of reset on how we view material is a new and strange idea. Glass and metal have always had the benefit of having associations with strength and beauty, but plastic has not. That's why we wanted to make the distinction between polycarbonate and plastic. The casing of the Samsung Galaxy S III is not the same as the material used on keyboards, mice, game controllers, or remote controls. That's regular plastic, which can certainly be cheap and not feel very nice. But, polycarbonate is no more the same material as that as is Gorilla Glass compared to glass used in a champagne flute. 

As ever, it comes down to the question: why? People are certainly allowed their own opinion as to what looks and feels better than something else, but before you judge, just ask yourself, "Why do I feel this way?" Because, there are a lot of things in our lives these days that are made of plastic, so we have a certain idea of what plastic is, how it feels, and what that feeling means. We know that if we drop the remote control on a hardwood floor, there's a good chance that battery cover is going to break, because it's just simple plastic. And, if another device has a similar feel, we may assume the same build quality, and transfer the same biases to that new device. 

But, the truth is that polycarbonate is far stronger and far more impact resistant than the plastic found in most consumer electronics. If you drop a Samsung Galaxy Nexus, or if you take the battery cover off too many times, one of the notches may break because that is plastic. The same shouldn't happen with the Galaxy S III, and the polycarbonate is the reason. It may look and feel similar, but that doesn't mean we should think of it as the same as regular plastic. Plastics can cover an extremely wide range of quality, texture, and strength. Plastic is everywhere, but not all plastics are made equal, and that's something we should keep in mind when it comes to polycarbonate. 

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79 Comments

79. 2fasst

Posts: 6; Member since: Oct 05, 2011

Still A PLASTIC

76. troutsy

Posts: 384; Member since: Feb 17, 2012

I disagree, Polycarbonate IS a very ordinary plastic (think of Lexan--used everywhere). To me it's nothing more than a marketing gimmick to advertise it as an improved solution over "plastic". There's a huge difference to use a glass-filled impact modified Polycarbonate compared to a straight Polycarbonate with some hardcoating, I'm guessing GS3 is the latter. In my opinion, visual requirements for the exterior of the phone are always going to drive for a cheap plastic. If we wanted phones that looked rough dark gray with swirling/fill lines, we could drop the phone and say, "OMG, I broke the floor again". I'd be first in line for a plastic unibody molded with Torlon (PAI) or PEEK.

66. Einstein333

Posts: 146; Member since: May 22, 2012

Still, if you have ever owned a HTC ONE S you will never want this cheap plastic stuff again, no matter what kind of plastic it is...

65. kazlmokh

Posts: 1; Member since: May 22, 2012

I personally don’t like the design of all galaxy s series the resons are quite simple 1.galaxy s sevices r supposed to be the samsungs flgship device still they all look the same 2.no new design scheme or pattern for last 3 flagship devices 3.the backpanel is flimsy n feels like it will break while removing(i have seen it on s and s2) 3.atlest they can give some soft feel or rubberised coating to make it more easy to hold 4. no notification LED 5. design is resembling to i phone 4 like 1 hardware button at center(retangular instead of circular in iphone) 6.square icons like iphone 7.glossy body which mimics iphones glass covered body somewhat 8.chrome like edges similar to iphones stainless steel i feel the galaxy line is too fragmented...galaxy y, galaxy w, galaxy ace, galaxy m..... its not like naming the phone makes it popular... at last i believe samsung should make their design as impressive as their hardware...

64. MoonlitTear

Posts: 52; Member since: Jun 09, 2008

Bottom line. I know the SGSIII will look much better caseless in one year that my caseless HTC Radar will in a year... why get a beautiful and case it?? If you case your phone why care how it feels the case will change it anyway. I don't case my phones and take a chance. Have had my HTC Radar for 6 months now, and dropped it once. It's got a few really really small pock marks in the metal where I placed it on a cement table on the left hand side back, but otherwise it's doing quite nice. I know if I dropped this phone (and it doesn't break) five times vs five time drop of SGSIII... well I have a feeling the SIII will still look nicer. If it's cased, then like I said, who cares. Poly is nice cuz scratches are not as noticeable. Also, my Radar is FRICKEN heavy for a 3.7" screen phone. Seriously. It's one heavy small phone.. looks awesome now.. but let's see how it looks in a year. :(

63. groupsacc

Posts: 232; Member since: Feb 28, 2012

Only Samsung can cop a beating like this for putting out a phone with polycarbonate material, one of the best hardware specs, 720p (300+ dpi) AMOLED display, eye-detected screen timeout, popup video multitasking, NFC, wireless charging, external microSDXC, Gorilla Glass 2, 2100 mAh Li-ion battery, barometer, GLONASS, .......... LOL I think we were expecting a Galaxy S5, but instead we got an S3. Our expectations were unrealistically way too high.

