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How do you decide on a rugged case? Look at how each company tests them

Cracked screens, chipped metal frames, scratches, and scuffs are common problems for smartphone owners. We’re constantly slipping them in and out of pockets and bags, trying to type with one hand, or forgetting they’re sitting on our laps when we get to our feet. The cell phone repair market is worth $4 billion a year — at least, according to Ibis World — and that doesn’t take into account the fact that many of us live with damaged phones, or just get rid of them and buy new ones when an incident occurs.

Related: Ten rugged cases to shield your pricey iPhone from dirt, dings and drops

To help prevent this, there’s a bewildering array of smartphone cases on the market. But how do you know which ones to buy? After all, we recently discovered that military drop-test standards for phone cases may not be as tough as you think.

“The MIL-STD-810G claim that you often see on a box comes from a general set of standards that the military created to test the ruggedness of products, but it doesn’t mean the military conducted the tests,” Bryan Hynecek, VP of Design at Speck, explained to Digital Trends. “Companies who claim military-grade protection are responsible for testing their own products, which can lead to variation in the testing process.”

So how are you supposed to know if a case is really rugged? A lot of it comes down to trust, but you should also look into the tests that different case manufacturers conduct. Thankfully, we’ve been delving into the testing methods of some of the top case manufacturers so you don’t have to.

Speck

Speck cases are tested to military standards and certified by an independent third party, but that only covers drops from 4 feet. Speck also has independent tests conducted on its toughest cases to certify drop protection from as high as 10 feet.

It’s not just about drop protection, though. Speck also runs environmental tests for varying temperatures and humidity, UV testing to ensure its cases don’t turn yellow, chemical testing to see how popular hand creams and sunscreens react, and abrasion testing to ensure case materials don’t wear away too quickly or pick up scratches. More importantly, Speck also tests to ensure that cases don’t interfere with the camera flash or antenna.

Otterbox

Otterbox produces some of the best-selling smartphone cases in existence, many of which are known for their ruggedness. Unsurprisingly, OtterBox cases are subjected to a laundry list of tests.

“We have some of the best personnel and facilities in the industry specialized in testing these kinds of products, making us the No. 1 most trusted brand in smartphone protection in the U.S.” Paul Staggers, engineering manager at OtterBox, told Digital Trends.

In addition to drop protection, temperature, UV, lotion, and makeup testing, OtterBox also makes sure that your phone works as it should and would without a case on. That means ensuring that buttons work properly, cables still fit ports, call and audio quality is good, all sensors work correctly, and that you can still use phone features like NFC.

OtterBox also subjects cases to abrasion tests, common cleaning materials, and human sweat. The company even has special jeans pocket and purse tests to ensure its cases survive and protect your phone in real-world environments.

Tech21

British case maker Tech21 is talking up the importance of independent testing and has formed a partnership with the National Physical Laboratory in London, an organization which has been testing things since 1900.

The independent tests are focused on drop testing, and they compare Tech21 products to other leading brands to show their durability over multiple drops. The company also tests cases for abrasion, temperature, humidity, thermal shock, chemical resistance, UV, and color fastness, and conduct extensive tests for fit, button response, port access, and sensor compatibility.

Griffin

Griffin is another brand that offers extremely rugged cases. It conducts extensive drop testing, including 10-foot falls onto concrete, and performs all kinds of extreme weather tests on those lining its Survivor series. They’re designed for outdoors types and capable of protecting your phone in virtually any environment. Parent company Incipio offers some rugged cases, too, and they take special care to test for damage from impact shock, which can cause faults that are not immediately obvious. That’s why its rugged cases feature padded material and reinforced corners.

Pelican

We also found that Pelican goes the extra mile when it comes to case testing, conducting a whole battery of tests to ensure that phones wearing its toughest cases are well-protected. They drop test 10 sample cases, expose them to extreme temperatures, and conduct abrasion tests that involve putting a case in and out of a pocket 2,000 times and pressing all the buttons 2,000 times. Pelican has been a trusted name in protection for decades now and they now offer a lifetime warranty on each and every case.

You’ll find that the bigger case brands often have official branding, so Pelican cases often have something like “Designed for Samsung” on the box. These partner programs with major smartphone manufacturers such as Apple, Sony, HTC, LG, and Samsung add another independent layer of testing. They conduct their own testing to check the fit, durability, environmental impact, and ensure that phone features work properly with the case on.

It’s tough to crown a champion when it comes to ruggedness, but for pure toughness, we think the OtterBox Defender, the Griffin Survivor Summit, and the Pelican Voyager are hard to beat.

Related: Military drop test standards for phone cases may not be as tough as you think

All of the brands mentioned in this article produce high-quality protective cases and conduct rigorous testing, but there’s no shortage of anecdotal evidence about cases failing. It’s simply not possible to create a case that guarantees no drop damage, at least not one that you’d be happy putting on your phone.

There are so many variables that even the toughest cases will fail sometimes, but there are some things worth keeping in mind. Do you trust the case maker? Do they offer video evidence or details of the testing they conduct? What claims are they making?

All rugged cases have a bit of bulk to them and only by extending protection to the screen can you be confident your phone won’t break when it falls. If a case is very slim and its promise of military-grade drop protection seems too good to be true, then it probably is.