Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Is metal better?

The last years, there has been a clear trend within consumer electronics: The devices must have a smooth metal surface. This is perceived as a mark of quality: Metal means solidity for the general public.

One example is the Lumix G 12-32mm f/3.5-5.6 (my review) pancake zoom lens, seen below (to the left) compared with the older Lumix X PZ 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 (my review):

The older black lens has a plastic body, while the newer silver lens has a bare metal surface.

But is the new lens better, with the external aluminium body? In terms of handling, I certainly like the old lens the best. It has a ribbed ring around the base, which is good for gripping when mounting the lens. The new lens has nothing of the kind, and is quite slippery to handle.

There is, however, a textured ring around the front, which is used for extending the lens and zooming. The older, black lens does not have a zoom ring, as the motorized zoom is operated with a lever.

I guess the purpose of the metal surface is to make people think that this is a high quality metal lens. However, is it really a metal lens?

Some people have reported that the front metal surface has come off, revealing a plastic construction below. For me, the rear ring came off, and you can see clearly below that it is just a very thin layer of aluminium, which is glued to the plastic chassis of the lens:

Personally, I don't mind the plastic construction at all, in fact, I think an all plastic design would have been superior: It could have been textured for a better grip, and the surface would not come off accidentally, as it could have been part of the chassis.

Now, I am sure that if I had taken the lens back to the retailer, they would have sent it for repair at no extra cost to me. But this is a hassle, and I would much have preferred a design which does not put a thin, fragile metal surface on the outside of the lens.

By the way, here we see that the metal ring is prevented from rotating by a small "tap":

Not only Panasonic is doing this, of course. Some people have been angered by the fact that the pro grade Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 has a plastic construction beneath the metal surface.

And the new Samsung Mini-NX system has metal clad camera bodies and lenses:

Just to mention a few. I think to put a thin metal surface on all consumer electronic devices is a strong, and, sadly, dysfunctional, trend.


  1. Completely agree. I blame Apple, who at least do use real metal, but it's in many ways inferior to the polycarbonate bodies they used to use (dents rather than springs back, doesn't allow wifi signals through as well etc).

    It's also interesting that camera manufacturers are (presumably) trying to invoke the spirit of super-solid long-lived cameras of the past, but realistically where an SLR bought in the 70s would have lasted decades, a digital camera purchased now will be outclassed within a few years, & the user will probably have upgraded & moved on. Still, a good way to get us to part with significant money for short term investments! (says he, who has just purchased an E-P5, & is enjoying its solid feel)

    1. I agree, I think Apple started this trend. After Apple went for the "premium metal look", it has become impossible to launch a plastic body consumer electronics item.

      This trend may turn soon, though. I have noted that in the premium laptop market, one can find "carbon fibre" surfaces, rather than metal. This introduction of carbon fibre may be able to turn around the trend: Most people think that carbon fibre is even better than metal, even if carbon fibre is essentially just reinforced plastic.

    2. I think it predates apple's portable devices. It's just a common misconception that Metal is ALWAYS higher quality than polycarbonate.

      I remember in the good old compact cassette "walkman" days that the lower end models were plastic, but the higher end models were encased with metal screwed onto the chassis.

      It was probably true in the early days that "plastic" was less durable than metal. But in the 21st century, well made "plastics" and composites are *much* better for use in portable devices that accidentally contact the ground every once in a while. But even now, there are cheap plastic devices being made that are complete garbage.

      I definitely prefer a well made polycarbonate body on my portable devices for robustness... however, I cannot lie, and prefer the "feel" of a cool metal in my hands.

  2. Give the public what they want.

    1. I think that is the strategy of most successful companies. Why make lenses with plastic bodies or plastic lens mount bayonets if they are going to be perceived as "poor quality items"? Better to chrome the lens bayonet and put a thin layer of metal around the lens, and have reviewers refer to them as "all metal lenses".

  3. I certainly prefer the feel and flexibility of plastic in consumer devices. Used to love the white polycarbonate Apple iBook and currently chose at iPhone 5C rather than 5S for the feel. I think metal is essential in some cases, e.g. camera bodies and unibody MacBooks which need the rigidity, but would much prefer if manufacturers used metal for structure as opposed to ornament. I don't think there ever could be a good reason to bond metal to a plastic chassis.

    1. Would you still say that the 12-32 is much better to own than the 14-42? Although I'm mainly a prime shooter, I'd like one of them to replace the kit zoom for my GX7.

    2. There are many 14-42mm lenses.

      The Lumix G 14-42mm II is a very good lens, and quite compact. The only disadvantage of the lens is that the wide end: 14mm is not very impressive today.

      Overall, I think the Lumix G 14-42mm II is probably slightly better than the 12-32mm lens. But the 12-32mm lens is very compact, goes wide, and performs well enough by a good margin.

      The Lumix X PZ 14-42mm lens is not very good, in my opinion, and I would avoid it.

    3. Thanks Fredrik; I am very impressed by the Lumix G 14-42mm II optically and ergonomically, just it's a little big to be carrying around. I think I will try to change it for the 12-32mm eventually. Thanks!