61. aoikemono27

Posts: 177; Member since: Feb 27, 2012

This article is stupid because it regurgitates the obvious issues while deliberately ignoring them and talking about something else. "Feel and look like plastic". "Thin and flimsy". These are all about ergnomics and the sense of touch, weight, and feel in the hand. Who the hell cares if it is 300x stronger? Why is this article so long and repetitive? If it feels like crap, it feels like crap. A lot of Samsung phones may be super durable and can probably withstand much more punishment than a dentable unibody metal HTC phone or a glass iPhone, but it still feels like crap. It's squishy and squeezable. The back panel is bendy. The chrome edges are bendy and glued on. The "polycarbonate" body and buttons are all soft to the touch. It doesn't feel as solid, heavy, or substantial. It's all about perception. Whether it is a pleasure to hold in the hand regardless of durability. Whether it feels like it requires a delicate touch or it just might snap into two just by holding it. Doesn't matter how strong it actually is. If good old regular plastic was absolutely indestructible, it would still feel cheap and thin and flexy and soft. Polycarbonate feels just the same, at least what Samsung and HTC call polycarbonate. If you want to see polycarbonate done right, go find a white glossy Lumia 900. That phone is super hard with no give anywhere. Feels like a brick without being as heavy. The glossy finish is very grippy with lots of friction and does not get slimy or oily. It may be coined the same type of polycarbonate as the Galaxy S III and probably has the same durability, but it feels worlds apart. IT'S ALL ABOUT THE FEEL!

56. kanagadeepan

Posts: 1291; Member since: Jan 24, 2012

I am hapy that S-III atleast has polycarbonate and NOT ordinary plastic... Samsung should have announced this at their launch event itself by saying "POLY CARBONATE" and NOT that once again a cheap plastic type of words like "Hyper Glaze"... Further Polycarbonate is much better than ceramic, imho... Have a look at the following link to know why http://blog.gsmarena.com/the-ceramic-surface-on-the-htc-one-s-might-have-a-problem-get-chipped-easily/ Also ceramic unnecessarily increases the weight of the phone and NOT as strong as polycarbonate, imho....

52. cttan456

Posts: 62; Member since: Mar 22, 2012

Another great article Michael H! Absolutely! Plastic and polycarbonate is indeed very different in quality although they may look and feel the same. One fine example is in the case of optical lenses. Mention polycarbonate and one will associate it with unbreakability which ordinary plastic and glass lenses can only dream of. I don't see how glass and metal can impart a high quality feel being cold and hard to the touch. How can glass feel premium when it is used to make bottles? How can metal feel premium when it is used make cheap furniture and door handles/knobs/etc where wood and leather is the de facto premium material? If the feel of glass and metal is premium then the same feel can be had when we hold a drink bottle or touch the door handle of a public toilet. Kevlar and polycarbonate is THE exotic meterial because they are not widely used in disposable applications but used only in specific instancesn where ultimate strength and durability not to mention aesthetics is required. Ever seen a drink bottle or door handle made Kevlar or Polycarbonate? Still think glass and metal is premium?

72. kach22

Posts: 153; Member since: Nov 04, 2011

That's pretty lame. Glass, wood and steel/metal feels premium when they are used in appropriate context such as glasswares & display panels, (glass), furniture (wood) , and mobile phone (metal). Plastic is always used as a cheaper alternative to any of these to reduce cost and in some cases one time use only.

51. Chuck.Norris unregistered

Having worked with plastics for over 7 years, pure polycarbonate is very easy to scratch but is damn strong, to remedy this BAYER came up with polycarbonate covered with a very thin layer of glass to make it scractch resistant, my guess is that the polycarbonate that Sammy is using is mixed polycarbonate with other plastics which makes it strong but yet scratch resistant.

