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. Moreover, 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. Not functionally and not 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, and it probably won’t handle an 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 fit their personal needs 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. Widely diverse lifestyle choices, like a hobby that revolves around water, probably calls for more than one case.
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 a case is the thing that protects your investment and projects your personality.
Buy Your Case First
When acquiring a new device, shop for a case first. Don’t get stuck with the limited selection that you find at the retailer, phone store or Apple store. Most phone buyers know what they like, and they know what situations to which they will expose their devices. 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 a device feel more personal from the start.
Serious Insights developed an extensive decision flows that will help case buyers converge on the right case. See the end of this report for generic device and tablet-specific flows.
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 device case is the Incipio Feather or Feather Pure ($24.99/$29.99). In this category expect to only 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. Skech provides a variation on minimalist protection in their Stark case brings good bezel rounding to the front of the case, but leaves the sides exposed. Easy access to buttons and switches, but also opportunities for scratches along the edge of the phone.
“Cases” in this category also include skins, wraps or decals that personalize the device, help keep scratches off 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 screen, it doesn’t completely seal the device which is a critical 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 a device from elements for which the device’s designers have already accounted.
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.
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.
Cellairis offers an all around protection 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 essential to maintaining the integrity of your device investment.
Many people purchase 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 sandbar, 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 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 offer complete protection, from shocks, from dirt and dust, bumps and bangs, and ideally water.
Heavy-Duty, ruggedized cases should offer complete protection, from shocks, dirt and dust, bumps and bangs, and ideally water. Most device 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 a device 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 significant 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). Skech also offers a beautiful wallet case in their $49.95 Polo Book. Unfortunately, the elegant magnetic feature that allows the owner to decouple their phone from the wallet also interferes with Wireless charging. While not a magnetics issues, the well-priced Silk Wallet Slayer Vol. 1 ($14.99) and the Vault Armor ($19.99) also sacrifice wireless charging for utility.
(Note that Silk states that their products do work with some chargers. Unfortunately, not the chargers we used for testing. Keep receipts and check on return policy because. Buyers should not need to keep a case that does not meet needs. Those who expect their case to support wireless charging—and either wireless charging incompatibility is omitted from the specification, or the specification suggests compatibility but in practice, it doesn’t work, refunds and returns should be permitted). January 4, 2018 update.
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. Toast’s 3M adhesive backed covers firmly plant themselves 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. Toast offers kits that include front-facing protection as well.
Twelve South brings elegance to adhesives with their leather SurfacePad ($49.99 for iPhone/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 can be reused as long as the adhesive remains clean.
Environmentally Responsible Cases
For those seeking ecologically friendly cases, start with the packaging. Many firms still ship in non-recyclable packaging. We suggest consumers send a message by only purchasing products packaged in recyclable material, even better, that use recycled material for the package. All case manufacturers should take the lead on post-consumer packaging, if not biodegradable cases.
Some markers continue to offer biodegradable cases, though some have ceased operations or stopped making environmentally friendly cases. It appears that Marware’s eco-friendly leathers are no longer available, nor are 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). They are great for schools because they offer a starting point 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 case sales. Although we usually suggest avoiding nonsensical alternative material names, we give Pela a pass on Flaxstic®, a GDH-B1 compostable bioplastic elastomer that integrates flax straw materials.
Several companies, including Ztylus, Moment (iOS and Android), Hitcase, Bitplay and 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, like bitplay, double-down on the camera experience with improved grips on the case.
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.
Some people diamond encrust their devices. Buying an expensive case is probably a better choice, but for those who can afford expensive custom treatments, cost, even of replacement for a damaged device, isn’t likely to prove prohibitive.
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 mainstream case maker partnerships. Their cases usually cost below $100 but offer more in personal fashion statement than robust 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 device 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.
Expensive cases aren’t inheritable keepsakes, they are indulgent landfill.
For those who want protection and good looks, many of the mainstream makers now deliver good looks with alternative metals or gold, silver and platinum, encrusted with crystals or faux jewels rather than diamonds. Though they are available to those who can afford, them, we suggest never buying a case that costs more than the device, especially when the case will likely become obsolete within the same couple of years as the device.
