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ElementCase Vapor Pro case for iPhone 4 Review

By: Andy Simmons
on March 22, 2011 11:00 am

Six months ago, I gladly tackled the task of reviewing one of the first machined aluminum cases for the iPhone 4, the Vapor case from ElementCase.  I found it lacking, and since that time, I’ve reviewed several other machined aluminum iPhone 4 cases, each with its own advantages and problems.  ElementCase has recently added a new entry to their product lineup, the Vapor Pro case, in the hopes that it will address the issues of their earlier attempt, and further become the standard against which machined aluminum iPhone 4 cases are measured.  Read on to find out ElementCase succeeds at this rather lofty goal.

ElementCase pulls out all the stops when it comes to accessorizing the Vapor Pro

The Vapor Pro case is clearly a flagship product for ElementCase, and this is apparent from the amount of stuff that they pack in with it.  Whereas the original Vapor case came attached to a simple piece of printed glossy card stock, the Vapor Pro is packaged in a nice black box with the ElementCase logo in relief on the front.  Inside the box, one finds a nice hard/soft zippered storage case with the Vapor Pro frame inside of it, a carbon fiber backplate, a pouch with a couple of spare hex screws, and a keychain hex tool for installing and removing the hex screws.  That last item may sound like just a bit of fluff, but the truth is that it’s actually a pretty brilliant inclusion.  All of the other aluminum iPhone cases I’ve reviewed have used tiny hex screws as well, and they’ve all included a standard allen wrench.  That’s all fine and good for installing the case when you first get it, but what happens if you’re out and about and you need to remove the case?  For example, what if you take your iPhone into the Apple Store for what you think is a small problem, and the Apple Store wants to exchange it?  You’ve got a problem, because most people — with the exception of a few hardcore gadget fiends — don’t just carry a tiny little allen wrench in their pocket at all times.  This included keychain tool allows you to have a hex key on you at all times, with minimal effort.  If anything in the kit could be considered fluff, it’s that zippered case.  This isn’t the first time we’ve seen such a thing included with an iPhone case, and to be honest, I just don’t get how or why anyone would use such a thing.

The case itself is gorgeous.  Constructed of precisely machined, matte anodized aluminum, the Vapor Pro features cutouts for the headphone and top mic, the volume buttons and mute switch, the dock connector, bottom mic, and speaker, and has a series of cutouts along the remaining side that, aside from looking quite nice, also allow access to the SIM card.  A “press-through”-type button is provided on the top for access to the sleep button.  Laser-etched logos are featured on the sides of the case, but are very subtle and quite classy, especially compared to the original Vapor case, which reminded me a little too much of the sort of decals you’d see on a pimped-out Honda Civic with a giant spoiler and coffee-can exhaust.  Another difference from the original Vapor case is the way that the case separates: while the old case split into one straight side piece and one piece that wrapped around the remaining three sides, the Vapor Pro splits into two L-shaped pieces, secured with two hex screws at a 45-degree angle at each corner.  One of the pieces is a matte black, while the other is more of a matte gunmetal, but which is permanently joined at the bottom-left end by another piece of matte black metal (we’ll get into that more in a moment).  The corners are lined with what appear to be thin pieces of a soft, black foam rubber.  These keep the iPhone’s steel band from rubbing on the case, and serve to provide some impact protection, in the event that the iPhone is dropped.

A wider, shallower headphone cutout helps ensure that the Vapor Pro will get along with your favorite cans

Upon installing this case on my iPhone, three things were immediately obvious:  first, ElementCase has clearly made a lot of effort around refining the feel of the Vapor Pro case.  The beveled edges are still there, but the ratio of the beveled surfaces to the front and side surfaces has changed.  It’s a small — though visible — change to the eye, but it makes a world of difference in how it feels in the hand.  The Vapor Pro is a pleasure to hold; honestly, I didn’t want to put it down.  The other apparent changes were to the cutouts in the top and bottom of the case.  The cutout for the headphone port is now wider and more shallow, making it easily compatible with most headphones.  Lastly, the cutout for the dock connector is also more shallow, improving compatibility with dock cables and — ideally — docking cradles.  It’s this last part where I ran into my first and only problem with the Vapor Pro case.  The bottom-left corner features a small lip that protrudes and just barely (we’re talking about a matter of millimeters here) prevented my iPhone from being able to dock in any cradle that I tried it in.  So sad for such a small amount of material to make such a big difference.

