You splash out hundreds of dollars on a new smartphone or tablet, it’s crazy not to spend a little more in order to make sure it doesn’t get scratched or broken. Our electronic friends serve us faithfully until we drop them in the toilet, leave them at the mercy of inquisitive toddlers, or allow them to slip from our grasp and tumble down the stairs.
Smartphones are getting tougher all the time and there are quite a few waterproof Android phones now, but the vast majority will not survive an accident unscathed. If you want to find out what might happen should your phone meet with disaster, you can check out the numerous drop and damage test videos posted online. Now that you’re convinced that you need a case or cover for your device, let’s discuss how to pick one.
A word on price
You will rarely find the best price for a case on the case manufacturer’s website, the device manufacturer’s website, or a carrier website. The RRPs are frequently heavily discounted. When you identify the case you want, do a comparison search and shop around.
Amazon and eBay are often the cheapest places to buy, but it pays to cast your net wide. You also have to watch out for knock-offs, particularly on eBay.
It’s worth mentioning that some case manufacturers will offer a lifetime warranty and they’ll handle exchanges smoothly, but only if you buy direct from the manufacturer, so that’s a possible incentive to pay the full price.
Do your homework
Read reviews of the cases you are interested in. Even if you can’t find a review for your specific phone model, other reviews for the same manufacturer will give you a general sense of the quality. You can also find people discussing cases and posting photos of them in forums.
Particularly important is confirming that the case has precise cut-outs. Sometimes cases are rushed out the door and they miss a port, button covers are stiff, or there are problems with camera flash reflections. If something like wireless charging is important to you, or you want to be able to dock your smartphone with the case on, then check with the manufacturer before you buy.
Choose your features
Think about additional features you might want. For tablet cases, a landscape stand function could be vital. Some cases offer multiple positions or even 360 degree hinges. For smartphones, you’ll generally find kickstands that pop out the back, but make sure they’re secure, because it can be annoying if they pop out uninvited. Write down what you feel is essential and keep it as a checklist while you shop.
How much protection do you need?
How clumsy are you? The first thing to work out is how tough you need your case to be. If you want to be able to drop it onto concrete with impunity, or have it survive a dip, then you’ll need some serious protection. If you’re careful and you just want basic protection, then you don’t need to spend so much. There is a clear trade-off between the level of protection provided and the bulk and weight added.
At the top end in the safety stakes, you’ll find some seriously rugged cases, but they are going to be bulky and heavy. The inclusion of air pockets and reinforced corners dramatically reduces the risk of damage to your device, but it inevitably adds more bulk. They should also be easy to grip, even with wet hands, but you might find that makes it harder to slide them in and out of pockets. You may need to buy a belt clip or holster to accommodate the larger case.
Rugged cases should cover every angle, including the buttons and the touchscreen, which can make buttons harder to press and reduce touchscreen sensitivity. Ultimately, rugged cases can make it a little harder to actually use your phone.
The IP (Ingress Protection) rating will give you the lowdown on the case’s ability to withstand water and dust. Some case manufacturers have gone further and put their wares through U.S. military standards. MIL-STD-810 certification covers everything from pressure and temperature, to vibration and impact.
Our favorite rugged cases: We recommend checking out the toughest offerings from Griffin, Trident, and OtterBox. You should be prepared to pay around $50.
If you want a case that will definitely survive a drop, but you don’t want to add too much bulk or completely forfeit on style, then you’ll find loads of great tough cases to choose from. A standard combination that works very well is a layer of hard polycarbonate with an inner layer of something softer, like silicone, to absorb shock. Look for the military drop test certification.
You can expect these cases to add a bit of bulk and weight, but they come in a wide range of styles and they shouldn’t stop you from accessing everything your phone has to offer. Make sure that there’s a lip or some protection on the front in case your phone lands face down. You should also expect added grip to reduce the chances that you’ll drop it in the first place.
Our favorite tough cases: We recommend Incipio, Urban Armor Gear, Speck, and Body Glove. You should expect to pay around $15 to $30.
Slim or basic cases
Sometimes it feels like a real shame to cover that gorgeous design, or maybe you just don’t want something too bulky in your pocket. If style outweighs protection for you, then you can opt for a slim case. It will safeguard against scratches on the areas it actually covers, and it will certainly boost your phone’s chances of surviving a fall, you just can’t count on it. You may also not be willing to spend big on a slim case. However, they can be good if you feel a basic level of protection is enough.
