It has been five years since Samsung launched the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 edge. Few devices have brought such substantial change that the 2015 pair did. These were Samsung’s first flagship smartphones that ditched the plastic back for a premium metal and glass build. While some fans mourned the loss of removable batteries, others were pleased that Samsung’s build quality was finally being upgraded.
Samsung’s flagship smartphones have all been beautiful slabs of glass and metal since then. Even as the range expanded and a third variant was added with the Galaxy S10e, it didn’t skimp out on the materials. That’s not to say Samsung stopped using plastic completely. With the exception of its flagships and foldables, almost all Samsung phones use plastic even though removable batteries are no longer offered.
Over the past five years, customers paying top dollar for a Samsung flagship got a slab of metal and glass. This was normalized to a point that expecting anything other than these materials would make them question the flagship credentials of a device. The barrier of entry has also been raised gradually during this period. While you could get a new Galaxy S6 for under $670 in 2015, the base Galaxy S20 costs $999. The smartphone industry has contributed to this gradual increase in price for flagship phones as a whole and that has only served to cement our expectations from a high-end device.
Expectations being shattered has been a recurring theme in 2020. Samsung took its fans by surprise when it shipped the $999 Galaxy Note 20 with a plastic back. This was the first time since 2014’s Galaxy Note 4 that a top-end smartphone in this series came with a plastic back. It was proudly billed as a flagship phone and yet missing something that had long become a mainstay of Samsung’s most expensive devices. Many fans were surprised, some outright furious that the company would skimp on glass for a device that cost a thousand dollars. On the other hand, some people including SamMobile’s Editor-in-Chief weren’t too bothered about it. He had his own reasons to actually be pleased about the plastic back.
If there was any confusion about whether this was a one-time thing and that Samsung wouldn’t brand premium devices without glass backs as flagships in the future, it shattered that expectation with the Galaxy S20 FE. It’s also unapologetically being branded as a flagship. The Galaxy S20 FE gets top billing alongside the other three Galaxy S20 models on Samsung’s website. It’s not mentioned as a separate device like the Galaxy S10 Lite was. This only confirms that future Samsung flagships with plastic backs are now an inevitability.
Is that really something fans should criticize Samsung for, though? After using both the Galaxy Note 20 and Galaxy S20 FE, I’d argue that it isn’t. Yes, glass looks cool and feels nice to touch but it’s also a horrible fingerprint magnet. With these plastic backs, I don’t find myself frantically wiping my phone on my shirt just to keep it looking pristine. It’s also less slippery so there’s less risk of the device accidentally slipping out of your hand.
Even when it does, you don’t get the mini heart attack that you would if you had a phone with a glass back. Despite all the progress in the durability of Gorilla Glass, you’re still going to bust the glass back if the phone falls from a height of a few feet on a rough surface. That’s the number one reason why most users slap a case on their phones the moment they take it out of the box. If you’re using a $1000 flagship with a case on all the time, what difference does it make then if it has a plastic back or glass?
The back glass repair for a flagship smartphone can often cost at least $100 and having it replaced can hurt resale value down the line. Most users just want to avoid the headache associated with all of this so they just use a nice case for their own peace of mind. That’s not a concern when the back is made of plastic. Use it without a case, feel its texture when you hold the phone and show off its brilliant color. Of course, plastic isn’t unbreakable but unless you’re bodyslamming your phone on the pavement, accidental drops won’t really damage it.
Personally, I wouldn’t be bothered if this became the norm for Samsung flagships again. That’s partly because the plastic material that Samsung is using doesn’t give the cheap plasticky feeling that people normally associate with this material. We’ve also seen the company do some interesting things with colors and patterns on the plastic backs of the Galaxy A series that just lift up the entire look of the device.
There’s a good chance that this will become the norm. Samsung has said that it intends to release new Fan Edition models of its flagships every year. The glass back was one of the things it cut to price the Galaxy S20 FE at $699. It won’t be coming back. The Galaxy Note 20 also normalized the concept of a flagship with a plastic back. What’s to say it won’t do the same for the Galaxy S21 next year?
Samsung also needs more to separate the multiple high-end models that it launches every year. This will be another way to incentivize customers to purchase a Plus or Ultra variant on which it has higher margins. Removing the glass back from a base model may also allow for increased margins on its cheapest flagship. There will be some criticism initially, like there was when it ditched removable batteries and the headphone jack, but not enough to force Samsung to give in to customers’ demands. Heck, there are still some who long for IR blasters but we all know that’s never going to happen.
Bring back the plastic rear panels, I say. It won’t really be the end of the world. The material of the back panel alone won’t be what drives my decision of which flagship model to purchase. On the contrary, I think I’d be happier with plastic.