NOTE: All the shiny, professional product photos in this review are from LifeProof’s PR Images page.
Owning expensive things sure can make you paranoid.
Witness how some drivers of expensive cars take great pains to park their precious vehicles far away from more plebian coaches. Or sometimes they’ll just straddle two spots, though I think the jackassery of that move may prove too tempting for car key vandals.
Then there’s us iPhone owners. Though we possess beautiful creations of industrial design, and would love to use them in their original (and intended) form, the realities of how we handle them (especially if you’re clumsy and/or absentminded) and our pocketbooks necessitate encasing and shrouding our iPhones with layers of material. And the result is usually a sad compromise: appearance, size, impaired function, or even lack of protection.
Bigger was the case that they gave me
Like many iPhone owners, I’ve researched and tried many different cases over the years, and never quite finding the right one. You’ve got super-thin cases that really don’t do anything but protect against scuffs—until you get dust and grit between the case and the phone. For impact protection, you could go the opposite route and get supermassive chunks of plastic and rubber that make a Palm VII PDA look positively svelte. I wasn’t thrilled with either solution.
Recently, however, I’ve found a case I end up evangelizing because it’s that good: the LifeProof case for iPhone 4/4S. This case minimizes the heavy compromises that usually come with encasing your iPhone, outweighed by the protective benefits offered by its well-crafted design.
When I first got my shiny new iPhone 4S, I did my usual online case research. And it’s just far too easy to miss even the best cases for your needs, because there are THOUSANDS of cases out there, and some of them haven’t been reviewed yet. So, I didn’t find out about the LifeProof from reviews, but happened to see it in a Best Buy display. I was intrigued, and decided to take the plunge. $80 was nothing to sneeze at for a case, but is only a fraction of the repair or replacement cost of an iPhone.
As the advertising goes, the LifeProof case protects your iPhone against four common culprits: drops, water, ice, and mud. This obviously means that the LifeProof is a sealed case, which makes you wonder about sound quality: how do you sound to callers on the other end, and how does the speakerphone sound?
Real-world testing through ownership
What’s funny is that, once I watched the installation videos on LifeProof’s website and installed the case, my paranoia transferred from the iPhone to the case! I did my best to protect the LifeProof from scratches, drops, and spills, but thankfully relaxed over the next few weeks. (I now have some scratches on the front screen, which I’ll get into later.)
Impressions, from top to bottom
The overall design is very well thought out. The case is made up of two halves, front and back, sealed with an O-ring. The rear half of the case is hard plastic, letting you easily slide the phone into your pocket. The front half (really more like 70%) is rubbery, letting you confidently grip your LifeProof phone. The brilliance here is that the protective layering around the iPhone makes it taller, but not significantly thicker. So, if you were to put a naked iPhone next to a LifeProofed iPhone, the size difference would be obvious. But looking at a LifeProofed iPhone without that context makes it appear quite slim and compact. Try that with the chunkiest OtterBox case.
On the top of the case, the headphone jack is sealed with an O-ringed screw, which you can remove and attach to your Apple headset cord (via included holder) when you need to use your headset. The recessed headphone jack can only accommodate headphone plugs as slim as your OEM Apple plug, so the LifeProof even comes with a headphone extension cable to use with any headset. Very thoughtful. I prefer to just put the phone up to my head, or use it with Bluetooth devices, to maintain its protection, and keep dust out. The lock button requires slightly more pressure to lock the phone, though you quickly get used to it.
The volume buttons and vibrate switch are flanked by raised nubs, which will take an impact before they have to. The rubber protection translates into increased effort to raise/lower the volume, and you’ll quickly retrain yourself to move the vibrate switch toward you when you want to silence your phone. I can live with that.
On the back, the camera and flash are recessed behind an anti-reflective lens, which I can testify has no negative effects on photos or video. One thing to watch out for is accumulating lint, dust, etc. in the recessed area, which could affect your photos and video. LifeProof explains in their videos and website how to maintain the lens. The back of the case is one solid color (unless you get their limited edition clear backing), which I prefer to cases which have cutouts for the Apple logo. I don’t own an iPhone to tell everyone I own it, but because I like how it works. And I like how the case obscures the logo. (I actually have an old-school Commodore logo sticker where the Apple logo was positioned.)
