Serious Insights Device Case Buyer’s Guide
How people use their cases varies widely. People need device cases that work when traveling, running to the market, attending a concert, climbing a mountain, bicycling, taking pictures, listening to music, watching video or attending a gala fundraiser. That broad range of applications results in a whole lot of cases from dozens of manufacturers. Consumers want a device that meets their needs, expectations and desires. And those needs, expectations and desires change with context—they change with how people use devices in the moment. So we offer our Device Case Buyer’s Guide.
That means either adaptive cases, or cases for different situations. The later usually proves the better path. Some manufacturers will claim their case fits into all situations. That isn’t true, at least from an aesthetics point of view. A very protective case will always be very protective, but it may not look good for a dinner out, handle the extra lens for wide-angle photography or stash an ID and credit card for a quick dash to the grocery. People may use their standard case for any situation, but if they look around, they will likely find a case that fits its situation more precisely.
Then comes the question of how many cases is too many? That answer depends on budget and patience. Swapping out cases takes time. Some people don’t mind, some do.
This buyer’s guide attempts to describe case categories, offer examples, and provide guidance on when each category would be most useful or necessary. Cases may not be expensive when compared to an Apple or Android device, but it is the thing that protects your investment and projects your personality.
Buy Your Case First
When acquiring a new iPhone or iPad, shop for a case first. Don’t get stuck with the limited selection that you find at the retailer, phone store or Apple store. Phone buyers know what they like, and they know what situations they usually take their device into. The basic case for everyday use should not be a mystery.
Wait to buy the case at the same time as the device, and the price probably goes up. The instinct to quickly protect a new tech gem is a good one, but those who shop ahead can bring the new case and install it before leaving the store. Pre-buying a case will save time and increase satisfaction because the thoughtfully purchased cases will make your device will feel personal from the start.
When shopping for a case, ask the following questions:
- Do I want to protect my phone from occasional dings and scratches?
- Do I drop my phone a lot?
- Do I drop my phone occasionally, but usually from a pretty good distance?
- Do I want the case to complement the iPhone’s design, or just protect it?
- Do I want to protect my iPhone completely (front-and-rear)?
- Do I want to protect my iPhone from the elements (water, dust, dirt, etc.)
- Do I want to use my iPhone case for something other than protecting my iPhone?
- If so:
- Do I want a case that also holds cards, money or ID?
- Do I want a case that will keep my iPhone charged longer (and I’m willing to trade-off weight for longer battery life)
- Do I want to make a fashion statement?
- If so:
Choosing the Right Case
Even armed with the answers to the questions above, the device case market can be hard to navigate. A wide range of protections and options await the case buyer. Serious Insights has categorized the choices and offers examples, analysis and tradeoffs for each.
Light-weight: Minimal Protection
Light-weight does not strictly mean poor protection, because the term light-weight is used in several contexts and is often used to compare cases in a category to a competitor. The claimed thinnest, lightest iPhone case is the Incipio Feather or Feather Pure ($24.99/$29.99). In this category expect to only to protect the back and sides of the phone. Many inexpensive cases fall into this category, including many emblazoned with sports teams, products or characters. Light-weight cases often don’t include raised edges to keep the device’s screen off a surface when placed face down.
“Cases” in this category also include skins, wraps or decals that personalize the device, help keep scratches of the back of the devices, but do little to protect from drops or anything that hits the screen. Examples of this class come from slickwraps and Dbrand.
Medium-duty cases typically enhance a basic case with some form of shock absorption. We are not going to get into materials science or marketing speak, as the materials used to absorb shocks runs from arcane material names to marketing monikers that mean little beyond the website of the company using them. Incipio’s Reprieve™ [SPORT] ($39.95) beefs up basic protection with reinforced corners. You might also consider the Otter Box Symmetry Series Power of the Princess Case ($44.95) which features good protection and a Disney princess.
Another solid example of this category comes from iLuv in the DropArmor X case. While the case leans toward heavy-duty, and it comes with a tempered glass cover for the iPhone’s screen, it doesn’t completely seal the device which is a key differentiator between medium and heavy-duty cases.
Basic All-Around Protection
Basic protection includes back and side protection, as well as front protection, added through adhesive glass or plastic overlay for the screen. It may not include as high a level (if any) drop protection as the medium-duty cases, but it does include protection for all device surfaces. These solutions can easily be cobbled together if none of the kits or other options appeal. A good example of the DIY Rhinoshield’s Crashguard ($24,99) which offers a simple, light-weight bumper for the edges, but front and rear protection will cost extra (see Rhinoshield’s screen protection options here).
