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Home Featured iPhone 5C: Plastic but not Plasticy

iPhone 5C: Plastic but not Plasticy

iphone5c

There has been a lot written about the iPhone 5C having a plastic candy-coloured shell. Sometimes I get the impression that the authors of these articles have either not actually held the iPhone 5C, or that they have never held any of the other plastic-cased cellphones either on the market or which have ever been on the market, such as… well… pretty much all other cellphones.

First of all, not all plastic is the same. To get a sense for this, pick up a Lego┬« brand building block and a some cheap off-brand building block. Feel the difference? It’s the type of plastic that makes the difference. Now feel a milk jug, a plastic coffee cup, a lid from a soft drink cup, a bread bag and a car tail light. They all feel different because they are made from different kinds of plastic.

The material used to make the iPhone 5C is high-grade polycarbonate. This is the same material that is used in the windshields of helicopters and very high end sports cars. It is then coated with lacquer, which makes it scratch-resistant and gives it that show-room gloss.

One major reason that metal feels different to the touch is something called the heat-transfer coefficient. Metal objects transfer heat from a warmer object (such as your hand) to a cooler substance such as air. This is the principle that helps your computer’s processor get rid of heat.

Place your hand on a show-car and you can tell that it is metal. Surprise! The car’s surface may have at least two layers of plastic over the metal, such as an epoxy layer to give it a rich deep colour and smoothness, and a protective lacquer coating. You can tell it’s metal because the surface draws heat from your hand.

This is what the iPhone 5C feels like a high-end show-car. Why? Because under that lacquer and polycarbonate is a metal frame. Other cellphones don’t have a metal frame, they have circuit boards mounted to the plastic. When you hold an iPhone 5C in your hand you can tell that there is metal under the plastic. Even the iPhone 3G and 3GS did not have that.

Why don’t other cellphone manufacturers put metal under their plastic (besides cost)? It is really hard to design a product that has metal in a microwave field. Back in the 1980s when I worked in satellite receiver design, I would have told you it was impossible. At those frequencies any piece of metal distorts the field and becomes a component in the circuit. If you don’t believe me, take a piece of tinfoil and cut a rectangle the size of an iPhone, then cut out the centre so that you have a hollow rectangle. Now stick it in a microwave oven and turn it on (a microwave oven has a lot more power so the effect is way more dramatic than it is in the low-power field in a cell phone).

The iPhone 5C is functionally almost the same as an iPhone 5 (with some improvements), and you have to feel it to truly appreciate it. I use an iPhone 5S mainly because of the improved camera (which took the picture above), but the 5C is amazing. If you are getting phones for your family it is an excellent choice.

 

 
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2 Responses

  1. Bryan Lee

    Hah – I knew it! Back when people were blasting the Palm Pre for feeling cheap and plasticy, I predicted that they would keep making that complaint until Apple came out with a plastic phone, and then all of a sudden plastic wouldn’t feel so cheap anymore!
    Quite frankly if a phone is light and if being flexible makes it less fragile, I’ll take that any day.

    • Actually as a long-time Palm fan (I loved my Treo(s) and my Touchpad — it took weeks after getting my first iPhone before it became my main phone because there never has been an iPhone app as good as Agendus) let me say that the Pre WAS cheap and plasticy. It felt like you could crush the keyboard between your thumb and finger. The Treo 600 and 650 were plastic but excellent. The iPhone 3G and 3GS were not bad… but the 5C actually feels surprisingly great.

      I don’t have a problem with phones made of plastic, but there many different plastics and I see no excuse for some phone manufacturers that make their phones (or other products) from plastic that is more suited for the packaging material the product is shipped in. Also, a product should not feel like it is about to crumple when you hold it.

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