Why the Galaxy S4 won't be shedding its plastic roots

Samsung likely will stick to a design aesthetic that has worked in the past, despite rivals opting to use metal and other premium-feeling materials.

One of the Galaxy S3's few faults is its plastic feel. Josh Miller/CNET

There's one complaint that often crops up with the Galaxy S III: it feels "plastic-y."

At a time when competitors are using glass, aluminum, and even higher quality plastics such as polycarbonate, Samsung has stuck to its guns with a thin, bendable plastic body.

Which is why the Galaxy S4 won't stray too far from that design philosophy.

CNET sat down with Y.H. Lee, executive vice president of Samsung's mobile business, to discuss the company's thoughts on design. When Samsung looks at what materials to use, it isn't just taking into consideration the aesthetic quality of the device, Lee said. The company also assesses how quickly and efficiently it can manufacture the product, knowing that it will have to ship a high volume.

Lee said that because Samsung will ship large units, it must consider the smartphone's manufacturability and durability.

Check back in with CNET on March 14 for all the details of the GS4. Screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET

Samsung also has discussed the pros and cons of keeping a removable back cover so the battery can be replaced, an issue other companies deal with as well. An LG executive told CNET that the company had received customer complaints about the Optimus G because the back wouldn't come off. The back cover of the larger Optimus G Pro is removable.

Samsung has argued that the plastic back cover, which feels light, is more durable than those of other smartphones because it's bendable and can better absorb physical impact. CNET Editor Jessica Dolcourt noted in her review that it is "just about the nicest plastic phone I've ever seen."

Still, Samsung's plastic GS4 will roll out at a time when other smartphones are stepping up their designs. There's no mistaking that Apple's iPhone 5, with its thin metal frame, looks and feels like a premium product. Likewise, the One's all-aluminum body stands out among a sea of bland Android competitors.

In addition, Nokia is using a harder version of plastic called polycarbonate, and Lumia is introducing smartphones in more vibrant colors.

HTC One aims to make a good first impression with an all-metal body.

Lee said Samsung has attempted to strike a balance between practical demands and the desire for a more premium-feeling product.

"I think the next product has a nice balance between this," she said. "We listen to the market and try to accommodate."

 

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