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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Uncomfortable to hold
- Deep, tight recess for headphone port caused compatibility problems with many headphones
- Deep recess for dock connector made docking the iPhone in a cradle an impossibility
- 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.