Why The Next iPhone Has A Two-Toned Metal Backplate

Why The Next iPhone Has A Two-Toned Metal Backplate

At this point, most of our readers are familiar with what the next iPhone is going to look like, including the fact that it will feature a unibody design with a two-tone metal backplate. But what’s the story with that metal backplate? Has it been designed that way just to look good and set itself apart from the design of the iPhone 4/4S, or is there a more cogent design philosophy behind the three alternating stripes of metal and glass?

We won’t know for sure what Apple is thinking until the iPhone 5 is officially announced, but one industrial designer has a great theory about why the back of the next iPhone looks the way it does. As is usually the case with Apple’s design, the new iPhone’s back plate doesn’t just look good… it’s incredibly functional and magnificently strong.

Over at the The Techblock, Chicago-based industrial designer Don Lehman dissects the design of the next iPhone, and puts the design decisions being made in the context of what has come before.

Here’s what Lehman says is behind the two-tone backplate design:

When the iPhone 4 first launched, it was a GSM-only phone, meaning it only worked on cell networks using the GSM standard. (AT&T, yes. Verizon, no.) The GSM iPhone 4 introduced the idea of an external metal-band antenna. It broke into two sections. One section for cell/data reception, and another section for GPS, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth. This design worked but was also susceptible to a signal degradation if gripped in the wrong spot (aka Antennagate).

When the CDMA version of the iPhone 4 came out in February 2011, the design of the steel bands changed. This design would also carry over to the 4S. The 4S’s steel band is comprised of four pieces of steel: two U-shaped pieces at the top and bottom, and two long, flat pieces on the side. The steel sections don’t actually touch each other — they are separated by a .65mm piece of plastic. The way I understand the 4S cell antenna to work is this: There are two antennas, one at the top U bracket, and one at the bottom U bracket. The flat steel sides are only there to visually continue the metal band all the way around the phone and for structural reinforcement. The GPS, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth antennas transmit out of the glass backplate.

Long story short, instead of using the entire metal band for antennas like in the 4, the 4S only uses the top and bottom sections as antennas. Since the flat sides don’t contribute to transmitting signal and only help with the structure of the device, it makes sense to make them even more integral to the structure. This is what makes a unibody iPhone possible.

This is a really interesting theory. What is especially interesting to me about it is that it explains why the new iPhone’s backplate is comprised of two small stripes of what appear to be standard Gorilla Glass with a big plate of aluminum unibody in the middle. It looks good, but it’s also a very different design choice than the kind Apple usually makes. According to Lehman’s theory, though, the metal part of the back plate makes the device significantly stronger, while the “strips” of Gorilla Glass allow the WiFi, Bluetooth and GPS antennas to peer out. Very smart.

It’s really worth reading Lehman’s entire article: he’s got a lot of very smart, very experiential things to say about the new iPhone’s design that go way beyond what we’ve outlined here. His article makes a good case for the fact that the next iPhone won’t just be the prettiest or thinnest iPhone yet, but the toughest one ever made too. Check it out at the link below.

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  • minimalist1969

    I have always thought the speculation about a unibody aluminum iPhone was problematic. Aluminum cases and cellular antennas just don’t make good bedfellows.

    Did nobody remember the reception issues with the first iPhone and its aluminized back plate? (and that was just a coating, not solid aluminum). Not to mention all the iPads with cellular antennas have those black plastic hatches.

    So this unibody design with in-laid glass strips makes perfect sense to me.

  • Lars Pallesen

    Nice theory, but I don’t think it adds up. It’s based on the assumption that the shiny parts of the back plate at the top and bottom are made from glass. But they’re not, are they?

    As far as I can tell from photos and videos of the new iPhone unibody it is exactly that: A UNIbody construction, meaning it’s ONE part made entirely from metal. It’s plain to see in this video from EtradeSupply when you see the inside of the back plate that it’s one integral part.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8XY841RAY4Y

    I don’t even see how it’s possible to fuse or glue metal and glass seamlessly together at the edges and get the structural rigidity needed for the iPhone.

    So what gives? Are the glossy parts glass or metal?

  • ddevito

    The metal backplate will cause too much cell and GPS interference.

    Antennagate 2.0 perhaps

  • ddevito

    I sure hope this isn’t anything like what the real new iPhone will look like, or more sheep will leave the meadow and have an affair with the little green robot :p

  • Bruce Schrock

    the design isn’t ugly… it just doesn’t blow me away with its beauty. That’s just not how apple works

  • Th3_1d

    Nice theory, but I don’t think it adds up. It’s based on the assumption that the shiny parts of the back plate at the top and bottom are made from glass. But they’re not, are they?

