Last night I posted a tweet that drew some interesting responses. Beside the text “the back of a $640 phone,” I posted an image of the Galaxy S4’s case-back as I contorted the flexible paper-thin cover in my hand. I made no further comment. As I covered briefly for the umpteenth time in an article on Wednesday, the Galaxy S4 feels cheap. It feels flimsy. The fact of the matter is that the phone is neither cheap nor flimsy — at $237, the combined value of its parts is actually 10% higher than the aluminum iPhone 5’s bill of materials (BOM). But however expensive and durable the materials Samsung used in the Galaxy S4 may be, it still doesn’t feel like a high-end smartphone.
My tweet got mixed replies. Most people just laughed and a few people retweeted it. A couple of people commented that the phone’s cheap feel is the reason they will not be purchasing it. Of course, this is not the case for the tens of millions of consumers that will buy the phone — they simply don’t care. As I wrote on Wednesday, Samsung doesn’t really have an urgent need to switch to different materials for its phone casings. Such a move would likely require an investment of many millions of dollars in research and development, manufacturing equipment and other expenses.
As the saying goes: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But are we sure it ain’t broke?
While the phone doesn’t feel like an expensive high-end device, Samsung certainly didn’t skimp on materials. As Samsung’s technical marketing manager Philip Berne noted in response to my tweet, the Galaxy S4 case uses “the same polycarbonate material used in Formula 1 cars and helmets.” This is not a cheap, flimsy material. This is a durable polycarbonate with plenty of science and R&D money behind it.
But it still feels cheap.
Compared to rival handsets, the Galaxy S4 doesn’t feel like a premium phone. And it certainly doesn’t feel like a $640 phone. Not even close. I personally believe Samsung has more pressing issues to attend to, but the plasticky feel of Samsung’s phones is still an issue that many consumers find off-putting. Many millions of consumers don’t mind it, of course, but this could change over time.
As smartphones from Apple, HTC, Nokia, LG and other vendors continue to raise the bar where materials and premium feel are concerned, Samsung may soon have no choice but to follow suit. Regardless of how durable the Galaxy S4’s race car plastic is and regardless of how much R&D went into developing it, it still looks like cheap plastic and it still feels flimsy.
Other vendors have realized this and they have found cost-effective ways to mass produce phones that look better and feel stronger. Apple’s all aluminum and glass iPhone 5 has an estimated BOM totaling $217 for the 32GB model, $20 less than the plastic Galaxy S4. Samsung has a massive team of talented designers and engineers, and it has billions of dollars at its disposal. I’m confident that it can build a smartphone that doesn’t feel like a free toy pulled out of a box of Cracker Jacks.
Here is the tweet and the image I posted last night (click the image to enlarge):
The back of a $640 phone. twitpic.com/cp96lh
— Zach Epstein (@zacharye) May 9, 2013