Sadly, this little bit of upturned aluminum keeps the Vapor Pro from docking properly in any docking cradle I own

As with the original Vapor case, the Vapor Pro’s cutout for the volume buttons and mute switch is perfectly adequate, and the push-through sleep button works like a dream.  ElementCase does include back protection in the form of an adhesive-backed carbon fiber plate, but installing it is optional.  Historically, I’m not a huge fan of sticking things to my phone, and I’m not terribly interested in changing that now.  If, however, you’re down with such things, you’ll be happy to note that the cutout for the camera and flash are sufficiently large that I wouldn’t be concerned about them causing any vignetting or flash reflection.  One thing that the kit lacks is any form of front protection.  Some would call this inexcusable, as it seems that even the cheapest third-party cases come with screen protectors these days, but I honestly don’t see it as a problem.  Not only is screen protection cheap these days, but I find that the iPhone 4’s glass is tough enough that there’s no point in getting a screen protector unless you have a need for specialized screen protection (limited viewing angle, anti-reflective, anti-fingerprint, etc.), and if that’s the case, you won’t find any of that in the el cheapo screen protectors thrown in with most cases.

Note the difference in the small section of material that covers the "death grip" spot. Whatever this stuff is, it works.

Now, I mentioned earlier that the gunmetal-gray portion of the case is permanently dovetailed with a small segment of matte-black metal.  From what I can tell, this is not the same aluminum that is used for the other half of the case, as it looks and feels slightly different; in fact, I’m not even certain that it’s aluminum at all.  One might wonder about the purpose of using a different material here, but the location makes its purpose clear: this piece of mystery material sits directly on top of the area of the iPhone 4’s steel band that is commonly understood as being the spot vulnerable to the “death grip”.  I doesn’t take a rocket scientist to come to the conclusion that this portion of the case is designed to isolate the iPhone 4’s antenna, and prevent signal degradation when held.  I have to tell you on no uncertain terms: it works.  Whereas the original Vapor case itself introduced some signal degradation simply by being on the iPhone, the Vapor Pro not only corrects that issue, but also appears to eliminate the “death grip” issue in its entirety.

So, let’s remind ourselves of the issues that plagued the original Vapor case:

  1. Uncomfortable to hold
  2. Deep, tight recess for headphone port caused compatibility problems with many headphones
  3. Deep recess for dock connector made docking the iPhone in a cradle an impossibility
  4. Signal degradation when iPhone was in the case

From where I stand, it seems that ElementCase has successfully solved three of these four issues with the Vapor Pro, and only barely fails to solve the remaining issue.

It is worth noting that the ElementCase website specifies that the Vapor Pro is currently only available for the AT&T iPhone 4.  I’m not sure exactly why this is — the volume/mute cutout appears to leave plenty of space for both configurations — but I’d guess that it has something to do with the placement of the antenna in the Verizon version.

If it could be said that ElementCase introduces a new problem with the Vapor Pro case, it’s the price.  Most people are going to flinch a little at the $150 asking price, especially considering that it’s only $50 less than a 16GB iPhone 4, and that an Apple Bumper (or one of the many third-party cases that emulate the Bumper in design) can be had for far less, and would provide very much the same functional benefit as the Vapor Pro, sacrificing only the aesthetics.

All in all, the Vapor Pro is a fantastic case, if you’re in the market for one, if your heart is set on a machined aluminum case, if you have the cash to throw around, and if you don’t plan on docking your iPhone in a cradle of any sort.

 

Product Information

Price:$149.99
Manufacturer:ElementCase
Pros:
  • Solid, precision machined aluminum, eliminates "death grip" issue", very comfortable to hold, improved cutouts improve compatibility with third-party headphones and dock connector cables, includes keychain hex tool
Cons:
  • Case shape prevents docking in some dock cradles, including the Apple universal dock, more expensive than most iPhone cases

Comments

  1. 1
    anson says:

    btw, elementcase website now has the pro-kits available for $29 for existing vapor users: screen-protector; padded zipper-case; special-tool.

  2. 2
    anson says:

    @Andy, do you think that “bump” on the bottom-left will interfere with the comfort of a left-hand user?

    I found the original Vapor case very comfortable (with bumps on the right) for the same reason a right-hand user like yourself didn’t

  3. 3
    Andy Simmons says:

    @anson, to be honest, it wasn’t the “bumps” on the original Vapor case that caused my discomfort, rather it was something about the way the edges were beveled. I don’t know if it was the angle of the bevels, or the ratio of the beveled facet surface area to the front and side surface area, but something about it caused it to feel like the edges were digging into my hand.

    Regardless, this isn’t a problem with the Vapor Pro. And for what it’s worth, even as a right-handed phone user, I do tend to hold my iPhone in my left hand when using it for all non-phone applications (web browsing, email, games, etc.), and I did not notice any discomfort whatsoever with regard to the placement of the “bumps”.

  4. 4
    anson says:

    @Andy. Darn, that’s not what I wanted to hear- now I have to figure out how to budget yet another fancy case!!!

  5. 5
    H says:

    Love the case, but man that’s just way too expensive. That’s over half of what the phone cost me!

  6. 6
    Randy says:

    I just ordered mine based on this review and look forward to getting it. Thanks!

