Looking for the perfect iPhone case

Gibbs looks at what makes a good iPhone case and checks out a few

Few iPhone owners are so bold as to leave their elegant Apple hardware unsheathed against the rigors of everyday life, which is too bad because most iPhone cases defeat the Apple aesthetic: It is pretty much the case (pun intended) that the tougher the case, the less elegant your iPhone will look.

On the other hand, drop that slick device (slick as in a polished design and also as in slippery and easily fumbled) and you could be looking at a loss of a few hundred bucks, so a case is cheap insurance.

After beating up many iPhone cases I've come up with a set of criteria you should consider when choosing your next groovy iPhone case:

1. Make sure that the edge of the case around the screen is higher than the screen. This, of course, won't save your screen if you drop it face down on a pebble, but it will protect against everyday landings on hard floors.

2. Make sure your case has impact absorbing corners ... this is where the first impact usually occurs when dropped and anything that can reduce the shock transferred to the iPhone is what you want.

3. Don't choose a case that is made of a hard or brittle material. Not only might it crack, it will also tend to transfer impact forces better than a more pliant material, unless it's wrapped around a more resilient, inner, rubbery layer. Even then, one drop and, while the phone might still work, the case will probably not be as cool as it once was.

4. If you usually keep your iPhone in your pocket make sure that the surface finish of the case has low "drag." Trying to extract an iPhone in a "sticky" case while sitting down becomes a feat of strength and will involve contortions that are unwise when driving or enjoying air travel.

5. Beware of fancy painted or textured finishes, they will wear off and or get dull.

6. Make sure that the case doesn't prevent you from using the iPhone with any brackets and holders you might use in your car, boat, hovercraft, Chieftain tank, etc.

7. If you decide you really like a case and have just got to use it but you might have to take your iPhone out occasionally, check that the case can be reasonably removed and that it won't get damaged after a few goes of putting it on and taking it off. I've had a couple of cases crack after two or three removals.

8. If the case covers the "hold" button (that's the button on the top surface on the right as you're facing the screen) and or the volume buttons, make sure that the material over the buttons isn't so stiff that the buttons are hard to press.

9. Make sure that the microphone and speaker ports on the bottom edge of the iPhone aren't obscured by anything, otherwise you may sound muffled during calls and speakerphone mode won't be great.

10. Beware that the design of the case may make it hard for the dock connector to connect with docking stations. I kept wondering why my iPhone wasn't charging when docked and I finally figured out that the springiness of the case I was using allowed for a good connection when the iPhone was first docked, but as the material rebounded slowly over the next hour or so, it moved the phone just enough to undock it!

11. Make sure you test whether your headphones or whatever you plug into the earphone jack fits. When used with headphones and accessories that aren't made by Apple, some cases make it hard if not impossible to get a good connection.

12. Make sure that the case doesn't obscure the cameras and flash.

Of the legion of cases I've tried on my family's collection of iPhones, my all around general use favorite has been the Speck CandyShell for iPhone 4S/4. These cases have, as the name implies, an outer hard shell and an inner shock-absorbing liner. The case buttons that overlay the iPhone buttons are molded into the soft liner and protrude through the shell adding very little resistance to pressure thereby more-or-less maintaining the "feel" of the iPhone controls.

Speck CandyShell for iPhone 4S/4

Click to see: Speck CandyShell for iPhone 4S/4

While the CandyShell is good looking and, having protected various phones from various falls, it does its job well, it also adds just enough thickness to the iPhone to make it less "pocket friendly" than I'd like. The case makes it just large enough that pulling it out of your front pocket when you're seated becomes quite a struggle. Again, not as bad as some cases I've tried, but not quite WWW (What We Want). Priced at around $27 the Speck CandyShell for iPhone 4S/4 gets a Gearhead rating of 4 out of 5.

A better solution, at least physically, are the Ballistic Lifestyle Smooth Series Cases for iPhone 4/4S. These cases are made of a tough and slightly stiff plastic called thermoplastic polyurethane that can, it is claimed by Ballistic, protect your beloved iPhone from damage due to falls of up to 6 feet high (although onto what kind of surface I couldn't determine ... I'm assuming something like tile but, who knows, it could be something like custard).

This case is noticeably slimmer than many others and you get four sets of corner bumpers in different colors that allow you -- may the gods help me -- to "express yourself". To be fair, Ballistic doesn't use that phrase but it is the sort of thing that wild-eyed marketing types usually trot out for customizable products as if having pink bumpers instead of orange ones will be a major exercise in self-expression akin to getting tattoos on your entire body, shaving half of your head, and dying your remaining hair fluorescent pink ... but I digress.

