Are cell phone cases a protective shell or a design faux pas?

iPhone Firecracker - for some reason we don't have an alt tag hereWe have all seen them: the masses of iPhone 5 users who purchase their elegantly designed phones and then wrap them in thick OtterBox cases. The idea of taking a phone designed with so much precision and concealing it in layers of rubber and silicon begs us to question why we even bother to design good looking phones in the first place.

Most of us would say that we purchase a case to protect the device from scratches or from fatal drops. When we think about dropping our phone, the biggest concern is usually the screen cracking, and in most situations – unless you have a phone case with bulky screen side protection like seen in the OtterBox series – it won’t be much help. Picking up a thin silicon case or a rubber back cover will keep the scratches away, but won’t serve as your biggest defense against a cracked screen.

So if we aren’t bulking up with thick shock absorbing cases to protect against screen damage, then what’s the point of using a case at all? If it doesn’t protect the screen and only protects against scratching, is it worth it?

You may be thinking, “Well duh! That’s what a case is for!” But what’s the point of protecting something we will never see? What is the point of keeping your phone’s back “scratch free” if, in the two years of owning that phone, you will never see it because the case is on? We have a paradox here; the idea is: let’s protect something against scratches so it doesn’t look bad, but by doing so we will never see it.

Is there a way to protect our phones from scratching while still being able to admire the great design? There are two top answers here.

The first would be to purchase an invisible skin that surrounds the device and keeps it scratch free; the company Zagg makes a giant collection of these thin protective shields that promise to do just that. If you are an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy S3 user you’ll be happy to know that Zagg produces what it calls an “EXTREME invisibleShield” that promises to not only protect your phone from scratches, but also protect your screen from hammer bashes, bowling ball drops, firecracker explosions, flying arrows and more (seriously, check out the video below).

The second option would be to skip any sort of “physical protection” and opt for an accidental damage plan instead. These can usually be purchased through your carrier or a third party warranty services like SquareTrade for around $6.99 a month or $99 in one payment. In this instance, if you drop your phone and happen to crack it, they will simply send out a brand new one to you.

In the end, I ask users to drop the bulky case unless they are working on a construction site or have hands made of butter. If you are looking for phone protection, grab a protective shield or put your money into a protection plan. Months and sometimes even years of design went into your device; don’t kill it with a case.

What do you think? Do you use a case for your device?

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Michael Archambault

Michael Archambault was an associate editor at Pocketables. He is a coder, a thinker, and a dreamer who lives on the "Microsoft side of life." His current gadget arsenal includes a Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon with Windows 8, Nokia Lumia 900 with Windows Phone 7.8 OS, and a Microsoft Surface RT.

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13 thoughts on “Are cell phone cases a protective shell or a design faux pas?

  • You’re forgetting that some people just like to get maximum resale value for their phones. That’s a valid reason to cover them up!

    • Good point John.

      As Bill stated below, the difference in resale value isn’t as much as you may think.

      Also I’m not suggesting that people not “cover up”, but instead look into options like protective shields instead. This way you can maintain and show off the design while keeping your device scratch free.

  • The question of resale value then begs an analysis of cost of case vs. return. A quick google shop search on iphone5 otterbox nets results ranging from $18 to almost $70. However, if I check Gazelle’s website for a 16gb iphone 5, the difference between “good” and “flawless” is $30 ($220 vs $250). And that is at current price. Let’s say I was selling my iphone 4S to get the iphone 5….the difference is only $10 ($160 vs $170). So the protective case must cost less than $10 in order to actually see any actual net value.

    • If you can re-use the case for the next phone, that will offer more weight to the maximum resale value argument, but considering form factor changes are the norm, this is unlikely.

  • I concur with your general position but argue that there are many reasons for casing, expressing an individual style being foremost.

    Personally, I find the phone slick; the tacky-ish silicone case I wrap mine in provides greater ease of holding and means I can prop it up against a larger array of surfaces and trust it’ll stay there.