One of our favorite cases comes from Urban Armor Gear (UAG) in the Metropolis series. We have tested this case extensively on the iPhone and the iPad. It handles drops well and protects the screen when closed and sealed with its magnetic latch. The light-weight case also includes a wallet on the front cover. The added protection of a screen protector won’t make it waterproof or dust resistant, but if you have a newer iOS or Android device, they usually include those features in their own specs. Don’t overbuy a case to protect your device from elements the device’s designers already accounted for.
Don’t overbuy a case to protect your device from elements the device’s designers already accounted for.
Qmadix is another company that specializes in light-weight all-around protection. Their X Series Light and C-series bring basic protection, but when combined with their Invisible First-Defense tempered glass screen protectors they create a general protective layer for devices. Qmadix
The Zedo Nanoskin takes wraps to the next level with 360-degree protection in a very light-weight case. Not made for big drops, but functional for most non-industrial use-cases.
Case maker Cellairis offers a bundle that includes a 3-year guarantee that if the device’s screen breaks, they will pay for the repair (or pay the owner $150). For $49 buyers receive a Cellairis military standard rated (810G-516.6) The Rapture® Protective Case and a Shell Shock® Tempered Glass Screen Protector along with the “never pay guarantee.” Qmadix also offers a screen replacement program when using their Invisible First-Defense NanoGlass, a protective coating applied as a liquid to the screen that dries into a 9H hardness with 99.9% antibacterial properties.
We highly suggest using a glass screen protector over a plastic film. Glass screen protectors are both easier to apply and more protective than film-based screen protectors. Be aware that some cases are not screen protector friendly, which means they push up on a screen protector, causing bubbles or loss of adhesion on the edges. Ideally, purchase a screen protector and case combo made to work together.
For those who put their device in a pocket with keys, in a purse or in a tot or backpack, a case with either an enclosing cover or a screen protector is essentially to maintaining the integrity of your device investment.
A lot of people buy ruggedized, heavy-duty cases. A string of logic for why to buy a heavy-duty goes like this: I want one case and I just don’t want to worry. If I’m cleaning the toilet and the phone falls out of my pocket, I don’t want to worry. If I’m off-roading and I end up tumbling down a sand bar, I don’t want to worry.
If you fall into the “I don’t want to worry” category then by all means, select a rugged case from a maker like Otterbox. Their latest designs are much more appealing and much less rigorous to take on and off than their older designs. We enjoy the Defender Series NFL Case with its Seattle Seahawks logo (especially during football season). The case is big and it adds weight to the very thin iPhone 7, but it also protects every orifice of the device, while still making ports available when needed. The Defender series also comes in a skin version that can sport various licensed and third-party skins (as an example, see mightyskins.com).
Heavy-Duty, ruggedized cases should include complete protection, from shocks, from dirt and dust, bumps and bangs, and ideally water.
Heavy-Duty, ruggedized cases should include complete protection, from shocks, from dirt and dust, bumps and bangs, and ideally water. Most iPhone damage comes from dropping on the ground or into water, often from a pocket leaning in the wrong direction. Look for Military Grade Protection. Cases with Military Grade Protection include a variety of tests beyond drop, like abrasion, thermal shock and UV.
Heavy-duty cases prevent the loss of a device from damage, but they can be bulky. If you have occasional need for protecting a device, consider auxiliary protection like the DryCase Smartphone Case ($39.99). This products vacuum seals an iPhone into a specially made bag that keeps it functional while protecting it from all matter of aquatic disasters short of being caught in the propeller.
A major tradeoff with heavy-duty cases comes in the ability to use any docking or charging stations that require a near-naked device. The TwelveSouth HiRise 2 comes with several mounts of varying height as well as an adjustable support to compensate for case thickness. Most charging solutions aren’t as forgiving and won’t work with cases that recess the charging port.
Utility cases are easy to spot because they usually do something other than protecting a device.
The most common utility case is the wallet: a case that holds money, identification and/or credit cards. Incipio Stashback and Stowaway provide good phone protection with a little hiding place for flat valuables. Another Speck offers similar features in its Presidio Wallet ($44.95).
Other utility cases enhance WiFi, like the Absolute Technology Linkase.
An actual utility case, such as the iPhone Smartphone Tool Case from Swiss+Tech brings with it various screwdrivers, scissors, a nail file, a nail cleaner and a cuticle tool.
For very specialized utility, look to the ProScope Micro Mobile for iPhone which turns an iPhone into a microscope.