70. remixfa

Posts: 14605; Member since: Dec 19, 2008

proving it takes chuck norris to scratch the poly. :)

48. tumchaaditya

Posts: 71; Member since: May 21, 2012

You cannot MAKE people think that something is nice or beautiful.. It has to come from within!! In my opinion, its not about changing thinking.. Samsung does make their phones cheap looking. And its not just about ordinary plastic or polycarbonate or metal or glass. Nokia makes pretty amazing looking and feeling phones with polycarbonate(N9, Lumia 800/900) and Sony Ericsson has created quite beautiful phones using ordinary plastic in past. Personally, I always find Samsung phones to be cheap looking/feeling(although best performing). I can even go further and say, when turned off, Galaxy S2 looks like enlarged Samsung Star(the one with Bada that's costs 1/4 of S2). Some might argue over this but at least you have to admit that SE Xperia Arc or Nokia Lumia look and feel much better than Galaxy S2 and cost the same. On the mechanical strength, S3 does have polycarbonate advantage but aesthetically, naah...

54. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

See, that's the kind of argument that I love! If you don't like the design, that's your right, and it is certainly true that Samsung doesn't have the most impressive design record. But, I truly dislike when people will bash a product simply on the basis of a misconception about the material used to build it. That's just silly.

60. tumchaaditya

Posts: 71; Member since: May 21, 2012

I am not bashing S3.. I am just saying that it is not the best looking phone around despite being best performing which is quite true. And Samsung could have made it much better looking. And I have put "In my opinion" for all statements biased against S3. The whole point of my comment is Samsung cleary does not make best looking phones around. And that's not just my opinion. Tell me a Samsung phone that has been praised/awarded everywhere for design/appearance/build.

69. kshell1

Posts: 1143; Member since: Oct 05, 2011

I'll praise it. They make some pretty solid feeling phones. Sure they're made out of plastic but they withstand every single drop i give to them. My brother dropped his inspire the other day and the aluminum cracked so i dropped my sgs2 to show him that plastic is better sure the battery cover popped off but it doesn't have a scratch on it

47. Galen20K

Posts: 585; Member since: Dec 26, 2008

Absolutely Fantastic article Michael, thank you for your insite and progressive point of view in your articles. It's definitely appreciated by people like me.

46. Tmachaveli

Posts: 425; Member since: Apr 01, 2011

I would like to know all the ppl so far that have used a s3?..if you have not even touch the phone yet how can you say that its "cheap" when the phone isn't even out yet...

49. tumchaaditya

Posts: 71; Member since: May 21, 2012

you can have pretty good idea of it from pictures... just compare pictures of a nice looking phone(e.g. iPhone or SE Xperia Arc) and S3.

44. wendygarett unregistered

SHUT UP AND GIVE US THE DROP TEST!!!

28. taz89

Posts: 2014; Member since: May 03, 2011

i think you along with phil from androidcentral and john from technobuffallo are the only decent tech writers left that can write objectively without making personal opinions seem like facts..keep up the work,there has not been a single article of yours i have not enjoyed...lol to be honest the only reason i come on PA is for your non biased views...everyone else seems to always contradict themselves

34. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

Thanks! always good to know what I do is appreciated

27. KingKurogiii

Posts: 5713; Member since: Oct 23, 2011

see i don't really care as long as it is more durable. can the keeper of your review unit atest to this Michael? o: i would've wished that they used something better to the touch but if it works it works.

20. alpinejason

Posts: 262; Member since: Sep 06, 2011

can you say copy-cat.again.samsung does what they do best copy people.this time it was nokia instead of apple

23. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

What is copying here? Are manufacturers not allowed to use polycarbonate because Nokia and HTC did it already? Are they not allowed to make phones blue? Given the right parameters, everything is a copy of something else including the devices that Nokia made or Apple or whoever you claim was being copied.

41. taz89

Posts: 2014; Member since: May 03, 2011

oh please now using materials is copying lol please please just get some knowledge.thats like saying a car using tires made out of rubber is copying another car maker that uses rubber to make tires,a house is made from cement,if another house is made by cement thats copying think about thats for a second cause thats essentially what you believe ...lol PA do attract some silly people i mean seriously cant believe people that think like that exist

18. Glim12808

Posts: 394; Member since: Oct 26, 2011

The Lumia 800/900 also use polycarb and people say "Beautiful"; Samsung uses the same polycarb on the SGS3 and people say "Ugly". I don't get it!

45. xtian1103

Posts: 364; Member since: Feb 11, 2012

because unibody cases of lumia 800/900 or n9 feels more solid than s3. you don't always (or never) drop your phone but if you do, the battery cover part will always feel the beating

15. humandroid

Posts: 58; Member since: May 11, 2012

Michael H article. tl, dr

22. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

If you didn't read it, don't comment. Simple. Sorry that 688 words is too many for you.

* Some comments have been hidden, because they don't meet the discussions rules.

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