What makes a phone premium?

Metals, plastics and rounded corners

The most important aspect of our technology should be how it performs when up against the tasks and challenges we encounter every day. With the power and technical quality of smartphones and other devices increasing all the time, this is becoming more and more sidelined for aesthetics. How a product looks and feels has always been of huge importance – everyone has different tastes but fashions dictate what the majority of us consider attractive and people are unconsciously drawn to that which is pleasing to their senses.

Sony Xperia Z (Clove)Whereas the excessive styling of advanced products has usually been the province of the more expensive brands – Apple for one have long charged considerably more than the sum of their device’s parts, however they are small fry compared to the likes of Harman/Kardon or Bang & Olufsen – high quality design is beginning to become the norm in lower end devices where differentiating on specification alone is no longer as important as it once was. The word ‘premium’ is one that I believe is overused along with other similar superlatives, especially in the smartphone industry, yet it continues to evoke response if the noise made by of professional reviewers and consumers online is anything to go by. So what do we mean by the term premium? Is it something that can be tangibly reduced or is it more of a concept that we simply ‘know’ by experience and familiarity?

HTC One (Clove)The topic comes up regularly but was highlighted pretty recently in many reviews of the Samsung Galaxy S4. Despite the incredible technological achievements in Samsung’s most recent flagship, reviews across the board have docked points or decried Samsung’s continued of plastics for the Galaxy range where competitors have either long been using or started introducing metal alloys in manufacturing. Devices such as the Apple iPhone 5 and HTC One both make a big deal of their unibody construction and premium (there’s that word again) materials. Plastics too can be used well, Sony’s Xperia Z and SP both use different types of plastic casing yet somehow manage to come across as providing a better aesthetic than any of Samsung’s units. Perhaps it’s the type of plastic used or the finish – Samsung’s casings have been called ‘slimy’ and ‘unattractive’, whereas Sony’s are ‘grippy’ and ‘eye-catching’.

Nokia Lumia 925 (Clove)As mentioned previously, ‘premium’ evokes value, a value that can’t readily be defined but definitely translates to price. If Samsung devices don’t qualify for this premium moniker, then how can they continue to price themselves above their competitors and on a par with Apple? Samsung’s marketing goes great guns to justify the price tags by promoting both the hardware and software features whilst possibly over-inflating the quality of their design despite consumer response. For the time being this is working as their devices do indeed tend to have the largest and most comprehensive feature sets yet I predict this can’t continue for too much longer; already the bloated TouchWiz is beginning to lose favour.

Samsung Galaxy S4 (Clove)The design language of the current Galaxy range is very clearly an iteration of last year’s devices which also came under fire (but not quite as much) when put aside the likes of the HTC One X and iPhone 4S. The thing is why should they change? The Galaxy S3 was the best selling Android smartphone of all time and may well have outsold Apple’s devices of the same generation depending on which figures you look at. It’s a strange situation where people say they want a change yet are still willing to buy. For now at least the compromise on aesthetics for pure technological prowess is worth it, but how long will this last? If other supposedly better designed devices begin to encroach on Samsung’s Android dominance will they change tack next year? Only time will tell of course.

Huawei Ascend P6 (Clove)Premium then seems to hinge mostly on materials and by being different to the current norm. HTC introduced a unibody aluminum design with front mounted speakers and were lauded critically. Nokia have just redesigned the bulky poly-carbonate Lumia  920 with a slimmer and lighter aluminium alloy for the 925. Sony’s Xperia Z and Z tablet have opted for rigid square corners and a type of edgeless styling that looks different to anything else on the shelf. Even at the cheaper end of the market, Huawei’s new Ascend P6 has an interesting mix of curvature and sharp angles that help it find its own identity despite the cheaper materials. Motorola’s new direction under Google has also promised customisation and personality in the mid range game. Samsung then are left with arguably the lowest quality looking devices (understandably my own opinion…) yet a dominant market position. Is there anything that could change this and would Samsung risk it when one assumes the production line and project cycle for their next slew of devices is probably already well underway? Let us know your thoughts!

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About Josh Bethell

Josh joined Clove part time a few years ago whilst studying Computing at Bournemouth University. Since finishing his studies he has remained at Clove in a full time position, involved in sales, returns and social media.

Involved with both consumer electronics and software since the mid 2000s, keeping up to date with industry developments is as much a hobby as it is a job.

Easy going but never afraid to share an opinion, Josh can often be found in his spare time listening to some heavy rock or at a local gig as well as playing with the latest gadgets and video games.

Comments

  1. Agree with many of the thoughts. Premium for me is not just about the feel, premium is often about what it can do over the normal run of the mill products but this is becoming less of an issue as more and more handsets do it all.

    Owning the S4 I know first hand how it does not feel as premium as the likes of the HTC One and even the P6 just having unboxed that.

    However I keep thinking that if I drop it, then the plastic on the S4 is easier and cheaper to replace than these aluminium shells. So whilst premium quality may be scarified, practicality is gained.

  2. Premium is so subjective. For me, sharp corners are cheap, painful and destroy my pockets. Bloatware is definitely not premium quality. The feel and sturdiness of a phone marks it as premium, whatever it’s made of. Just look at the difference in car dashboards. Will it last the two years of a contract? (though I have always bought SIM free) Does it actually WORK? Does the battery really last the day with a reserve? Can I hear the sound? Is it bright enough to use outside? Will I be proud to show it off or embarrassed to be seen with it? Can I use it “as is” or do I have to buy accessories? (That might include such things as the screen needing a protector, a memory card, speakers, docks, apps that overcome shortfalls in the os or manufacturers skin.)

    For some the camera is vital, but I prefer the dedicated camera which I have with a 20x zoom.

    HTC’s One looks premium with its speakers but I’d have to muck around and spend money to get more memory, but at least it offers 32GB. Samsung ‘s S4 has a screen I didn’t feel was bright enough in daylight, and it is overpowered by touch wiz. It needs SD cards as it is only 16GB. Neither has the battery life I’d expect from a premium phone at the prices they ask. Sony’ s otherwise lovely phone has sharp corners!

  3. a great article.

    now the technical problems of designing a smartphone with good performance, great displays, and generally reliable software have been overcome, there’s no real reason to neglect the design.

    I think Nokia have shown how it is possible to have a well designed phone using plastic shells which has a premium feel to it. Sure, Samsung phones are quite robust and more so than they perhaps feel with their thin bendy plastics, and those plastics don’t block radio signals like the metal-bodied iPhones and HTC One, but there must be a way to use glass + metal + plastic to achieve robustness and quality without ruining RF signal propagation.

    • Cheers Paul, admittedly I forgot about the possibilities for RF interference – it’s another argument on the ‘pro’ side for plastics I didn’t mention.
      Lower signal strength than expected is something a small number of our HTC ONE customers have reported…
      It’s true the Sammys are quite robust despite the looks, although I still feel like I’m going to snap the cover of an S4 every time I take it off! Plus once you’ve got used to the look and design of other devices (as you can imagine we see them ALL), they do seem a little lacklustre. By no means are they ugly and I’m sure a lot of design time did go into them but when put next to almost everything else in the market at around the same or lower price then they are very basically styled in my opinion.
      Good point about Nokia with the 925 and check out a Sony XPeria SP if you get a chance – very well made for a mid range device