Opinion: Fit and Finish Work Best With a Focus on In-Hand Feel
A tasteful design needs much more than just tasteful materials.
Frequent XDA readers might remember my Note5 review, which came out not too long ago. Since that was published, I’ve been testing other devices and have not been able to “daily drive” the Samsung’s shiny phablet for further testing — a particular frustration given the ROM scene is starting to pick up thanks to dedicated developers like TEKHD and dr.ketan among others.
But when I do pick it up, there is one thing above all that stands out:
The Note5 is one of the best devices I’ve held in my hand, in part because of how I can hold it — Samsung’s Note5’s design is, hands-down, the most comfortable device I’ve held this year. There have been many devices that surprised me in terms of in-hand feel over the last few smartphone generations. For example, the original Moto G felt like a revolution in the hand — when I purchased one, I simply couldn’t believe that a low-price mid-range device could fit in my mitts so perfectly and be so manageable with one hand — it put my old Note 3 to shame!
The Note5 opted to put curves not on the screen, but on the back. This is a functional decision that also benefits the phone aesthetically, because unlike other devices with curved backs, the Note5 still remains flat in its surface and its corners, which gives it an unconventional look. But this article is not about the Note5. It’s about a new-found preference of mine for good-fitting devices. There are many phones with excellent fit nowadays, including enthusiast-favorites like Motorola’s Moto X phones. But what makes a phone good-fitting?
“Fit and finish go best together when they try to balance each other for a good UX rather than a marketable look.”
Smartphones have tried radically different surfaces in the past few years, including leather, wood, many kinds of metal, carbon fiber and sandpaper textures. Glass and metal are, however, the ones typically considered premium, and the ones that most manufacturers use when trying to earn that word in their reviews.
I personally applaud Motorola and others for not going with the rest and instead offering sensible and pleasant alternatives to the glass-and-metal theme of many other flagships. Some of their alternatives, like various kinds of wood and genuine leather, add a lot of character, customization, and choice, something other manufacturers seem increasingly keen on as well. While removable batteries and expandable storage are going away, we now see many devices sporting removable back covers anyway, and major releases including the LG G4, the OnePlus 2 and the ZenFone 2 greatly benefit from the ability to switch up their design. All of these devices also make good use of curves to net a good in-hand grip and feel, too, but the materials employed in each phone mean that the overall results are rather different.
The way I see it, there is no simple end-all formula to making a good-feeling phone. Many factors must be considered, and we’ve seen comfortable phones with different designs, materials, dimensions, and the like. If I had to list some factors, they would be:
- Back curvature: This includes not just the back, but also the edges. The arch needed to make a comfortable phone is not set in stone. For example, the Note5 has a flat back with curved edges on the sides, while the ZenFone 2 is rounder in every Axis. The LG G4 has a vertical curve that’s more pronounced than on other phones, and the Moto X’s curves are very well balanced. Not all of these offer the same level of comfort in the hand, though, and some of them haven’t perfected their execution either.
- Curved corners: These shrink the distance your thumb must travel when palming the phone, they soften the feel of the device in your hand, improve surface area efficiency, and make pocketing easier and safer.
- Bezel width: The bezels can shorten the reach of your thumbs, they can add bulk to the length of the phone, and they can make for a disproportionate and inefficient surface area. Side bezels, however, can be inefficient when shrunk too much due to accidental taps, and top and bottom bezels can make UI navigation more uncomfortable (and risky) as well when they are too small.
- Texture and materials: The texture of the phone adds grip or slipperiness, but this factor is very dependent on the overall geometry of the phone as well. For example, the glass back of my Note5 is nowhere near as slippery as it would be without its excellent corners, curved edges and minimal width. The materials employed on the edges can also help or defer from the experience, and while many manufacturers opt for chamfered metal edges, these can be very uncomfortable when not done right (looking at you, Note 4).
- Weight: Finding a perfect balance is hard, and like all things, both extremes make for unpleasant user experiences. I personally prefer heavier devices for added heft and security, but lighter phones can be easily manageable with one hand as well. Another very important subfactor is the distribution of said weight, which makes handling the device all the more pleasant when nailed just right.
After handling various 2015 phones, I feel like many OEMs are paying increasing attention to this aspect. Whereas the “thinness race” of past years had manufacturers trying to shave off every last millimeter and making devices flatter, curved backs on devices today are increasingly common. There are still some manufacturers that stick to rather inefficient combos such as flat glass backs, but even Samsung moved away from that with the Note5, and the result is nothing short of spectacular.
My OnePlus 2 review is almost done and I have a lot of good things to say about its hardware design. The Note5 still surprises me every time I pick it up, especially now that I have a skin on it, which makes it much grippier than before. The device was not particularly slippery to me, mind you — I think much of the criticism against that is just a knee-jerk reaction to the fact that it’s a glass back. But boy, does it make it cleaner! The fingerprint magnet of the Note5 make the pretty aspects of the phone take a backseat most of the time until cleaning cloth comes along.
If you want to go for extremes, you will find a Chinese OEM that suits your liking
I personally love that phones are becoming more comfortable while not necessarily focusing on extreme thinness, minimal bezels or ethereal weight. If you want to go for extremes, I can guarantee you’ll find a Chinese OEM that suits your liking. If you want a well-rounded phone that you won’t be afraid of dropping often and just generally feels good, you have many options now, and they only seem to be increasing. With hardware customizability becoming such a huge trend, we might even see new materials employed and have OEMs experiment more and more to land the perfect grip. Fit and finish go best together when they try to balance each other for a good UX rather than a marketable look. I, for one, love that OEMs took a curve in their designs.