My Next Phone: Design, Build Quality, and Searching for a Premium-Feeling Phone

When I got my HTC Desire Eye, I didn’t look at the build quality. The only thing I really noticed initially was that it was a very thin device and it was lighter in the hand than my brick-heavy Nokia Lumia 820.

This didn’t necessarily make it feel cheap or mid-range, but it did make it feel more fragile – I felt more prone to dropping it as it was so light in contrast to my Lumia 820, and immediately sought after a leather-backed flip case to add a little weight and bulk.

Generally, however, the phone felt great and the features on offer as part of HTC’s growing platform of the EYE Experience made it feel all the more greater. The 13 megapixel camera setup (front/rear) was ample enough for my needs, and the only downside was on audio quality.

Still, I loved my phone in the first year of my 24 month contract (Jan 2014 to Jan 2015), but this subsided going into the second year (2015-16) and I started to notice how cheap it really looked and felt. Its blue and pale blue colour scheme didn’t do it any favours – it seemed too colourful and all over the place.

Also, the Micro SD card tray broke with a year to go until my contract was up. The SIM and SD card trays were designed with waterproofing in mind, and remain flush with the frame. You’re supposed to pull on a tag attached to the tray to remove the SD card from the phone, but the tag magically came off one day, leaving the card tray, and the supposed-to-be removable 64GB Micro SD card permanently stuck inside my device. No amount of fiddling with screwdrivers and tweezers helped to alleviate the situation. The build quality wasn’t as good as it should’ve been, and this failing was one of the reasons I started to yearn for a metal design that was both more durable and looked more premium.

The only things my HTC Desire Eye had going for it at this point was that had survived multiple drops while out of its case, and that I still enjoyed using it as a media device to listen to music and watch videos on YouTube.

While the colour was a matte dual blue, maybe a matte black design would’ve been smarter. But as it didn’t sport a seamless colour design to match the almost seamless body, rather embarrassingly it felt like it was drawing attention to its flaws. And probably more annoying, I was noticing those flaws more than anyone.

Lifestyle Changes Influenced My Choice of Phone Design

At around this time last year, I also started to change as a person. I was looking in lifestyle magazines such as GQ, Esquire, and Playboy. I scoured Instagram in search of supreme quality photography, I absorbed photography techniques and image designs, and I started to edit images more and more. I downloaded VSCO and suddenly my photos not only looked better, but felt better too. I felt like I was producing great images with only a cheap to mid-range phone in my hand and superior filters and editing tools at my fingertips.

I noticed how everything in the ideological life seemed to be seamless and full of chamfered edges – a kind of Christian Grey world (as in, Fifty Shades of Grey) with office spaces, bedrooms, houses, cars, suits and phones all retaining that clean, luxury vibe.

I started to yearn for the premium feel of an iPhone, even if it wasn’t really an iPhone that I was holding every day. I started using the HDR mode of the HTC Camera app to better capture colours in the day as well as details in the night – the night time photo mode was inadequate and wasn’t able to capture anything.

I wanted so much to hold an iPhone in my hands, even if I didn’t really like the iOS software. I didn’t want to stand out anymore, I wanted to fit in, to blend in with the crowd and own a phone that sported a clean Space Grey colour scheme. I felt that a premium phone would make me feel better as a person. I started to watch unboxings and reviews on YouTube of the iPhone SE and 6S as I started to catch the iBug.

The Flaws of a Once Perfect Phone

And that’s when I also started to notice some of the worst crimes of my HTC Desire Eye. It felt really cheap in the hand – glaringly so, in fact.

The cameras underperformed and images were blurry and noisy when zoomed in, even in optimum light conditions, and I noticed that I was resorting to VSCO to improve the quality of my photos.

The battery life in-between charges started to diminish. The once speedy phone was now tripping up every so often. The phone took longer to boot up. The keyboard could no longer keep up with me and I had to learn how to type slower so that my phone didn’t crash. Yes, I had to learn how to type slowernot a great skill for a journalist trying to capture every word someone says!

