Hands-On: Five Cool Protective Cases for Apple iPhones

by Reads (12,689)

By Ted Needleman

Even if you’ve never suffered a broken smartphone (or a drowned one), you probably know people whose phones have met these fates. A good protective case can help to prevent such disasters. Fortunately, there are plenty of cases out there, particularly for Apple iPhone 4/4s owners. Which case should you choose?

iPhone cases can vary surprisingly in price and durability claims. Some of these cases also feature classy good looks, and/or special bells and whistles ranging from bicycle holsters to waterproof earphones.

Whether you’re looking to replace your old case right away or you just want to do some window shopping, here’s the nitty-gritty on the pros and cons of five of the top protective iPhone 4/4s cases around, based on some hands-on experimentation.

LifeProof 2nd Gen $79

The specs for the LifeProof 2nd Gen state that the case is waterproof down to 6.6 feet. Considering the cost of my iPhone 4s, I must admit that I didn’t test out this claim entirely. However, I submerged the case (without a phone inside) in a filled sink. Five minutes later, when I removed the case and opened it up, there wasn’t a drop of water within the case.

The LifeProof case, though, comes with minimal instructions, instead referring you to the company’s Web site. I recommend checking out the Web site, because it covers some details about installation that you should know. For example, you need to remove the plug which covers the headphone jack before sliding the case on.

The plug gets reinserted after the phone is installed in the case, If you want to maintain the case’s “waterproof integrity ” while using headphones, an extension headphone cord is included with a waterproof gasket on the phone side.

Yet while the “general use headphone adapter” — meant for protection against rain and splashes — is free with the LifeProof, LifeProof’s heavier duty “swimming headphone adapter”  — touted as suited to headphone submersion during water sports — costs an extra $19.95. (The headphones must be purchased separately from Apple or another vendor.)

I both liked and disliked the LifeProof’s belt clip holster. I didn’t like the fact that it isn’t included in the price of the phone, either, instead costing an additional $29. I did like that it actually incorporates two clips: a 1.5-inch clip for narrow belts and a 2-inch clip for wider belts. A bicycle holster is available for another $39.

Each holster has a slide lock which you can use to keep the phone from getting accidentally pulled out of the holster. (Having once lost a BlackBerry while getting out of the passenger seat of a car, I like the extra protection that the slide lock provides.)

Ballistic HC (Hard Core) $49

At $30 less than the LifeProof, the Ballistic HC isn’t advertised as able to take a dunk in the pool. Otherwise, though, it’s very similar in looks and functionality, consisting of a rugged polycarbonate case with a built-in screen protector. A water-resistant (but not waterproof) mesh covers the speakers.

Unlike the LifeProof, the Hard Core also comes with a holster right in the box. Although it is supplied at no extra cost, the holster lacks a slide lock.

However, the Ballistic HC also offers something that the LifeProof does not: a silicone wrap that can be slipped over the hardshell case. The silicone wrap provides an extra layer of shock protection, while still affording access to the iPhone controls.

With the silicone wrap installed, the Hard Core is a bit thicker than the LifeProof case. Yet both cases offer excellent protection without being clunky.

Grace Digital Audio Eco Pod $49

The Eco Pod is perfect for those who carry their phones into situations such as canoeing or mountain climbing where the phone might get easily damaged, even with another heavy-duty case.

The first thing you’ll notice about the Eco Pod is that it’s big — really big, in fact.

This case measures 1.75-inches thick, 6.75-inches high, and 4-inches wide. Although Grace Digital Audio doesn’t recommend immersing the Eco Pod, the case does come with two latches and a thick gasket for protection against water, plus a set of waterproof earphones and a carabineer clip.

Part of the reason for the thickness is that the case contains a speaker. If you don’t want to use Grace Digital’s earbuds, there’s a universal plug in the case that plugs into the earphone jack, and an external volume control knob.

There’s also a slot molded into the rear of the case for mounting the Eco Pod on your belt, although it doesn’t clip on. You need to remove your belt and thread it through the slot.

For day-to-day use, however, the Eco Pod is less than practical. To use your phone, you have to unlatch the front panel of the Eco Pod to get at the screen.

Concord Keystone NautiCase $49.95

Concord takes a different approach to heavy-duty cases. A silicone bumper is molded right into the case, so there’s nothing to put on or take off.

Putting the phone into the case is easy. The front of the case is hinged on the bottom. There are three small latches on the top and both sides that pull away from the case to open it. You push these down to seal and lock the case when the phone has been inserted.

A clear plastic screen covers the face of the phone. I had no trouble operating the phone to answer or place a call, or to use any of the apps. Concord contends that the design of the NautiCase provides superior protection against wind, sand and dust, and even water.

(However, Concord doesn’t claim that the case is waterproof – only that it will protect against a splash.)

Concord includes a holster with the case, and there’s even a pop-out stand on the holster so that you can watch a video or read an e-book.

Yet I occasionally had trouble getting the phone positioned in the holster so that it clicked in properly. Also at times, I had difficulty getting the holster to release the phone in time to answer a phone call.

Edge Design Alfa $99

The Alfa case from Edge Design is unquestionably the best looking of the five cases in this roundup. Not surprisingly, at $99, it’s also the most expensive.

The case is made out of high-strength aluminum which is anodized in several available colors. (Ours was silver.)

This provides edge and back protection for the phone, without covering up controls or headphone or power jacks. A silicone band wraps around the perimeter of the case, offering additional protection as well as a striking accent.

These are also available in eight different colors, though you don’t get to choose which color initially comes with any of the cases. If you want an additional colored band, it’s $9.

As much as I like the way this case looks, I have two minor nits to pick. The first is the lack of any protection for the front of the phone. Most cases include some form of protective film to protect the screen from scratches. These films, however, are easily available from numerous sources.

A holster would also be a good idea. Sure, you can buy a universal aftermarket belt holster — but not one that looks anywhere as nice as this iPhone case.

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