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. 



1. GeekMovement unregistered

Thank you Michael. Good article. Enjoyed reading it and learned more of the differences between plastic and polycarbonate material.

55. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

Thanks! Not only did I enjoy writing this, but I can't stress enough how happy it makes me to see the quality of the comments. Even if people don't like the design, that's actually the topic discussed, not just "Murrr, hate plastic!"

73. thelegend6657 unregistered

Can i suggest you a next article ? Does Unibody really matter ? Why HTC , Nokia and iphone uses unibody design while Samsung dont

77. Kimyuna

Posts: 8; Member since: May 10, 2012

Samsung uses aluminium anodize unibody for the Wave series (bada smartphone).

2. ZEUS.the.thunder.god unregistered

nice article Michael. now i can see s3 is making a lot of news. good for sammy.

14. E.N.

Posts: 2610; Member since: Jan 25, 2009

It's great that Samsung improved the durability of the device (kudos to Samsung), but the overall feel of their devices were people's main complaint. Many reviewers weren't a fan of the design and feel of the SGIII. Yes, polycarbonate is different from our idea of plastic, but at the end of the day many people say it still feels the same.

17. Ubi2447

Posts: 131; Member since: Feb 14, 2012

As stated in the article, I think we're just going to have to change our thinking of this material the same way we changed our perspective on the durability of the glass in gorillaglass phones compared to something like the glass panel on the back of the iPhone 4 (Strong vs not so strong). We now have much more faith in larger display screen technologies with the advancements in that tech, and I feel that will have to translate to plastics. I think the biggest issue with that leap is the fact that we have a lot more intimate connection with the body of the phone as we will be touching, grasping, and sensing the phone in our hands. Though I do agree that metal bodied devices give us a reassurance on multiple levels, with both tactile and weightiness, I think that it's just going to be an adjustment to put faith in a 'pasticy' Polycarbonate device.

25. E.N.

Posts: 2610; Member since: Jan 25, 2009

Just because Samsung decided to go with a polycarbonate casing, doesn't mean that's the future of mobile technology. Samsung took steps backwards in many aspects of the SGIII (aesthetically). While the polycarbonate casing isn't a step backward, I'm kinda hesitant to call it a step forward (yeah I know it's stronger and more durable)

30. remixfa

Posts: 14605; Member since: Dec 19, 2008

asthetics are subjective. if the worst thing you can say about the SGS3 is that its not the sexiest device out there, then I think they actually did a great job with it. I'm not excited about the design as it resembles the SGS2 Hercules on Tmobile a bit too much, but its definitely not nearly as bad as people make it out to be. Regardless of design, both the SGS1 and SGS2 were extremely well made and extremely high quality devices regardless of what anyone feels about the materials used. Knowing that they took their existing quality and turned it up a notch with top end materials like Poly which is color molded, not just painted, so unlike HTC devices you dont have to worry about paint flecks coming off a month later. It has the pedigree, the power, and the building materials. Its a high end machine, through and through.

36. taz89

Posts: 2014; Member since: May 03, 2011

just thinking the same mate if the worst thing they can come up to critisize the s3 for is its look and feel which is subjective then it just shows what a great job samsung did with the s3...what i find funny is that at first people were saying why cant they use premium materials like htc and nokia and now that they are people are still complaining lol some people are just haters obviously and moan about anything and like to hate...to those people who complain a bout plastic,check what your $1000+ tv is made out of.

37. E.N.

Posts: 2610; Member since: Jan 25, 2009

But if your phone looks like crap and feels like crap....I don't know guys, lol. Aesthetics aren't everything but come on, let's not pretend its not important.

