Plastic vs Aluminum Laptops: Which Body Is Better?

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Generally speaking, aluminium body laptops are considered to be of a higher build quality as compared to their plastic body brethren. 

Objectively speaking however each material does have its own set of advantages and disadvantages.

Choosing one type of body over the other has a lot to do with personal preference rather than any objective metric, so to answer the question of whether plastic or aluminium laptops are better it’s more important to detail the pros and cons of each material type.

Having said that, generally speaking to the computer nerd community laptops with an aluminium laptop are considered more premium, and plastic body laptops considered on the cheap side. And there is some merit to that sentiment since manufacturers do use plastic bodies as a way to cut down the cost for lower-end laptop models.

To present a balanced view however, this article will go through the pros and cons of both aluminum and plastic body laptops by comparing the (I) feel, (II) durability, (III) thermal properties, and (IV) weight of the materials. 

To close there’s also a small bonus section that looks at some of the more exotic materials being used to create chassis for newer laptop models.

The advantages and disadvantages of aluminum body laptops

Way back, titanium-based alloys were used to make laptop shells but nowadays most laptops are made from aluminum alloy. This is simply because aluminum is far cheaper and easier to work with than titanium.

A metal body-based laptop will last you longer (vs plastic chassis), as over the course of its lifetime and being exposed to general wear and tear, it will scratch and dent but only deform if accidentally dropped from height.  

Another advantage to using an aluminum body laptop is that they are far sturdier. Aluminum body laptops and keyboards don’t flex anywhere near as much as plastic laptops when pressed upon, making for a premium typing experience.

Aluminum is also a decent conductor of heat, which can be both a good thing or a bad thing depending on the laptop you are using. 

If your laptop has a sufficient cooling solution, and the components offer a good heatsink to dissipate internal heat, the body of the laptop will regulate its temperature across even long duration + high performance tasks. All whilst remaining nice and cool to the touch. 

On the other hand, if your laptop is not doing a good job of expelling that heat, the metal surface will soon become hot, sometimes to a point where it can become uncomfortable to rest upon your lap. 

Another important thing to note is the weight of the laptop is drastically increased when made from aluminium. 

Aluminum is a denser material as compared to plastic. Aluminum weighs in at 2.7 grams per cubic centimeter, while ABS plastic that is used for laptops weighs 1.08 grams per cubic centimeter. That means an aluminum body laptop will always be heavier than a plastic body laptop of the same size.

Some people do prefer heavier laptops, as they provide a high quality and well-built feel. While other users like students that will be carrying the laptop for hours on their backs prefer their laptops to be as light as possible.

The last important thing to keep in mind is, usually, aluminum built laptops cost more than plastic body laptops that have the same specifications. So, if you are looking to buy an aluminum body laptop on a set budget, you might have to compromise a little on the specs of your machine.

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The advantages and disadvantages of plastic body laptops

The most commonly used plastic for laptop bodies is Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene or ABS for short.

Plastic body laptops made from ABS are generally inexpensive and lightweight when compared to aluminum body models. Which is the reason why if you are someone going with the most bang for buck approach, you will see that most laptops in this range are made of plastic. It is a very easy way for manufacturers to cut down the cost of laptops by choosing to use plastic instead of aluminum.

In terms of durability, plastic is more brittle. So, if the laptop falls the case is more likely to crack or shard when compared to metal body laptops. 

Another important consideration when looking at plastic body laptops is that they can start to warp and bend from extended exposure to heat over years of usage. Equally, if you leave the plastic uncovered to natural sunlight, over this length of time darker colored plastics can begin to bleach. 

Plastic body laptops are bad conductors of heat, so you won’t face the problem of the laptop surface becoming too hot for you to use, but equally this may expose your internal components to an unworkable temperature if the cooling system is choked up, or insufficient to dissipate the heat generated.

Plastic bodies also don’t conduct electricity so you don’t have to worry about any short circuits or current leakage to the laptop body. Again, that is simply a metal body problem.

It’s hard to generalize plastic body laptops. Since they come in varying degrees of quality, surface finish, and resilience to shock but generally when compared to metal body laptops, plastic body laptops are more scratch-resistant. Metal can scratch pretty easily, but most plastic bodies can endure a little rough use.

Plastic body laptops may not look or feel as aesthetically pleasing as metal body laptops most of the time they offer a far better great cost-to-benefit ratio.

Is carbon fiber the best possible material for laptop bodies?

While aluminum and plastic are the most common materials used for laptop bodies, some manufacturers have chosen to mainstream the use of more exotic medium to build the laptop chassis.

Carbon fiber laptops for example are becoming ever more popular in the world of premium laptops. Carbon fiber is a type of polymer, made of fibers that are joined and woven together by epoxies, making it strong and lightweight at the same time. So, it’s increasingly used as a material in things like performance cars, space-based equipment, and now even laptops.

Some carbon fiber-based laptops include the Dell XPS 13, Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon, and the HP Spectre.

Be ready to dish out a lot of cash if one of these models catches your eye however, as carbon fiber is a pretty expensive material to work with (this is why brands reserve this material only for their top-of-the-line products).

While aluminum reigns in the metal body laptop department, it isn’t the only metal that is used to make laptop bodies. Another being magnesium. 

Magnesium alloy laptops offer all the advantages of aluminum while being lighter (1.75 g/cm3 vs 2.7g/cm3).  But that comes at a cost since magnesium alloy laptops such as HP’s Elite Dragonfly can cost as much as carbon fiber to process and manufacture.

Final verdict

If you want the laptop to be lightweight and offer the best specifications for the lowest price, then you will be better off with a plastic body laptop.

On the other hand, if looks, durability, and aesthetics matter to you then you are better suited with an aluminum body laptop.

Just be ready to pay a little extra for the same specifications.

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