If ever a manufacturer has handed third-party accessories manufacturers a blank check, it was Apple with the iPhone 4. Whereas the third-party smartphone case market traditionally sets its sights on those who want to protect or personalize their phones, the widely-publicized “Antennagate” issue has effectively ensured that practically every iPhone 4 owner will purchase a case for their device. It is a gold rush, and while it provides much opportunity for manufacturers to make a name for themselves, it also provides a lot of rope for them to hang themselves by. ElementCase has taken this opportunity to create one of the more novel iPhone 4 cases out there, and I’ve had the chance to take it for a test drive. Is the Vapor case worth the $80 price tag? How does it compare to other, less-expensive cases? Read on to find out.
Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way first: ElementCase’s Vapor case is a thing of technical beauty, the sort of object that any gadgetophile worth his or her salt would have a hard time not drooling over or wanting to touch and hold. The entire case is machined from two pieces of aluminum (one for one of the long sides, and one for the other three sides), so it obviously feels nice and solid in the hands. The iPhone slides into the larger part of the case, and the remaining side is attached with tiny screws. ElementCase is kind enough to provide not only an allen wrench for removing and tightening the screws, but they also provide two additional screws just in case you happen to lose some.
All four corners and part of one side of the case are lined with a thin foam-rubber-like material that is attached to the case with adhesive. A single opening is provided on the side for access to the mute switch and volume buttons, another at the bottom for the dock connector, speaker, and microphone, and yet another at the top of the case for the headphone jack and the noise cancellation microphone. A pass-through button is built into the case to make it easy to press the sleep button, and it works very well, being flush enough to resist accidental presses in one’s pocket, but also not providing significant resistance beyond that provided by the actual button on the phone. One additional opening is provided on the remaining side of the case, for easy access to the SIM card tray. Most case manufacturers overlook this, but then again, most cases can be removed without the use of tools, so this was probably a smart move on the part of ElementCase.
The top and bottom edges of the case are a chunky 5mm thick though, so not only will you not be able to dock the phone in any sort of dock or cradle (even the iPhone in the Bumper case will dock in a Universal dock without an adapter tray, not so with the Vapor case), but it also means that the well for the headphone jack is pretty deep. This wouldn’t be an issue if it were also wide, but it’s not. It’s pretty narrow, and of seven or eight pairs of headphones and earbuds at my disposal, only the Apple earbuds that came with the iPhone would fit through the opening. And who actually uses those?
The case actually adds considerable size to the phone (10mm lengthwise, and probably 4-6mm in width), so it feels significantly larger in the hand than the naked iPhone does. And while the case itself doesn’t feel terribly heavy, the case on the iPhone 4 makes for a rather hefty package. Also, I found the beveled corners of the Vapor case to be somewhat uncomfortable. While they might aid in preventing the case from slipping out of a sweaty hand, it also made for a rather unpleasant experience. It says something that this case made me not want to hold my iPhone. Further, it should be noted that the case doesn’t provide any back or front protection. This isn’t a concern for me, but if front or back protection are a must-have for you, you won’t find it here.
When the iPhone is in the case, it is actually clamped between the pieces of foam-rubber, sort of suspended in the middle of the case. This keeps the case itself from making contact with the iPhone’s external antenna or the glass of the front or back plates. ElementCase contends that the foam-rubber provides a level of shock protection for the iPhone, and that the gap it creates between the iPhone’s antenna and the case “creates a non-conductive barrier to help maintain the iPhone’s antenna signal strength.” Naturally, I did not test the shock-absorption properties of the case, but I did test how it affected signal strength.
In order to test signal strength, I put my iPhone into Field Test mode, and watched the signal strength while the iPhone was:
- laying flat on a table
- held in my right hand in a manner specifically so as not to interfere with the antenna, and
- in my left hand in the so-called “death grip” position.
I repeated these tests in several different locations in my house, outdoors, and at my work, and to provide a couple of reference points, I performed the tests with my iPhone in the Vapor case, in an Apple Bumper case, and without a case.
The good news is that the Vapor case provided significant insulation from my hand while in the “death grip”, enough that I was able to hold it this way and maintain signal (albeit weak signal) in areas where holding it this way without a case would have dropped the phone straight into the “No Signal” zone.
Unfortunately, there is more bad news than good. While the Vapor case did protect from the “death grip”, I actually witnessed a slight decrease in signal strength in the other two positions (right hand and flat on a table) compared to when it was not in a case at all. Further, in each position, I routinely received a stronger signal in Apple’s Bumper case compared to the Vapor case. Not a good sign.
So the sad truth of the matter is that the Vapor case is a classic case of form over function. I really, really wanted to like this case, as I’ve been ogling them since the first photos of them started showing up on the ElementCase website. As it is though, I can’t really recommend it, especially at the rather steep asking price of $80, when there are many more functional cases out there for much cheaper.