My only problem with this case is that it takes conscious effort to press the iPhone's sleep/wake button on the top edge because the material over that button is a little too stiff. The volume buttons on the long side of the case are fine because the material is more flexible.

All in all though, I really like the Ballistic Lifestyle Smooth Series Cases for iPhone 4/4S and, priced at $15 (on Amazon), they are a good choice if you aren't brave enough to carry a naked iPhone. The Ballistic Lifestyle Smooth Series Cases for iPhone 4/4S get a Gearhead rating of 4 out of 5 (if the sleep/wake button wasn't so stiff I'd give 'em a 4.5).

While I'm on the subject of cases I have an oddity to cover: The PowerSkin Gaming Case GP2100 for iPhone and iPod Touch.

The PowerSkin Gaming Case GP2100

Click to see: The PowerSkin Gaming Case GP2100

This product is definitely not pocket friendly and is intended for people who have large pockets (in both the financial and capacity senses) and need lots of run time for their iPhone, such as die-hard gamers. Indeed, battery life extension is a must if you're on a long plane flight and keeping Angry Birds running is all that stands between you and running amok at 40,000 feet.

Compatible with the iPhone 3GS and 3G, iPhone 4 and 4S, iPod Touch 2nd, 3rd and 4th generations, the oversized case (6.3 by 2.7 by 0.75 inches and weighing in at 4.16 ounces) contains a rechargeable 2050mAh lithium polymer battery that delivers an additional talk time of 10 minutes and a standby time of an extra 10 hours. You can switch off the battery until it's needed.

The PowerSkin Gaming Case GP2100 is bulky and kind of ugly and, although it gets the job done, priced as it is at $99.99 the case is too spendy and so only gets a Gearhead rating of 2.5 out of 5.

If you'd rather have an elegant iPhone case, you might consider the Q Card Case for iPhone 4S/4 by CM4, which "unites your desire to simplify life and protect your iPhone."

The Q Card Case is made out of a leather-like material that is nicely finished with stitching and features a credit card and "walking around" money pocket on the back (this is, and I'm not kidding, a "patent pending" design ... really? Patents have come to this? Sigh.)

While the case has a raised edge to protect the screen, this design is more "office" than "child wrangling". One thing I do like is that the material covering the various buttons is flexible enough to offer only the slightest resistance, a detail that many other cases definitely don't achieve. I have to say I like this design a lot. It's lightweight, definitely one of the more elegant designs and, priced at $39.95, a good choice if you don't need too much protection. The Q Card Case gets a Gearhead rating of 5 out 5.

If you're looking to give your iPhone the ruggedness normally associated with, say, a brick, then perhaps the Griffin Survivor is what you need.

Griffin Survivor

Click to see: Griffin Survivor

The product is explained thusly: "Tested to meet or exceed US Department of Defense Standard 810F and UK Department of Defense Standard 00-35, Griffin's Survivor Extreme-Duty Case is designed from the inside out to protect your iPhone from extreme conditions ... dirt, sand, rain, shock, vibration and a host of other environmental factors" and they aren't kidding!

The thick, impact absorbing frame is made of vibration-absorbing silicone (tested for 18 hours at 20 to 2000 Hz) over a hard polycarbonate frame (survives a drop onto flat concrete surfaces from 6 feet) that features a built-in screen protector (tested up to 7.9 inches per hour of rain for 1 hour).

Every connector as well as the back camera port are sealed against blown sand and dust by hinged silicone plugs (tested to up to 40 mph for 1 hour) and a locking spring clip snaps over the whole thing.

What this case says is that you're going to take your lovely iPhone somewhere it was never intended to go, such as a border patrol between Pakistan and Afghanistan or with a bicycle courier in lower Manhattan.

The Survivor is a complete pain in the butt in non-life threatening conditions: It's too big to fit in your jeans pocket, although those people who think camo gear is a fashion statement might have suitably capacious pants, and you'll be forever peeling the hinged plugs off the speaker, microphone, and camera ports. On the other hand, if you are, in fact, a bicycle courier in Manhattan it could well be the only case worth using.

Priced at $49.95 the Griffin Survivor is the closest thing you'll find to a carbonite jacket for your iPhone and definitely earns a Gearhead rating of 5 out of 5.

There is now a ridiculous number of iPhone cases on the market with new ones coming out each day. If you have a case that you particularly love or one you particularly hate, let me know.

Gibbs has way too much stuff to play with, er, evaluate. Tell him what you fool around with at gearhead@gibbs.com and follow him on Twitter (@quistuipater) and on Facebook (quistuipater).

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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