With the front and rear glass construction of the iPhone 4, rugged cases have become quite a popular choice to protect everyone’s prized Apple smartphone. Just look at the number of Otterbox Defenders, Griffin Explorers/Survivors, Ballistic cases and the like encasing people’s iPhones. LifeProof has come onto the scene with their own take on an extreme conditions case, the LifeProof iPhone 4 case. LifeProof claims to have added an additional protection measure into their case that most other extreme duty cases on the market don’t offer….complete waterproofing. Can the LifeProof iPhone 4 case live up to the high bar it’s set for itself?
Read on to find out….
The LifeProof iPhone 4 Case comes in an attractive cardboard packaging that showcases it’s “Four Proofs”…Water, Dirt, Snow, and Shock. These are the elements/conditions that LifeProof states their case insures protection from. Inside the package you’ll find the two part case (front and back), a headphone adapter that allows use of waterproof headphones, yet still allows the case to remain fully waterproof, a small screen cleaning cloth (for case installation), and installation instructions. LifeProof also thought to include an extra headphone port cover as a spare. Overall the packaging is very nice and showcases the product and its benefits quite well.
Initial Impressions (Fit, Finish, and Usability)
For this review, I was sent the black version of the LifeProof case. The case itself is made of a firm rubber/TPU material, and is made up of two main pieces…the front piece which also covers the sides and includes complete screen protection, and the back part that snaps/presses on and covers the back glass. A rubber seal between the front and back case halves helps to ensure waterproofing. The headphone port plug at the top screws into the case, and keeps its watertight seal with an o-ring gasket.
The dock connector at the bottom is protected by a flip down black cover that also has a foam gasket material on the inside to aid in waterproofing. The mic and speaker ports on the bottom of the phone, as well as the earpiece speaker are open, but covered by a GoreTex membrane which offers waterproofing for those components.
All buttons and switches are obviously completely covered in this case, and all are easy to operate through the case. The only thing to mention here is that with the lever style operation of the vibrate switch through the case, the operation of that switch is reversed…push back on the switch to turn the ringer on, and pull forward to set it to vibrate.
The built in screen protector completely covers the front glass of the phone, and is a heavier gauge plastic than most built in protectors. The phone’s Home button is also operated through this protector, but the protector has a nice depression molded into it to contour with the button itself, and doesn’t hinder its operation at all. If anything, it adds a bit of feedback to the Home button’s operation.
Once installed on the phone, this case is actually surprisingly not as bulky as I expected it to be. The case adds a bit to the overall length of the phone, most of which is at the bottom with the way the dock connector cover is made, but not nearly as much width or thickness as other extreme duty cases. The thickness is almost identical to that of a Speck CandyShell and is only a bit wider than the Speck, for those of you familiar with that case. The LifeProof has a quality feel once installed on the phone, with no noticeable wiggle or play anywhere.
My biggest issue to overcome with the case was interacting with the phone’s touchscreen through the thicker screen protector. It takes a little bit to get used to, as you have to be a little more deliberate in your on-screen button presses/taps (especially typing), but in a very short period of time I was back to my normal fast typing speed.
One thing I learned early on is that it’s very crucial to pay attention to the installation instructions, as they will tell you the proper technique to use to remove the air that can be trapped in between the phone’s screen and the case’s screen shield…getting this air out also helps greatly with improving the screen’s sensitivity while in the case.
When it comes to case openings (such as the headphone jack and dock connector), LifeProof had to make some compromises in design here. To ensure waterproofing of both openings, the openings had to be designed to be very tight fitting and relatively deep. This design is going to limit headphones and dock connecting cables to Apple supplied ones (or aftermarket parts equal in size), but I don’t see that being too big of an issue unless you routinely use a dock to charge your phone. And even then, LifeProof has allowed some workarounds these problems.
If you absolutely must use a dock, or your charge/sync cable is larger than OEM, LifeProof sells the RadTech Dock Extender that will allow use of any dock or 30-pin dock connector cable you want to use. And if you use 3rd party headphones that have a plug larger than the stock Apple earbuds, the supplied headphone adapter (which screws in securely to the headphone opening in the case) can be used with any size headphone plug. So there are solutions available (even though they require additional accessories) to both of these issues.
When it came to actually using the iPhone as a phone through a completely waterproof case, I had serious doubts about how sound would transfer in and out of the case successfully. Thankfully, trying the case out for a few weeks put those doubts to rest. Sound (through the earpiece speaker) came through fine, and was just a bit lower than a naked iPhone. And callers seemed to be able to hear me loud and clear despite the mic being behind a waterproof layer.