At the high-end of the adhesives market (beyond wraps and skins) sits Toast (toastmade.com), which offers real wood with laser etched images, including custom images. Their 3M-adhesive firmly plants itself on devices and holds snuggly based on precision cuts around the wood. This is wood, so it can chip, but better it chip than the phone’s screen. They offer kits that include front-facing protection as well.
Twelve South brings elegance to adhesives with their leather SurfacePad($49.99 for iPhone X/iPad Mini, $79.99 for iPad Pro 10.5/iPad and $99.99 for iPad Pro 12.9).
All of the adhesive products are removable, though they may not seem that way once firmly adhered to your device. And many reusable as long as the adhesive remains clean.
Ecologically Friendly Cases
If you are looking for ecologically friendly cases, start with the packaging. Many firms still use packaging that isn’t labeled for recycling. We suggest you send a message by purchasing products packaged in recyclable material, even better, that use recycled material to for the package. All case manufacturers should take the lead on post-consumer packaging, if not biodegradable cases.
But some do offer biodegradable cases, though some have ceased operations. It appears that Marware’s ecofriendly leathers are no longer available, nor iPhoneCraze’s Canvaz cases, nor Apple Pie USA’s recycled cardboard iPad case.
It does appear a company named Guided does still sells cardboard cases for iPads and Kindle Fires from recycled materials. These cases are inexpensive ($19.99 for a 3 pack), great for schools because they can be used for DIY projects as well as ease of personalization. Doesn’t look like they are keeping up with Apple, however, as their selection centers around the iPad 2 and similar sized devices.
The hot eco-case of the moment comes from Pela, a BPA-free iPhone or Android case ($39.00) that is 100% compostable and comes in plastic-free packaging. The company also makes donations to environmental initiatives from their sales. Although we said we would avoid the nonsensical alternative materials names, the Pela Case is made of Flaxstic®, a GDH-B1 compostable bioplastic elastomer that integrates flax straw materials.
Camera lens enhancements
Several companies, including Ztylus, Moment (iOS and Android), Hitcase, Bitplayand OlloClip, bring lens extensions to devices. Some lens extensions clip-on, some require brackets. I have only listed the ones that offer their lenses as part of a case system. Most of the cases are pretty minimalist, some double-down on the camera experience with improved grips on the case (Bitplay).
Most of these manufacturers fail to combine the ruggedness of an Otterbox case with a lens system. Hitcase is the exception. The company was inspired by people who wanted to use their iPhone outdoors protected from dirt and water, but also make it easy to extract the iPhone for more mundane urban adventures. Their Shield and Pro cases provide everything necessary to transform the iPhone into a wide-angle video capture device mounted to just about anything, including a chest, a helmet, even a motorcycle.
People diamond encrust their devices. Buying an expensive case is probably a better choice. If you invested in a late model iPhone 6s case it probably still works on an iPhone 8.
At one point Gresso offered up a $3,000 iPhone 5 Revolution bumper with a magnetic lock. More reasonable, but still overpriced cases still pour from designers looking to get brand connected buyers to, well, keep buying.
Leading brands with cases that run over $200 include Burberry, Dolce & Gabbana, Fendi, Gucci and Christian Louboutin. Some of the next tier designers went with partnerships, and cases with their brands cost below $100 and usually offer more in personal fashion statement than protection.
For the right color, for the right fabric or look or image, some may be willing to give on all other criteria. Just remember when taking an iPhone to take on the red carpet, don’t drop it, because there usually isn’t much padding between the thin red rental carpet and the concrete beneath it.
Perhaps the heaviest add-on to a case is a battery. And like many other categories, where once a large number of vendors supplied cases, many have left this niche. There are three reasons for this market shift. First, battery life has improved on the phones. Second, charging stations and access to power has become nearly ubiquitous with many coffee shops, airport and restaurants offering ample outlets. The third reason is the movement away from cases with batteries, to smaller, individual batteries that can be left home if extra juice is unlikely to be required. All day at San Diego Comic-Con may require some extra juice, but a battery in stowed in a backpack is lighter overall than lifting a heavier phone every time you want to take a picture.
Unless you run out of power regularly or don’t have access to a charging option during the day, don’t consider these as you everyday case. No matter the model, they add significant extra weight. Rather, keep a battery case handy for plane rides or extended walking tours where getting power may be a challenge. And if you’ve got a bunker, keep at least one charged at all times in case the zombies cut your power.
Passion, Hobbies and Fetishes
Although we receive many cases for evaluation, a recent trip to Disneyland ended with a $50 drop on a customized iPhone 8 Plus case that featured the author’s name along with the original Star Wars movie poster. This case includes a bumper with and backplate insert which delivers great general protection, especially when combined with a screen protector. Disney now markets a large number of cases that cross our categories at the theme parks and online. Other manufacturers, like Otterbox, also include licensed items for Marvel, Disney, Pixar, Star Wars and the NFL.