  7. 7
    Miguel says:

    The case is lovely but the anodizing of the aluminium is pretty low quality. I’ve had it for a week and the aluminium is beginning to show through on the bottom side which gets rubbed constantly whenever you put the phone down. As for the rest – it’s great: reception actually improves slightly (I am a European GSM user) and the feel is optimal. Funnily enough it does dock properly in most of the docks I have.

  8. 8
    Oz says:

    You should checkout Gild design aluminum case from japan.
    http://www.gilddesign.com/

    I just got mine, I like it. see http://modmyi.com/forums/accessory-review/757653-gild-design-aluminum-case.html

  9. 9
    Jon L says:

    I ordered this case when it first came out. I love the look and the feel, but I have to say that was really suprised when I saw your review and you said that you had no issues with reception and service. The only complaint that I have is that I do notice a HUGE difference in the signal and reception. In areas where I will have full strength(all the bars) with the case off , I have half or less signal with the case on. I also notice that my wifi signal is significantly weaker with the case on. Lastly, the navigation app that I frequently use, Navigon, which I HIGHLY recommend, looses gps reception and malfunctions constantly with the case on. With the case off I almost never have any issues with it, and find that it is way better than the garmin navigation, the factory Mercedes and factory Lexus navigations I also have and use. Because of these issues I take the case on and off. I ended up putting on the carbon fiber back plate. I have a full body protection kit that is basically a plastic film that was custom cut then baked on the iPhone, so I didn’t mind putting the plate on because it not actually adhered to the phone itself. I gotta say the plate looks good on the phone even with out the case on, but I am a big fan of carbon fiber. I actually came across this website while searching for the case manufacturers web site to see if there were any other complaints about the reception, and to contact them and let them know how dissapointed I am that the case cost me an arm and a leg, and killed my reception.

  10. 10
    Andy Simmons says:

    @Jon L: I’m sorry that you’ve had reception problems with this case, but I assure you that I was quite thorough in testing before writing this review. After testing three previous aluminum cases for the iPhone 4, and seeing varying amounts of signal degradation among them, I was surprised to see no degradation with this case when I first put it on. I ran repeated tests with it on and off, in various environments, and whereas the worst (reception-wise) of the previous cases would present an immediate drop in signal when the case was placed around the iPhone, I could not get a significant and consistent drop by placing this case on the phone. There were minor fluctuations in signal strength with the case on, but they were no different than the sort of fluctuations that I was also seeing with the iPhone completely uncovered and laying flat on a table.

    Perhaps this is a stupid question, but… are you using it on a Verizon iPhone, by chance?

  11. 11
    alukado says:

    Vapor cases are perfect but too expensive for me, luckily, the Chinese would never let me down. I got the exactly copy from a site: http://www.slickgate.com/designers-protective-aluminum-alloy-case-bumper-w-skin-cover-stickers-for-iphone-4-purple-black_p1961.html

  12. 12
    BigB says:

    Alukado, looks like that is a regular vapor. I got my vapor pro from http://www.sqgear.com. Cheapest I’ve seen anywhere so far.

  13. 13
    Lakerstrong says:

    I decided to bite the bullet and order from SQGEAR and bigb is right. Fast shipping and great product. Will order from again

  14. 14
    Campbell says:

    worst purchase i ever made. it looked great for one day until i dropped it and not even that hard and the whole case got dented and scratched up, so it no longer looks good. It won’t fit into my docking stations and the hex key thing is just plain inconvenient. Buyer beware!! i wish i had!

  15. 15
    JayDickens says:

    Well I must say that this vapor pro is clearly a winner over the other aluminum bumpers/casing for the Iphone IV. I have had three different ones the original vapor, the Draco Deff Cleave and this one the Vapor Pro. WIth the Draco unit the degredation of reeception was mininal but the untis GPS would malfunction and could not pinpoint my location with accuracy. in addition while in some concrete buildings such as my daughter’s school I get no phone reception but with the case off I get reception for a call and data. With the Vapor case things were better and the GPS worked navigation 50% of the time. With the vapor Pro the reception virtually shows no loss and GPS works 100% of the time. Looks like they really did their homework on this one.

  16. 16
    Josh says:

    Hi just wondering if this case will work for a telus canadian iphone. Read somewhere only compatible with AT&T phones. Any help thanks?

  17. 17
    Adrian says:

    So what do you think between this and the Black Ops? Thanks!!!

  18. 18
    Cardell Ardoin says:

    This case is very cool and looks great but I can’t use my phone, the signal is horrible with case is on and without it is great. I can’t plug it into my truck only can use headphones. I wish I would have researched it before I bought it. Thanks

  19. 19
    ronn says:

    Agree with everything except the docking part. Mine works fine with it.
    So I guess the case IS perfect :-)

  20. 20
    Don says:

    I purchased the Vapor Pro. I have to tell you the bumper is the best. I had the Vapor Comp last signal. Also had the Blade. Lost signal with that one as well. However, the Vapor Pro seems to have improved my phone performance . I get signals where I did not before . Where I do get signal it is much better. This Vapor Pro is outstanding !

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