My love/hate relationship with glass-backed smartphones

From the sleek design of the latest iPhone to the funky and stylish cases you can find, the look of the devices we carry with is often a direct reflection of our own personal style, or at least the style we’d like to portray to the world around us.

I’m not going to lie, I’m one of those people who buys a phone for its looks. Sure, specs, camera quality, and a phone’s overall software experience play an important factor in my purchasing decision, but if a device doesn’t look good, I simply won’t buy it. Naturally, the only exception to this rule was the T-Mobile G1. My first smartphone, the HTC Magician, was a stunning piece of hardware for its time. It sported light-gray aluminum panels on the front and back which I later swapped to black since I had scraped the phone up pretty good after a few drops. It would have been easier to keep the phone in a case at all times to protect its finish, but why would I want to conceal the design of a phone which was unlike any other device at the time?

T-Mobile G1

Fast forward nearly a decade and a half and things look quite different than they did in 2004. Smartphones are everywhere, and their build materials used has evolved from cheap plastics to soft-touch polycarbonates, to aerospace-grade aluminum, and finally to glass. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, smartphones look better than they ever have.

The new Samsung Galaxy S9 may not look that much different from last year’s Galaxy S8, but its curved glass on the front and back of the phone is drop-dead gorgeous. And let’s not forget about last year’s HTC U11, and it’s liquid surface design which allowed the back of the phone to change colors based on the reflection of light. When I first held the phone in my hands, I was in love. The device I ended up with had the Amazon Silver finish. Honestly, the blue color tones were more dominant, but the phone glimmered a light silver when the light hit it just right.

HTC U11

I used the phone as my main device for months, slapping on the clear protective case from time to time when I knew there was a chance that I’d drop the phone or scratch it. But most of the time, my HTC U11 was bare, showing off its magnificently designed body to the world.

When HTC’s phones were built with an aluminum unibody shell, they could easily withstand the abuse we put our phones through on a daily basis. Sure, the metal body would get marked up with a few dings, scrapes and scratches after a year, but the solid construction was strong enough to withstand more than a half dozen clumsy drops.

Things were certainly not the same with the HTC U11. After haphazardly dropping the phone no more than two inches to my desk, I noticed a minuscule chip on the back of the phone where the glass meets the metal frame. It wasn’t bad, but it certainly made me more apprehensive as to how I was treating the phone. From then, I coddled it like a little kitten and kept it protected with its clear case. But my extra care was foiled two months later when I discovered a spiderweb crack on the back of the phone after removing it from my pocket. I didn’t drop the phone and I hadn’t put any extraneous pressure on it while it was in my pocket. The small chip in the glass and the regular stresses of day-to-day life were enough to do it in.

HTC U11

You could say that the cracked back of my HTC U11 is completely my fault and I will agree that I share some blame in it. If I had kept in it a case all the time or if I would have been a bit more careful, the phone would have never chipped in the first place. My counter-argument is that I’m extremely careful with every smartphone that I use and I have never cracked a screen in the 14 years I’ve been using smartphones.

Just last week, I picked up the new Galaxy S9+. As you can guess, I didn’t buy a case to go with it and after just three days I noticed a small scratch on the back of the phone. The phone had never been dropped. It had never been placed on a rugged surface and hadn’t even been in the same pocket as my keys. The only thing that could have scratched the back of the Galaxy S9+ is the microscopic sand particles that we all have in our pockets.

HTC U11

While I love phones like the HTC U11, Samsung Galaxy S9 and even the iPhone X, I’m looking forward to the day when smartphone manufacturers choose a new “it” material for their designs. Sure, glass is very flashy and can be treated thousands of different ways to deliver new and exciting aesthetics for these small pieces of technology that we all carry with us, but what’s the point if we have to slap a rubber sleeve on it to protect it the wear and tear of daily life.

I want to say that I’m done with glass-backed phones, but I honestly think we’re at the very beginning of a very long design cycle which will eventually force me to have a ridiculous case on an amazingly crafted piece of workmanship.

How about you? What is your experience with glass-backed phones? And, most importantly, what’s your love/hate relationship with them? Drop us a line in the comments and share your experience.

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About The Author
Nick Gray
Nick's fascination with technology started in the 90's when the first MINI Disc player came to market. His upbringing was pretty low-tech, but that changed once he got to college and started building his own PCs. But once HTC's first smartphones came around, he was hooked. Since then, Nick started his own blog (htcsource.com) and has also written for a handful of well-known tech news sites around the web. His personal tech reviews can be found on his High Tech Traveler YouTube channel.