Readers may miss their bound volumes when reading on a tablet or phone. The Twelve South BookBook series reunites reading with the leather-bound book experience via their BookBook series of cases for iPhone and iPad. When zipped into a BookBook one would be hard pressed to find better protection for an iPad. The iPhone version offers good protection, but because the front cover can come open during a fall, protection isn’t as robust as delivered in the company’s iPad version.
Variations and Extras
We aren’t going to detail these variations with product examples, but a quick search of the web will include cases with belt holsters, built-in stands.
One of the emerging extras categories brings wireless charging to non-Qi-empowered devices. A good example is the Ghost Qi Case from Incpio ($49.99). Combine the Ghost Qi case with the with the Ghost Qi 3-coil wireless charging base ($59.99) and older phones transform into wirelessly charged devices.
Some iPhone cases, particularly the ruggedized ones, can cause some issues, mostly when it comes to charging and using wired headphones. These cases seal everything in, which causes the engineers of those case to come up with some unique plugs and screws to keep everything snugly protected while still providing access to charge and audio ports. People buying ruggedized cases need to be aware of this issue.
Though most cases will permit charging with the standard Apple charging cable, many prevent proper alignment with sound systems and third-party charge docks. Even some third-party Lightning cables are too thick for small charge port openings.
As wireless headphones and wireless charging come to dominate the experience, port access will cease to be an issue.
Before you settle on a case, make sure it fits your accessory situation (or if you purchase an accessory after you buy a device case, that it is compatible with your case). Will you have to remove the case every time you go to bed? Will you have to remove it to charge your phone? Will you have to remove it to dock with your home office stereo?
Unique Features for iPad and Android Tablets
As much as we don’t want to admit that the iPad is just a big iPhone when it comes to cases, 95% of the criteria for the phone applies to the tablet. But size does matter, and that means that case manufacturers have a bit more room to work with on a tablet than they do a phone, and a few unique features to account for.
Stylus. For the most part, Android, as represented by the Samsung Note devices, combine storage of the styluses inside the device with the pen feature. The iPad Pro, on the other hand, needs a place for the Apple Pencil and that drives some creative, and not so well considered notches, slots, niches and other places to put a pencil. If you do have an Apple Pencil, consider its storage outside of the case unless you come across something you really like, because most designs end up with some part of the experience tending toward awkward.
Auto-on. Apple’s Smart Covers use magnets to turn on the iPad when the cover opens. Look for cases that include this feature. Each iPad places the magnets uniquely, so make sure the selected cover works with your iPad’s instant-on feature.
Keyboard Cases. With the iPad Pro, Apple dominated the keyboard market for that class of device, as the Smart Connector hasn’t taken off as a feature for other companies. Logitech’s Slim Combo is the only case that includes a Smart Connector feature besides Apple’s. The Logitech Slim Combo delivers a full protection experience to the iPad Pro, where Apple leaves the main device naked. Several products, including those from Toast, UAG and i-Blason bring protection to the iPad Pro without compromising on access to the Apple Smart Connector or use of the Apple Smart Keyboard.
Many companies make inexpensive Bluetooth keyboard cases. One of the best is Zagg’s, Rugged Messenger ($99.99). The Rugged Messenger certainly brings the protection, but it delivers with an accompanying increase in weight and bulk. If you just want a keyboard to complement another case, we suggest the Logitech Keys-to-Go ($69.99) standalone keyboard.
HandlesThere used to be a lot of cases with handles for iPads and other tablets. While the inventory for older devices remains available online, even from manufacturers, it is usually discounted. Amazon reports that many products, while still listed, are now unavailable. But handles can be had. Lapworks does support the iPad Pro 10.5 with its soft grip handle stand. They also offer products for other iPad versions. Griffin still carries the AirStrap 360 for the iPad Air. Kensington still sells their SafeGrip™ Rugged Case for the iPad Air & iPad Air 2 & iPad 9.7. Look at Pad Strap for a strap only solution, though they too, fail to list current iPads on their homepage.
Making a Case of It
We can make a few important assertions when it comes to buying a case for your iOS device. First, almost any kind of case or protection you can image probably exists, so get the case that fits your personal style. Second, cases aren’t nearly as expensive as devices so get at least one, and if you run in multiple circles, then two or three or four. And third, there is a case that will fit your price range, so there is no excuse for a naked device accident, ever.