What’s also interesting is that the case was designed to use the back of the phone as a sonic (and apparently, vibration) amplifier. I don’t know how many times I’ve been jolted by the phone vibrating on the table in front of me during a meeting. Note to self: quit doing that.
The front of the case is one smooth piece of scratch-resistant plastic, sitting on your iPhone screen. (This means you need to remove any screen protectors prior to installing the LifeProof.) I do say scratch-resistant, and not scratch-proof, because it isn’t impervious to scratching. But it does its job, which is taking the hit instead of your iPhone’s screen. As I mentioned earlier, I let go of my paranoia over protecting my LifeProof case, and likely scratched the screen with keys I thoughtlessly tossed in my pocket along with the case. Replacing the front is a $40 proposition, so I’m gonna let it get scratched all to hell before replacing it. I’ve actually thought about putting a ZAGG InvisibleShield screen protector over the LifeProof screen protector. Crazy.
Like other LifeProof owners, I eventually got annoying rainbow-like blobs known as Newton Rings under my LifeProof screen protector. According to LifeProof, this happens because the protector isn’t contacting the screen there, and tells you how to remedy it. Aside from the visual annoyance, it has negligible effect on operating the touch screen.
The home button, because it has a piece of curved plastic over it, is easier to press, unlike all other buttons on the phone. This is a good thing, because it’s the button I press the most when using the phone. The downside is that, because the button is essentially raised, you’ll start hearing Siri’s “beep beep” out of your…back pocket…when you bend to pick something up. (I keep the screen facing inward when in my pocket.)
The bottom of the phone has super-thin membranes protecting the microphone and speaker, and succeed at keeping dust, water, mud, and ice away from your phone. Looking into those ports from the bottom of the case looks like they’re recessed a good centimeter in, and it’s hard to not let them accumulate with dust and pocket lint. It’s also a no-no to use pressurized air/gas/fluid to clean them out, because you could compromise their integrity. (Be sure to watch the videos on the LifeProof site about how to care—and how not to care—for your case.)
The center of the case’s bottom is a hard hinged plastic dock connector cover, which deeply recesses the dock connector like the headphone jack, so you can only connect your OEM Apple cable or similarly slim connectors. There are dock connector extension adapters, but I worry they make the hinged door at the bottom overextend, possibly compromising the seal at the bottom of the case.
Blah blah blah. Can you take it underwater?
Yes! Check out this video I took in a residential pool this past summer.
It was months before I had the nerve to do it, but I had to know. So many others had testified before me that they’d succeeded, so why not? Understandably, LifeProof doesn’t cover replacement of your phone if it’s compromised by any of the four proofs, because there are way too many user factors that come into play. All I wanted was a case that could withstand getting splashed, dropped (rarely), or scratched, so my iPhone wouldn’t have to be replaced, and the LifeProof succeeds. And, to my relief, it succeeded underwater as well.
LifeProof = peace of mind
The bottom line is that, with the LifeProof case, you don’t have to be paranoid any more about your iPhone. Someone calling while you’re washing your hands? No problem. Underwater video? Check. Want to use your iPhone in the rain or snow? Go right ahead. Dropped your iPhone (again)? No worries. I’d also like to add one more proof: babyproof.
I should also mention that I’ve contacted LifeProof twice during my ownership experience (via Facebook and phone), and was pleasantly helped with any concerns or replacement parts. Peace of mind only goes so far without proper support, and the LifeProof staff shine at it. Per your instructions in the box, be sure to register your case to extend your warranty to one full year! If you buy your case at Best Buy, be sure to hold onto it, because you’ll need it if a warranty claim arises. (I found out you can also go to a local Best Buy and they can generate a duplicate, assuming you know what credit card you purchased it with.)
Because the LifeProof case gives me so much peace of mind—essentially letting me use my phone instead of worrying about it—I give it my ringing endorsement, and will gladly get another when the iPhone 5S arrives next year.