These cases will be in one-piece and they are typically made of TPU, which is durable and slightly malleable, so it’s easy to fit and it offers some shock protection. Hard, slim cases can be tough to fit and they won’t provide much protection from drop damage. You’ll find the biggest range of styles and colors in this category, but make sure you check the cut-outs and remember that a lack of protection at the corners or a lip on the front means weak protection from falls.
Our favorite slim cases: We recommend Case Mate, Incipio, Spigen, Griffin, and Cruzerlite. You should expect to pay around $5 to $20.
Flip-open folio or wallet cases can be stylish and pocket friendly. They’re a really good choice if you intend to sling your phone in a bag because they offer basic all round protection. When it comes to drop protection they are very variable, some include a shell type case inside, others offer virtually no coverage on the sides or corners.
If you’re willing to pay a premium, then there’s no real substitute for genuine leather. The vast majority of folio cases are made from PU (polyurethane); sometimes it’s spun as “vegan leather”. PU is good, but it can smell strong, especially at first, and it is prone to cracking over time.
Folio cases will typically support the automatic sleep/wake function, so your device comes to life automatically when you open the cover and goes to sleep when you close it. The type of closure is very important if you don’t want to run the risk of the case opening in your bag. Magnetic closures enable more stylish designs, but they don’t tend to be as strong as elastic, tab, or stud closures.
Many folio cases advertise credit card slots, but few can really serve as full wallet replacements. They’ll typically only hold a couple of cards and overstuffing increases the chances of them popping open unexpectedly.
Our favorite folio cases: We recommend Piel Frama, Chil, Knomo, Spigen, and Incipio. You can also get super-cool cases from Dodocase and Buk Case, using old book-binding techniques. For folio cases you can pay anything from $15 for a cheap PU case up to $100 and beyond for a premium, hand-made leather case.
As far as complaints about mobile technology go, poor battery life still tops the charts. For smartphones, you can always look into getting an extended battery case. They typically have a battery built in that’s capable of juicing your smartphone for another few hours.
Battery cases are always bulky and heavy. If they’re slim then it’s because the battery inside isn’t very big and it won’t boost your battery life by much. You’ll want to take a look at the mAh rating, but it doesn’t always tell the full story, so make sure you look for a real world test.
A lot of battery cases are not really designed to offer much protection, so you’ll have to check with the manufacturer on that score. What they should always provide is the ability to charge the phone, ideally it will drain the case first, that way you can take it off when it’s empty. There are some clever designs out there which combine a lightweight case or bumper with a removable battery component.
You should also expect support for at-a-glance status on remaining charge, and pass-through capability for your headphone port and charging or data.
Our favorite battery cases: We recommend TYLT, Mophie, iBattz, and Belkin. You should expect to pay anywhere from $50 to over $100 depending on the capacity.
A lot of devices ship with screen protectors and there are plenty of places selling them for every device on the market. They can help reduce the chance of scratches or cracks appearing on your precious touchscreen, but they inevitably impact the aesthetic and sometimes usability as well.
If you’re going to buy a screen protector then make sure it’s tailor made for your device and buy it right away, because any imperfection on your screen is going to increase the chances that you’ll end up with bubbles. Follow the fitting instructions carefully and slowly, patience gets best results.
You generally get screen protectors in multiples so you can discard the current one when it picks up a scratch or other damage, which it inevitably will, and fit a new one. You can also get screen protectors that cut viewing angles for privacy and some claim to reduce glare.
They can be combined with slim or tough cases which leave the screen exposed. The downside is that they can be maddening to fit and they can reduce sensitivity on the touchscreen. Some of the more expensive screen protectors tend to impact sensitivity less, but it’s a trade-off.
Our favorite screen protectors: We recommend Spigen, Tech Armor, Pure Gear, Belkin, and Zagg. You should expect to pay between $10 and $40 for a pack of three or four.
The final word
If you get the chance to take a look at some cases before you buy, then jump at it. It’s always better to get a hands-on feel. It can also be a good idea to buy a couple of cases for different occasions. Getting a slim case for every day at the office and a rugged case for your hiking excursions, could be the way to go.
We’d like to hear about your experiences with smartphone and tablet cases. What brands do you rely on and what cases have let you down? If you’ve got any tips for case shoppers then post a comment and let us know.
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