    As far as I can tell from photos and videos of the new iPhone unibody it is exactly that: A UNIbody construction, meaning it’s ONE part made entirely from metal. It’s plain to see in this video from EtradeSupply when you see the inside of the back plate that it’s one integral part.

    I don’t even see how it’s possible to fuse or glue metal and glass seamlessly together at the edges and get the structural rigidity needed for the iPhone.

    So what gives? Are the glossy parts glass or metal?

    @Lars Pallesen
    I could be wrong, but to me it looks like the top and bottom are different in the video. You can see a raised edge where the silver meets the black. That being said, I have no idea how they would manage to connect the two without compromising the integrity of it, so i guess I’m just blowing smoke out of my ass. Let me know what you think man.

  • fraydog

    The metal backplate will cause too much cell and GPS interference.

    Antennagate 2.0 perhaps

    If you read the article, you’d see why that probably won’t be the case. This will make for some good claim chowder in the future.

  • Th3_1d

    @Kr00
    Maybe responding to every posts he makes isn’t best way to get him to “fuck off”. You trying to start a flame war or are you just incompetent at handling trolls?

  • Daniel Ruiz
  • Th3_1d

    No, this stupid fat troll has been dropping his turds in CoM for several years. Kicking trolls is fine, he asks for it. Now you can go away.

    Getting responses is the reason trolls troll. If you understood that and stopped getting so worked up over obvious trolls your wouldn’t be such a dick.

    nope go to 1:40 http://www.disneyresearch.com/research/projects/hci_touche_drp.htm

    That is sweet, great website. How long has that been up?

  • Tammiendw

    as Chad answered I didn’t even know that some people can get paid $9027 in four weeks on the computer. did you look at this web link(Click on menu Home more information) http://goo.gl/Lj6dK

  • Lars Pallesen
    @Lars Pallesen
    I could be wrong, but to me it looks like the top and bottom are different in the video. You can see a raised edge where the silver meets the black. That being said, I have no idea how they would manage to connect the two without compromising the integrity of it, so i guess I’m just blowing smoke out of my ass. Let me know what you think man.

    Yeah, I did notice that there seemed to be some sort of inlay on the inside of the top and bottom section that might be non-metallic. But if the glossy top and bottom was from a different material on the outside, such as glass or plastic, wouldn’t the guy in the video have noticed it, you think? I dunno, man.

  • technochick

    Better title for this might “One guy’s theory about why Apple might be switching the back port, if in fact they are.”

    At this point it’s still just a rumor and if true, we won’t know until we open one up why they did it

  • Th3_1d
    But if the glossy top and bottom was from a different material on the outside, such as glass or plastic, wouldn’t the guy in the video have noticed it, you think? I dunno, man.

    You would think, I guess we will find out when it releases.

  • Kayneeezy

    Didn’t have to be an industrial designer to figure that out.. knew why it had the stripes the moment i saw it and that was one of the reasons i believed it was the real phone.

  • assyrianpride

    looks like crap

  • Kayneeezy

    the design isn’t ugly… it just doesn’t blow me away with its beauty. That’s just not how apple works

    said the exact same thing about the iPhone 4.. but fell in love with it the moment i saw it in person..

  • djrobsd

    I’d venture to say that only fanboys will buy this new iPhone, or people who don’t already have an iPhone. Personally it does NOTHING for me, the design is ugly, and the screen is only a little bit bigger. Too bad Samsung can’t install iOS on it’s phones.. LOL

  • frog_snyper

    Wireless charging baby!!

  • Tallest_Skil

    I’d venture to say that only fanboys will buy this new iPhone, or people who don’t already have an iPhone. Personally it does NOTHING for me, the design is ugly, and the screen is only a little bit bigger. Too bad Samsung can’t install iOS on it’s phones.. LOL

    I’d venture to say you’re a worthless troll with no reason to actually be here. Enjoy your pathetic life where you go on forums about products you hate instead of products you enjoy.

  • bowlingGreen

    the design isn’t ugly… it just doesn’t blow me away with its beauty. That’s just not how apple works

    Apple. It’s mediocre, but expensive. Deal with it.

  • Tallest_Skil

    Apple. It’s mediocre, but expensive. Deal with it.

    SHUT UP and go away. You have zero right to be here.

  • bowlingGreen
    Apple. It’s mediocre, but expensive. Deal with it.

    SHUT UP and go away. You have zero right to be here.

    U mad bro? Getting tired of putting up with overpriced crap, taking it out on other people?

About the author

John BrownleeJohn Brownlee is a Contributing Editor. He has also written for Wired, Playboy, Boing Boing, Popular Mechanics, VentureBeat, and Gizmodo. He lives in Boston with his girlfriend and two parakeets. You can follow him here on Twitter.

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