The surprising star of IFA 2018 was… materials?

By | 4th September 2018

Among the hustle and bustle of a trade show, it’s occasionally hard to see the micro-trends going on beneath the surface of grand presentations, hyperbole and shiny new innovations. This year, one of the surprising stars of the show was one many of us thought had been settled: materials.

For a while now, it has felt like smartphone design has coalesced around its ideal form: shiny glass slabs with metal frames. So it was a pleasant surprise to see some innovative material choices at play in the devices presented, especially when they get rid of the dreaded fingerprint problem.

BlackBerry Key2 LE

All three Blackberry Key2 LE color models showing backs, cameras, and convenience buttons

At first glance, the BlackBerryKey2 LE looks like a metal phone with a rubberized back plate. Pick it up and that initial impression is only reasserted. Little would most people notice though, that the metal-feeling frame of the phone is actually polycarbonate. It’s very well done, giving the feel of metal while keeping the costs and overall weight down. If it looks like metal and feels like metal, does it really matter if it’s plastic?

HTC U12 Life

HTC U12 Life etched acrylic design logo and fingerprint scanner

The first device I saw at the show was the HTC U12 Life. It’s a plastic phone, which isn’t too surprising given its price tag, but HTC was very keen to let us know it had actual bits of metal blended into the etched acrylic. While it may still look and feel like a plastic phone overall, HTC deserves at least a little credit for trying something different with its 3D Ultra Stripes. Racing stripes may not stop plastic being plastic, but at least they reduce the appearance of fingerprints.

Huawei P20 Pro

The leather-clad Huawei P20 Pro models.

The first leather phone I can remember liking was the LG G4 with its signature vertical stitching. Motorola’s leather back plates were also pretty great, but for whatever reason, most manufacturers have steered clear of putting out more than the occasional leather-backed phone. At IFA 2018, Huawei dropped two new leather-backed P20 Pros in black or brown color options, and they look great. Just when you thought the Twilight P20 Pro was the one to get, now you have some very nicely done alternatives.

LG G7 Android One

When I saw the LG G7 One I was initially more interested in the hardware missing from the phone than what the phone itself was made of. But after playing with it for a while it became obvious that what I had initially assumed was a metal back panel was actually not. There are two versions of the G7 One, one with shiny glass and another that looks like brushed metal. However, it too is made of brushed glass, proving that a glass-backed phone doesn’t always have to be a fingerprint magnet.

What all this goes to show is that, after a short period of visual similarity where every phone ostensibly looked like all the rest, OEMs are once again starting to play around with materials. I’ve long questioned the sanity of shiny glass phones that look disgusting mere seconds after you take them out of the box, so if the smartphone industry is now committed to investigating alternative solutions, I’m all for it.

Who do you think did the best job with materials at IFA? What would your ideal smartphone be made out of?