39. remixfa

Posts: 14605; Member since: Dec 19, 2008

umm.. to me they are not. 1) are its innards filled to the brim with the best tech available? CHECK 2) is it made in a way that will resist the wear and tear of life and i dont have to worry about it cracking if i sneeze wrong? CHECK 3) does it have a beautiful screen that i just want to keep looking at? CHECK 4) is it made at a factory that working conditions are not so horrid that it will keep me up late at night? CHECK. Yup, thats my checkist. beauty in outter shell design is number... um... well, it didnt even make the list. Why? Because I'mma throw a case and screen protector on it before i even sign in to Gmail. As long as the screen is pretty and its filled with high end stuff and MADE well, i could care less about the rest. A lot of you people worry so much about what you "perceive" the outside is, and forget that the important part is INSIDE the device. If the prettiest smartphone doesnt actually do jack, what good is it? When your trying to upgrade yours in 9 months because its so far behind the curve, and im still braggin and smiling with mine, we'll see which device "looks" better. Samsung devices may "look" cheap to some people, but they are anything but. They are the pinnacle of premium in EVERY place that it counts (other than LTE + Exynos..lol)

57. E.N.

Posts: 2610; Member since: Jan 25, 2009

Aesthetics are important too. The device needs to look nice as well. If you ant even admit that slightly, then you pretty much deep in Samsung's a**. " Not everyone uses cases, bro. You said that yourself a couple months back in regards to the iPhone and now you're flip flopping (you said in another thread it doesn't matter f the back is ugly if you're just going to throw a case on it anyway). But hey, if you're happy SIII, then no need to flip out. In the end when buying a phone, it's your opinion that matters. If you don't care at all about how your phone looks like, then that's great. But for those who do, then thats perfectly reasonable too

62. iWallE

Posts: 48; Member since: Oct 10, 2011

I'd add one more thing: 5) Did they pay attention to the tiniest of details in order to improve the user experience? CHECK. The only things that I didn't like about Samsung's high end phones so far were the look of TouchWiz and the lack of some small but useful tweaks like those present in HTC Sense. Well, at least to this beholder's eyes the problem has been solved with the S III. Things like Smart Stay and the 50GB Dropbox space show how much attention Sammy has paid to improving the experience, offered by the S III. And really, this was the only thing they urgently needed to address since they are at the top of the spec game anyway.

71. evoMike

Posts: 10; Member since: Jul 29, 2011

hey....what do you mean by "you people"?!?!

42. taz89

Posts: 2014; Member since: May 03, 2011

not saying they are not important but you can judge a phone just by seeing pic,until you actually seen it in person than you cant know how it feels and again look and feel is subjective so it may not be to your taste (that doesnt make you right or wrong) but to some one else it may feel great and look nice to them...for me looks obviously is a part of the decision and not saying its the greatest looking phone in the world but for me its still a good lookinf device, i means really its just a curvier s2.i would rather have a phone that looks bad and performs awesome than have a phone that looks good but performs average.

58. E.N.

Posts: 2610; Member since: Jan 25, 2009

The point of this article isn't to find all the points to criticize the SIII on. It's about aesthetics/build quality/materials. The article is about build quality and that's what I'm talking about. Criticizing the phone in other aspects would be trolling, no? Just staying in topic over here...

67. remixfa

Posts: 14605; Member since: Dec 19, 2008

actually, its about build materials. :) no matter what you think about the materials they use, the build quality on galaxy S devices has been phenomenal since the start. Its no accident they stand up to "life" so well. Aesthetics are more important to some than to others. To me they really play a very minor backseat roll. It has to be butt -ass - ugly for me to say no to it for aesthetics. We have a different mindset. I am all about the tech and what I think are the important parts, like the screen. I dont spend much time at all looking at the bezels and im not trying to impress anyone. Im trying to find a device that makes me giddy with the possibilities of what I can do with it. And no, just because i dont find aesthetics that important, doesnt mean im in anybody's pocket. I actually liked the design of the SGS1 and SGS2. I would be happier with the design of the SGS3 if it didnt resemble the american SGS2 so much (which was a rehash of my Vibrant SGS1, thus the design has become kind of boring to me). And I've had plenty of devices i found physically less than attractive that I wanted for what it did.