    Also, I dislike screen protectors because they diminish the responsiveness of the screen; the case provides a smidge more protection vs the casual abuses that might lead to screen scratching.

  • Avatar of JRDemaskus

    My 32 month old 5″ Dell Streak never leaves the couch Naked.
    The steel plate reinforced flip on my padded leather case protects the screen from excessive pressure if I lean on it while in the holster on my hip.
    I have dropped the device from 6′ up to the linoleum floor multiple times. Either this is a solid device, or the padded leather did it’s job.
    The specs on the Samsung Rugby sucked!
    Build a durable device with awesome specs, and I might buy it.
    Personally, I like the look of the leather. You can keep your silicone and black rubber.
    Cases in general are mandatory in my house, and another form of personalization everywhere else.
    Oh, and yesterday, insurance wasnt worth the cost, or did we not read about the Nexus 7?

    • Hi JR!

      Remember that the MSRP of hardware in a Nexus 7 is $199 and an average smartphone like the Samsung Galaxy S3 is $550.

      Some people do like to personalize their device though and that leather Dell Streak sounds awesome. Have you thrown Android 4.0 onto it yet? :)

      • Avatar of JRDemaskus

        I forgot how cheap some of those tablets are. I am looking at much more expensive devices. I cannot afford to run out and get a new one just because.
        In the case of this Nexus 7, it was only a few weeks old, and at aprox $10 a month, the insurance would have been a good bet. And if you are out and about with your equipment, what are the chances of it being lost, stolen or broken?
        I have to admit, only our cell phones are insured, not our tablets. But they mostly stay home, and have Otterbox cases.

        • Some of us do need Otterbox cases (especially those with little kids)! If that applies to you then I’m glad they help! :)

      • Avatar of JRDemaskus

        The Dell Streak 5 is my Pride right now!
        Running 2.3.3 GB 407 Olleh ROM. That is as far as official support took this device, as far as I know.
        While flashing is fun, reading back through the custom ROM forums is not giving me confidence that that is a safe route. They are plagued with problems. And if you dont trust the carriers and OEMs, why would you trust “some guy” to program your device?
        No offense to any developers, but you got to know where I am coming from.

  • Avatar of JRDemaskus

    I am using a Black Leather PD-Air Flip case on my DS5.
    The flip is lengthwise, and has wallet pockets. It flips over the screen and does not block any ports.
    The inside most pocket on the flip goes the whole length, I cut a thin light sheet of hardened machine steel and inserted it into that pocket.
    I also built a holster out of an aluminum bracket that comes over the two ends of the device and covers the back. It has a “seatbelt” to keep it in the holster.
    The whole package wih the phone is aprox 1lb.
    I am confident that this setup is safe on my hip for an active 8 hours a day and would survive a substantial incident.

  • I hardly use cases, simply – every 2 years I get new phone and I expect device to last that long, im not bothered with scratches really, as this is a phone not a jewelry. What I dont understand is people who ask for phones to be thinner and slicker – and fanboying these values, while never removing their phones from tonnes of protective casing. This ruins the slick design. So since cases are such big market, we are not bothered about how big is phone really, why then not to increase the thickness a little giving extra day or two battery life instead. I still wonder why phones are not available in 2 versions- urban slick and nice, and outdoor – with focus on extended battery life with thicker design.

  • Because expressions of self aren’t about the vanity of the phone itself.
    Sure it’s elegant and some whacko spent a ridiculous amount of time, effort and money machining these phones to be “exclusive” looking (ha!), but most of us just want a smart phone and don’t give a crap who made it or the brand etc.
    So getting a phone case that suits your own personal taste is much more the preferred option. If it protects your phone from the damage that fate throws its way, then bonus! I know my phones have been saved from a number of potentially damaging impacts by the cases I have used where being pretentious over the look of the phone wouldn’t have helped at all.
    This is my case by the way:

    P.s. I paid $10 for it :)


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