The recording quality wasn’t good enough – there was no optical image or video stabilisation, and I had to rely on YouTube’s cheap-looking, rough-around-the-edges video editing tools to stabilise the video once it had been uploaded. Sure, there was a ‘Steady Hand’ photo mode – but this zoomed-in on photos and made images even more noisy.

I started to rely on premium-looking filters in VSCO to hide the fact that I was using such an average phone as my main camera. A neat, on-board, as-standard OIS system would have taken away a lot of extra hassle when taking photos.

Why I Appreciate Quality

That’s why, recently, I’ve come to appreciate build quality and the feel of a phone a lot more than I used to. Especially a metal body design. The first phone I had with metal in its body was a Nokia X2-00, with a removable metal back to remove the battery and access the SIM card tray and micro-SD card slot.

At the time, the removable metal back felt cheaply made, but now I respect the design elements. I pick up this phone every now and then, and appreciate how the phone was made for the hand.

Even my 4th gen iPod Touch had a premium back to it, with a shiny mirror finish to it. Both devices had curved edges that sat comfortably in my palm – in stark contrast to the slippery slam dunk slab that was my Desire Eye.

There’s no thought given to the feel in the hand. It’s like HTC didn’t even consider this at all during the R&D stage. Even cheap metal, rather than plastic, could’ve made this phone seem more durable or better quality, even if it wasn’t. It’s like how a desk made of a thick, curved piece of wood feels better made and more durable than a cheaper, chipboard variant.

Samsung has even got glass as a backing for their devices, the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge. I do like the feel of the S7 in my hand – it’s small and manageable, although it’s glass back is a fingerprint magnet.

Phone Skins

There’s currently an argument for phone skins, such as those supplied by brands like d-Brand, to cover your cheap phone and make it feel more premium, like an iPhone. But there’s a danger that, even after applying a skin, you’ll only fool those with prying eyes – but not your own, as you’ll still know it’s a cheap phone with a faux premium skin.

If I were to stick with my phone, I have seen some skins for the Desire Eye, but they were made with the white/red design in mind, covering only the back of the phone and incorporating the red frame into the design. The whole point of a skin would be to hide the grubby-looking frame on my phone – but as I am seemingly unable to do this, there would be no point in investing in a skin. I’ll still be able to see its cheap blue lines.

Device Size

While I’m talking about the build quality, the size of the device can’t be too big. I remember that the Nokia Lumia 800 was a suitable size for me when choosing my first smartphone, but I went with the Lumia 820 because it had the newer Windows Phone 8 software installed. Even then, I thought that was too big, compared to my iPod Touch 4G which only had a 3.5 inch screen, but I got used to it.

When I got my HTC Desire Eye, again I thought it was too big, and initially I was frightened of dropping the phone because of the device seize. However, I also got used to this.

Which brings me onto the discussion about how screens are getting bigger on newer phones as we demand more screen real estate. Personally, 5 inches is just right, with anything lower being too small and anything higher being too big. I still like being able to hold my phone in one hand, even though I hold it with both hands when typing.

I love having more screen to play with, especially when viewing videos on the move, but for any complicated tasks I will use a bigger screen such as that of my laptop or ultra/netbook.

Therefore, to save me doing any complicated finger gymnastics, a screen size of about 5 inches is enough for me. Anything above 5.5 inches is too much – the Nexus 6P, although a great phone, is too big and out of the question for my needs.

What am I looking for in a New Phone?

I’m looking out for phones that offer great build quality and a premium feel in the hand, that are not too big or too small. I will consider phones with cheap or plastic bodies, but only if they have a unique feature which is so eye-catching that it would be silly not to at least consider it as an option.

A great example of this is the LG G5. Although it’s made of metal, it’s layered with a primer that makes it look and feel plastic (apparently this is to make to more durable). While the G5 sports a unique wide-angle secondary rear camera lens setup, the interchangeable modular ‘LG Friends’ design has been criticised for giving the device a varying build quality between individual units, leaving much to be desired in the build quality department with warps and awkward-feeling gaps along the back of the phone.

I will soon release a shortlist of devices I’m considering, but for today I’m signing off. Thanks for reading!

Chris K.

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