The only company properly competing with Apple in the smartphone market is building its phones out of plastic. Everything about the Samsung Galaxy S4 — the company decided to nix the Roman numerals, thank God — is high-end, from its camera and 1080p display to the updated S Health service, which functions similarly to other fitness trackers, like Fitbit. As far as spec sheets are concerned, Samsung’s latest handily beats Apple’s iPhone 5.

Except for that goddamn casing.

Don’t get me wrong — if I were to purchase an Android device this year, it would likely be the S4. Samsung’s devices are often considered best-in-class, but it seems that this is often despite, not because, of how the company approaches its products.

For everything Samsung has (allegedly) copied from Apple, good smartphone design somehow failed to make the list. The Galaxy S III and the Galaxy Note II are both technically impressive phones that look and feel like mid-range devices at high-end prices. Samsung knows how to pack raw power into its devices, but it simply doesn’t know how to wrap that power up in a pleasant package.

That trait isn’t unique to Samsung. Many companies have put out lackluster smartphones, or skimped on a device’s design despite its other features. Samsung just happens to be the only company that manages to consistently churn these devices out and compete with Apple’s iPhone.

Hell, some companies’ devices can’t compete against the iPhone as well as Samsung’s devices even though they rival or best the iPhone’s design. HTC is a fine example. The company’s HTC One and one of its predecessors, the HTC One X, are damn fine phones, but the company has begun to swirl the drain.

Nokia and its Lumia line offer another example. The Lumia 900 was one of the first devices that managed to make the iPhone look tawdry and prove that smartphones don’t have to ship in white, black, or grey to be well-designed. Its successor, the Lumia 920, did the same. But we all know how Nokia’s doing.

Samsung doesn’t care about any of that. Its devices tend to look the same and almost exclusively feature plasticky exteriors that attract an obscene amount of fingerprints. Even when the company rips off Apple’s designs, as it almost certainly did with the first version of its Chromebox, it does so with second-hand casings that make onlookers appreciate Apple’s brushed “aluminium” more than ever before.

This is the device that best represents Android smartphones. Not high-end, well-designed smartphones like the HTC One; and certainly not the elegant Nexus 4, which was built by LG and Google. The plastic-ridden Galaxy S4 is the Android standard bearer. That’s because Samsung has figured out how to beat Apple: by not playing the same game.

Samsung seems to be willing to cede the consumers who want to pick up an iPhone just because they think it looks good or feels good in their hands. Samsung even mocks those people in many of its advertisements. For people who want to use eye-tracking technology, an integrated fitness tracking service, advanced camera software, and Android, however, Samsung is their company.

Put another way: While other smartphone companies are appealing to customers’ vanity, as Francisco Dao put it yesterday, Samsung is busy appealing to customers’ needs.

You can’t judge a phone by its casing. Samsung is the company that has best learned how to embrace that truism while building its reputation in the smartphone market. As much as gadget lovers might appreciate other, better-designed devices, this is the smartphone market we have made for ourselves. Companies either die by good design or live long enough to start churning out their own plasticky smartphones too.

[Image Credit: Wikimedia]