Alternatives include Milan Italy’s Revested makes beautiful cases for Apple and Samsung devices in the $70 range. Incipio Group manufactures good looking, low-cost designer branded cases for the likes of Kate Spade, Rebecca Minkoff, Vera Bradley, Trina Turk, Tumi and others.
The most massive case add-on 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 need some extra juice, but a battery stowed in a backpack is lighter overall than lifting a heavier phone for every picture.
Those who don’t run low on power regularly or don’t have access to a charging option during the day don’t need a battery add-on as their everyday case. No matter the model, batteries add significant extra weight. Rather, keep a battery case handy for plane rides or extended walking tours where getting power may be a challenge. For those with a bunker, keep at least one battery case charged at all times in the event 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.
Case Issues: Port Access & Wireless Charging Problems
Some 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.
Some cases, however, bring new issues as they leverage magnetic designs. As noted above, cases like the Silk Vault Armor, the Skech Polo Book, along with the Skech Vortex ($44.99), deliver interesting use scenarios to the market, like cases easily removed from a wallet component or compatibility with magnetic car mounts (the Skech Vortex includes a car mount in the box). The magnets, however, hamper wireless charging. If you want to employ wireless charging, make sure the case is compatible before buying it.
Cases also need to fit accessory requirements. Keep in mind the accessories that accompany the phone and always check that cases work with other accessories. Ask questions like: does the accessory require removing the case to fit the charger alarm clock on the nightstand? Must the case be removed to charge the phone? Does the keyboard expect a “naked” device to work?
Unique Features for iPad and Android Tablets
In reality, iPads and Android tablets are just big phone. 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. Suitable solutions for the Stylus include the UAG iPad Pro version of the Metropolis case and the Twelve South BookBook with its leather stylus pocket.
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 ($129.99-149.99) delivers a full protection experience to the iPad Pro. Where Apple leaves the main device naked when using its Smart Keyboard (a feature deficiency fixed in the late 2019 version of the Smart Keyboard Folio), Logitech covers the back with a case that matches the keyboard. Unfortunately, the Slim Combo creates awkward use cases for the iPad without the keyboard, as Logitech choose a proprietary slot opening size that isn’t compatible with standard Apple Smart Covers. There is no front cover protection without the keyboard, and the keyboard doesn’t just flip to back, it must be removed to use the iPad separately. 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. The Logitech Slim Combo requires its own case, so those solutions don’t offer a viable alternative to what is a very nice keyboard in an unwieldily implementation.
Many companies make inexpensive Bluetooth keyboard cases. Zagg’s Rugged Messenger ($99.99) is one of the best. 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.
Many companies make inexpensive Bluetooth keyboard cases. Zagg’s, Rugged Messenger ($99.99) is one of the best. 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.
Handles. There 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, they are usually discounted, indicating they may be discontinued. Amazon reports that many listed products are now unavailable. However, handles can be had. Lapworks supporta the iPad Pro 10.5 with its soft grip handle stand. They also offer products for other iPad versions. 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 devices on their homepage.
Everyone needs a case for his or her device. Cases prolong the life of the device by protecting it from falls, from the elements and from everyday bumps that cause scratches and dings. Many devices close in on a $1,000 each. They deserve protection commensurate with that level of investment.
This report offers deep analysis on the case market, including the types of cases, the manufacturers and the various use scenarios that drive the purchase of one type of case over the other. While these five simple recommendations don’t capture all the subtly of a case buying decision, those who heed them will get close to buying the right case for that will support their lifestyle and their work.
- Buy a case. Serious Insights encourages all consumers to buy a case to protects their increasingly expensive device investment, even if they have insurance. Insurance doesn’t cover lost time or inconvenience. Cases are cheap when compared to the loss of time and interruption of routine.
- Don’t overspend. The case may outlive the device, but it probably won’t fit your next device.
- Get something you like. If you can imagine a theme, someone has probably come up with a case that matches your imagination.
- Get situational. You may need more that one case depending on your lifestyle. For some, changing a case may be a fashion choice. For others, it may be a change in use patterns that requires stepping up protection. Most cases prove relatively inexpensive so buy a couple of different kinds if life demands it.
- Have fun. As much as this has been an exercise in analysis and logic, at the end of the day, a case should bring you some pleasure, because you will be holding it, looking at it and making other people look at it a lot.
Device Buying Decision Flows
General Device Case Flow
Device Case Flow—Tablet Specific