Is Samsung metal now?

Design and materials finally matter in the Samsung Galaxy


It started, appropriately enough, with the Alpha. Heeding years of complaints about the tacky and unpleasant feeling of its plastic Galaxy phones, Samsung finally responded this summer with the introduction of a new metal frame on the Galaxy Alpha. Today at IFA, the Korean company has added the Note 4 and Note Edge to what’s turning into a portfolio of metal-rimmed devices. It’s described as a new design approach, but it’s being done in classic Samsung style.

Samsung has been paying lip service to the importance of industrial design for a very long time. Much like its local nemesis LG, however, the Korean chaebol's message of meaningful innovation has most often devolved into the act of adding more technological complication for its own sake. Last year's overwrought Galaxy Gear was testament to this approach of unrestrained gadgetification — the assumption that more of everything will ultimately amount to the greatest possible sum. As recently as six months ago, Samsung was still pursuing the same old strategy of overwhelming with features and neglecting good design while saying it would take the Galaxy S5 "back to basics." It's not that the S5 lacked a memorable look, but it was memorable for all the wrong reasons.

The fundamental change marked today is in the materials that Samsung uses in its phones. The perpetually fake metal that's framed Galaxy devices since the original chromed-out Galaxy S has finally become real. And the difference made by this seemingly superficial change is enormous. I've yet to hold the Galaxy Alpha in my hands, but handling the new Note devices conveys a sense of legitimate design cohesion. Front and back are brought together into a harmonious and satisfyingly rigid whole. The Note's power button is perfectly tactile and responsive, without even a hint of squishiness. The chamfered edges just feel right.

In an age when people are spending more time with their phones than any other device (or even person), mediocre design is no longer acceptable. Smartphone manufacturers are responsible for building things that people have profound and intimate relationships with. Nobody wants to wake up next to a plasticky slab of unfriendly technology. Samsung's always known that, but it's only now taking the critical step of deploying better materials in the pursuit of better design. The outcome, in the shape of these first few devices, has been a clear success.

The mirage of good Samsung design is finally becoming real

As delightful and tangible as the upgrade may be for the user of Samsung's new metal Galaxies, the move actually represents a continuation of what the company has been doing all along. Though hampered by its software and a number of questionable design decisions, the Galaxy Gear did use stainless steel in its construction and was built to last. This year saw the introduction of the beautiful Gear Fit and the present debut of the Gear S alongside the IFA-headlining Notes. Samsung has been using better materials and sculpting desirable devices already — it's just bringing that same expertise to bear on its all-important smartphone portfolio.

Samsung's also doing a better job of capitalizing on its technological leadership by using curved AMOLED displays on its smartwatches that make them instant lightning rods for attention. The same display technology is used in the Note 4, which goes up to Quad HD resolution to match LG's G3 and a few other phones that already offer it. So no, Samsung isn't going to stop competing in the spec race anytime soon, but the way it's using its assets and resources is smarter.

It may surprise you to find that Samsung's cheap-feeling plastic has never actually been all that cheap. The switch to metal framing is therefore unlikely to drastically increase the cost of manufacturing Samsung's new phones, though it makes for an obvious improvement in their appeal and usability.

The best part about it all is that Samsung seems committed to pursuing this new design direction. The company knows that the only way it can survive the assault from China's upstart phone makers is by producing something they are not capable or willing to match. With specs losing their luster as a main selling point and Samsung continually failing to differentiate itself through software, it was time to look elsewhere for some way to stand out. Samsung's still not producing masterpieces of modern technological art, but the things it's building now are more attractive and tactile than they've ever been before.