74. thelegend6657 unregistered

i am surprised that when my father dropped his s2 from ear height and its still running fine . Because in the s2 review phonearena complains its all plastic damm my ipod touch could not even survive a fall from a arm chair when it slipped out of my pocket and cracked the screen immediatly and i have to use it for 3 months before my father fixed it for me at singapore (there cheaper )

80. E.N.

Posts: 2610; Member since: Jan 25, 2009

Yes, build materials and quality, just like I said :/. If you don't see how aesthetics ties in, you can read my very first comment, #14. "If you ant even admit that slightly, then you pretty much deep in Samsung's a**" - you've admitted it slightly In almost every single review of any phone, the design is the first thin that is talked about. It's definitely not the most important thing when looking for a phone, but nonetheless it's important, no matter how "subjective" it is. Other than that, I think we're both on the same page. The SIII is great device. It looks like crap and probably feels like crap. You're okay with it, I'm not.

78. jsjakesaid

Posts: 12; Member since: Apr 04, 2012

Idiot talking out of your @$$... The awkward moment when HTC used poly before samsung -.-. And yes i love all the htc's i'v had as their build quality is amazing, even if you drop it from one storey high

50. jiasdft

Posts: 2; Member since: May 21, 2012

ZOPO ZP200 Smart Phone Android 2.3! It to do better! The price is more cheap! http://clck.ru/15fsl

75. thelegend6657 unregistered

Dont buy china android phone . No updates and stop working after a few months . although can get one cheap. When i was dinning someone trying to sell me a fake galaxy tab (just act like he is invisible , damm i hate sales man )

3. androidornothing

Posts: 143; Member since: Apr 26, 2012

I totally agree. Polycarbonate is way stronger than plastic and besides its way better for the phone because it makes the phone lighter and plus the phones reception is always more better, unlike glass or metal. people have to stop I3itch1ing about the GSIII design. Its beautifull and if someone doesnt like it then dont get the phone!! Its that simple!!

8. JC557

Posts: 1919; Member since: Dec 07, 2011

Exactly. Many things can be lumped into plastics but there are many differnt types thanks to different molecular build. Motorcycle helmets are made with polycarbonate and can take a lot of abuse (of course I can be a bit careless with mine). Meanwhile my white MacBook also has a polycarbonate shell but feels rather weak and formed cracks within months of light usage.

4. Saamic

Posts: 119; Member since: Feb 20, 2012

Thank you It's fine if pepole are uninformed and are skeptical about polycarbonate simply because of its appearance correlating to plastic, but it's another thing when ignorant close-minded people just bash it because it looks like plastic when they have no experience with it or any idea what it is. It's a more modern substance that gives phones the ability to be lightweight, like plastic, but it's much more durable than plastic. In my opinion one of its very few set-backs is that it leaves fingerprints very easily from what I've heard. Other than that though it's a great substance.

5. som

Posts: 768; Member since: Nov 10, 2009

Poly carbonate is 300x stronger and scratch resistant than plastic, I am willing to pay the price for my beloved Galaxy S3.

6. 1ceTr0n

Posts: 549; Member since: May 20, 2012

Wonder if my Galaxy Note is special poly carb or just regular plastic. Be cool to know...

7. ardent1

Posts: 2000; Member since: Apr 16, 2011

Great, we now have a "plastic" that is difficult to recycle. Michael H., how did you miss the environmental angle?

19. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

There is already increased ability to recycle polycarbonate because of its use in things like baby bottles, so that should continue to get better and better the more polycarbonate is used.

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

Latest Stories

This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. You can order presentation-ready copies for distribution to your colleagues, clients or customers at https://www.parsintl.com/phonearena or use the Reprints & Permissions tool that appears at the bottom of each web page. Visit https://www.parsintl.com/ for samples and additional information.