Here, we report on the oxygenation and roughness features of polystyrene and polyethylene terephthalate films, induced by air dielectric barrier discharge (DBD) processing using different electrode–platen configurations. The combinations of triple electrode–platen used were stainless steel wire electrodes–rubber platen (WE–RP), ceramic electrodes–aluminium platen (CE–AP) and quartz electrodes–aluminium platen (QE–AP). The degree of oxygenation of polymer surfaces achieved by processing in the QE–AP combination was comparatively higher (as observed by x-ray photoelectron spectroscopy) than that for the other discharge configurations used. The surface roughness following DBD processing with the CE–AP set was found to be critically higher (by atomic force microscopy) than with the WE–RP and QE–AP combinations. We conclude that the localized physical damage of the polymer surface caused by the microfilaments present in the discharge can be avoided by suitably optimizing the experimental conditions, i.e. the appropriate use of electrode–platen system, the speed of processing (or residence time) and the operating power.