By Michael Fisher | May 16, 2013 6:03 PM
We’ve been talking about two smartphones in particular these past few weeks: the HTC One and the Galaxy S 4. You may have noticed. We’ve kept our focus on these phones for an especially long period because they’re flagship devices – the high-end superphones representing the best of the best their manufacturers can offer.
As we’ve discussed at length in venues like the Pocketnow Weekly podcast and Pocketnow Live hangout, the varying construction approaches used by these manufacturers also provide a window into their design philosophies. Samsung has staunchly defended its use of polycarbonate and light plastics, reasoning that since consumers need to carry a smartphone all day long, it should be as lightweight as possible. HTC, on the other hand, has turned to a heavier aluminum material for the bulk of its new One, partially in an effort to increase the device’s perceived quality.
Neither approach is “wrong.” We’ve said before that most of the Pocketnow team would prefer carrying HTC’s device, in part due to its build quality – but contrary to the consternation this has generated in comments, that’s not necessarily an indictment of Samsung’s hyperglazed polycarbonate. Do we like it? Not really, but that’s only relevant to a certain extent. Aesthetics are subjective. Preferences vary. Differing opinions should be celebrated, not maligned.
But something very wrong indeed has cropped up in the wake of this discussion: a point of view that, in my opinion at least, sets the phone-hardware conversation back substantially whenever it crops up. This is the argument that, since a large percentage of smartphone owners protect their investment with some sort of case , it doesn’t matter what the device’s shell looks or feels like.
Now, it’s true that slapping a case on a device is a smart and relatively cheap means of protecting it from drops, impacts, and the rigors of the elements. As ugly and bulky as phone cases can be, many do serve this practical, admirable purpose quite well. Brands like Otterbox made their name excelling at this simple function. Cases can also obviate the need for those in need of rugged devices to settle for midrange performance; just slap a military-grade box on that iPhone and you’re good to take it down into the coal mine.
Speaking of the iPhone: to an extent, it’s Apple that popularized this line of thinking. Shortly after the release of the iPhone 4, I overheard an Apple retail employee telling a customer that the phone was essentially designed as a naked chassis, allowing buyers to customize its hardware through the addition of a case. A thinly-veiled attempt to sell more third-party accessories? Perhaps. But I’d heard it stated before by other employees; it was clearly a position Apple was trying to push. More importantly: because of the iPhone 4/4S’s relatively fragile construction, I rarely see one outside a case these days.
But, paradoxically, Apple was also one of the first companies to make smartphone fit and finish a real priority. Sure, there were bumps along the way -bubbles in iPhone 3G casings, “Antennagate” with the iPhone 4- but these were problems encountered in a quest to make the device as aesthetically pleasing as possible. That striving for quality is directly related to Steve Jobs’ obsession with design, as Jobs’ biographer Walter Isaacson explained in an interview with NPR:
“[He] connected art with technology … [In his products,] he obsessed over the color of the screws, over the finish of the screws — even the screws you couldn’t see.” Even with the original Macintosh, he made sure that the circuit board’s chips were lined up properly and looked good. He made them go back and redo the circuit board. He made them find the right color, find the right curves on the screw. Even the curves on the machine — he wanted it to feel friendly.
The result, in the mobile world, is a legacy of beautifully crafted hardware. Say what you will about the iPhone and iPad, but you won’t find many folks saying they’re poorly designed products.
Make no mistake: Apple isn’t the only one to focus intently on hardware quality. Companies like Nokia have been building excellent devices for years. But as the market has matured and smartphones have become more prevalent, more people are starting to pay attention to build quality – no matter what the logo on their smartphone says.
To say that that doesn’t matter is absurd. To insist that, because a case will obscure the phone, its hardware need not be crafted with care, is to reverse the advances in build quality we’ve seen over the last few years. First of all, not everyone will use a case: many tech fans, myself included, abhor the idea of hiding a smartphone behind an ugly armored capsule; and [anecdotal evidence warning] more than a few readers have agreed with me on this point. Second, and more importantly: saying “it doesn’t matter if something feels or looks cheap, as long as it’s hidden” is the exact opposite of the philosophy espoused by Jobs above – not to mention every designer worth his or her salt.
Many folks wiser than I say that smartphones are becoming commodity items: devices that every person in the first world will soon own, as common as a t-shirt or a toothbrush. That may be the case, but the full retail price of these devices is still far north of your average commodity. As long as flagship smartphones continue retailing at price points north of $500, I don’t see it as unreasonable that customers should expect a certain degree of fit and finish.
Aesthetics being, again, a subjective field, there will be disagreement on what does and doesn’t constitute “good build quality.” Fine; that’s what comment sections are for. But nowhere should the sentiment “it doesn’t matter, because cases exist” find a home in that discussion. It’s lazy, it’s glib, and it flies in the face of the aspirational spirit that devices as wondrous as smartphones should inspire.
Title image source: tuff-luv