Metal has become mandatory on high-end smartphones

Plastic is out and metal, leather and wood are in as smartphone vendors hope luxurious-looking devices will inspire buyers to upgrade.

This year has already seen an increased focus on design with the acclaimed HTC One M8 and the criticized Galaxy S5 from Samsung Electronics. At the IFA trade show in Berlin we’re seeing even more attention spent on looks, not just performance, with Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4, the Ascend Mate7 from Huawei Technologies and the new Moto X from Motorola all trying to shine in metal.

“I think the spec game is over; it just doesn’t matter to consumers that much. It matters to some, but there are millions of consumers that want a cool looking device,” said Christoph Janeba, international portfolio director at Motorola Mobility, which launched new versions of the Moto X and Moto G smartphones on Friday.

As phones with a no-contract price tag under $200 have become increasingly competent, metal frames or metal bodies have become a way to make more expensive phones worth the extra investment.

An example of this is Motorola’s second generation Moto G and Moto X. They cost from $180 and $500, and are both great smartphones. But the Moto X, with its metal frame and optional wood or leather back, looks and feels like the more expensive product.

“Metal has become a defacto element of any flagship smartphone. If you have a premium smartphone range metal is mandatory. When Samsung didn’t deliver on that expectation with the Galaxy S5 it led to a lukewarm reception,” said Ben Wood, director of research at CCS Insight. Materials are key to vendors’ attempts to differentiate their devices, he added.

Metal is being used either as for frame or for most of the phone’s body. Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4 and Microsoft’s Nokia Lumia 830 also have metal frames.

Huawei, on the other hand, launched the Ascend Mate7, which is an all-metal design. The company said earlier this week that using metal is very challenging, but its strength also lets the company build thinner products.

Motorola is also using other materials for the back of the Moto X, including different woods and leather. Samsung is once again using plastic made to look like leather on the back of the Note 4, but it looks better than what was used on the Galaxy Note 3. There is also a leather case for the Note 4 made by Montblanc.

Design has taken over as a primary differentiator as hardware reference designs have changed the way smartphones are developed, with key chipset vendors taking a larger role, Malik Saadi, practice director at ABI Research.

Reference designs lower the bar for developing a smartphone by providing the components and resources manufacturers need to quickly put out new devices.

“This together with the maturity of Android, has left [smartphone makers] with only one key trump card for differentiation: the industrial design,” Saadi said.

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