There were a couple of times that callers told me I sounded distant, but in both of those times I realized my finger was partially covering the case opening over the mic. Moving my finger resolved the problem. One area of slightly different audio performance is in the area of the phone’s loudspeaker/speakerphone. I say “different” because I didn’t necessarily think of it as diminishing audio performance, but it does change it. When a video, music, or a phone call (through the speakerphone function) is playing through the iPhone’s external speaker, due to the nature of the waterproofing layers used over the speaker, the sound doesn’t seem to come out the bottom of the phone anymore (as in a naked iPhone).
Instead, it seems “trapped” inside the case and actually seems to originate from the entire back of the case, almost like the back of the case is acting like a speaker diaphragm. I doubt this was an intentional design, but it’s noteworthy nonetheless. I didn’t really notice a big drop in speaker volume, just this change/distortion in the sound’s origin.
UPDATE: I began my review with what is now referred to as the “Gen 1” LifeProof case, but near completion of it, I received the newer “Gen 2” version. The Gen 2 LifeProof addresses some of the issues I’ve mentioned above with the Gen 1 case. The Gen 2’s tweaked design increases the touchscreen’s sensitivity through the case with a revised screen shield that seems to sit flatter on the phone’s screen. It also has revised audio qualities that improve in call earspeaker volume and help with better loudspeaker sound transmission. It also adds raised bumpers around the vibrate switch and volume buttons to protect those buttons in during a drop. Pics of these bumpers are below.
Since I usually review aluminum/metal iPhone cases, this is where I usually talk about any signal or reception issues a case may have. Needless to say, since this is a plastic/TPU case, it has none of those. With the LifeProof case installed, there is no effect on cellular reception, WiFi, GPS, or Bluetooth performance.
One area I will discuss in this section is the LifeProof’s performance as a truly waterproof case. I was VERY reluctant to submerge my “LifeProofed” iPhone into water, even though I had done the recommended waterproof test of the case prior to installing my phone. But I finally did, and to my relief, the LifeProof didn’t fail. I submerged my phone in a sink full of water for 30 minutes, held all the (sealed) port openings/speaker openings under running water, even dropped it in a mud puddle, and not one drop of moisture or dirt made it inside to my phone. Even listening to music through the phone’s loudspeaker while in the shower in the morning didn’t hurt my phone inside the LifeProof. It was quite remarkable seeing this case and it’s waterproofing ability in action and knowing that your phone is safe from all moisture you may encounter day to day.
When it comes to shock absorption and drop protection, the LifeProof doesn’t disappoint here either. I subjected one of my review cases to several shoulder high drops onto asphalt, concrete, and tile floors, and my phone escaped without a scratch. Now granted, the LifeProof case isn’t as thick as say an Otterbox Defender, so it probably doesn’t offer quite the same level of extreme impact protection that case offers, but the protection of the Otterbox is probably overkill for the vast majority of people out there. The LifeProof case should handle just about every drop the average person would experience in everyday life. LifeProof’s case has been tested to Military Specifications MIL-STD-810F-516.5. This means that it has been dropped on all surfaces and edges onto concrete from a height of 2 meters (or 6.6ft).
Sure there are extreme protection cases out there that probably offer protection from higher drops or harder falls than the LifeProof, and sure there are also other waterproof cases for your iPhone as well. But, so far, no one has married these two into a usable case the way LifeProof has. It’s the only waterproof case I’ve seen that either isn’t a glorified Ziploc bag, or locks your phone in a huge block of plastic that doesn’t allow you to use any of the phone’s buttons.
The LifeProof is a fully waterproof, fully protective case that actually looks good and doesn’t have a huge, bulky fit. It’s slim and sleek enough to be used as an everyday case if you wish, which is something I haven’t seen out of any other waterproof case. Sure, there are a few minor issues such as slightly decreased screen sensitivity and the 3rd party accessory compatibility (which can still be rectified with solutions from LifeProof), but for the protection and peace of mind LifeProof iPhone 4 case offers, I feel it more than compensates for those slight issues.
The LifeProof iPhone 4 Case (Gen 1 = $69.95, Gen 2 $79.95) can be purchased at www.lifeproof.com in black, white, pink, and purple, as as of September 25th, it’s also available at Best Buy.
PROS: Completely waterproof case for iPhone 4, great impact protection as well
CONS: Narrow, deep dock connector and headphone openings make accessory compatibility a possible issue (can be remedied by included adapter and available options from LifeProof), slightly reduced screen sensitivity.