You splash out hundreds of dollars on a new smartphone or tablet, so why not to spend just a little more in order to ensure it doesn’t get scratched or broken? Our electronic friends serve us faithfully — that is, 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 smartphones 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 damage tests 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 Recommended Retail Prices (RRP) are frequently discounted. When you identify the case you want, do a comparison search and shop around.
Amazon and eBay are often the cheapest places to make a purchase, but it pays to cast a wide net. 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, but only if you buy directly from the manufacturer, so that’s a possible incentive to pay the full retail 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 various forums around the web.
It’s also important to confirm 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 in a case. For tablet cases, a landscape stand could be vital. Some cases also offer multiple positions, as well as 360-degree hinges. For phones, 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 on 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.
Rugged cases are another option to look into, but keep in mind that 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 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 your pocket. That said, you may need to buy a belt clip or holster to accommodate the larger build.
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.
If you want a case that will definitely survive a drop, but you don’t want to add too much bulk or completely forfeit style, then you’ll probably want to opt for one of the many tough cases currently on the market. A standard combination that works well is a layer of hard polycarbonate with an inner layer of something softer, like silicone, to absorb shock. Also, keep an eye out for the military drop test certification.
You can expect these cases to add a bit of bulk and weight, but they come in an array 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.
Slim or basic cases
Sometimes it feels like a shame to cover your phone’s 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). We’re seeing more and more translucent cases making their way to the market, meaning it’s easier than ever to get something that allows your phone’s design to shine through. You shouldn’t need to spend big on a slim case, and they can be great if you feel a basic level of protection is enough.
These one-piece cases are typically made of TPU, which is durable and slightly malleable, so they’re easy to fit and offers some shock protection. Hard, slim cases can be tough to fit on your device 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. Some of the cases in this category also offer decent drop protection by combining a thin, hard back with a thicker, malleable bumper.
Flip-open folio or wallet cases can be stylish and pocket-friendly. They’re a really good alternative to traditional cases if you intend to sling your phone in a bag, namely because they offer all-around protection. They vary when it comes to drop protection, however, as some include a shell-type case inside while others offer virtually no coverage on the sides or corners.
If you’re willing to pay a premium, then there’s no substitute for genuine leather. The vast majority of folio cases are made from PU (polyurethane), which is sometimes 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 sleep-wake function, so your device should come to life automatically when you open the cover and go to sleep when you close it. The type of closure is 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 wallet replacements. They’ll typically only hold a couple of cards, and overstuffing increases the chances of the case popping open unexpectedly.
Our favorite folio cases: We recommend Nodus, Nomad, Piel Frama, Noreve, Knomo, and Incipio. You can also get wood and leather cases from Grovemade, and Dodocase uses old book-binding techniques. For folio cases, you can pay anywhere between $15 and $100, depending on the material.
As far as complaints about mobile technology go, poor battery life is still at the tops of the charts. For smartphones, you can always look into getting a battery case. These typically have a built-in battery that’s capable of juicing your smartphone for another few hours.
Battery cases are always bulky and heavy, though. 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 in the way of protection, so you’ll have to check with the manufacturer on that score. What they should always provide is the ability to charge your phone. Ideally, your phone will drain the case first, that way you can take it off when it’s empty. There are also some clever designs out there that combine a lightweight case or bumper with a removable battery component. You should also expect to be able to check the battery status at a glance — pass-through capabilities for your headphone port and charging or data is also a plus.
Many devices ship with screen protectors, and there are plenty of places that sell them for every device on the market. These can help reduce the chance of scratches or cracks appearing on your 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 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 installation instructions carefully and apply the screen protector slowly, as patience makes for the best results.
You generally get multiple screen protectors with your purchase, so you can discard the current one if damaged. You can also get screen protectors that cut viewing angles for additional privacy, as well as some that are designed to reduce glare.
These can be combined with slim or tough cases, which leave the screen exposed. The downside is that they can be maddening to apply and often can reduce touchscreen sensitivity. Some of the more expensive screen protectors tend to impact sensitivity less, but it’s a trade-off.
The final word
If you have the opportunity to check out some cases before you buy, then we recommend doing so. After all, 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 your 9-to-5 gig and a rugged case for your weekend hiking excursions, for example, could be the way to go.
This article was updated on 05-09-2017 by Simon Hill to include new recommendations, images, and links.