Do phone cases still make sense?

Alex Kidman 28 September 2016


With an increasing number of phones touting their water and dust resistance, not to mention stronger glass every year, is the phone case’s future limited?

One of the first things I wanted to do when the review model of the iPhone 7 Plus came into’s office was slap a phone case on it. It’s almost a reflex action for me. New phone to test and jangle around in my bag or pocket for a few weeks? I’d better throw it in a case, just to be sure.

Here’s the issue. The iPhone 7 Plus proudly touts its water and dust resistance, making it a tougher phone than the iPhone models that preceded it. Specifically, Apple rates it as IP67, which means that it should be resistant to dust ingress, and to water for up to 30 minutes at a depth of one metre. The argument for phone cases used to be that phones were very easy to damage, but that’s not so true any more.

The iPhone 7 Plus isn’t the first phone to offer IP-rated water resistance of course. Samsung’s Galaxy S7, S7 Edge and Note 7 all have it, as did the older Galaxy S5 device, and Sony has offered it on and off on its Xperia range, depending on model, for a couple of years now. It’s even available at the lower cost end of town courtesy of the Alcatel Go Play phone.

Still, look in any retailer of phone products, and the grand mass of cases you’ll see will be for iPhones, which either means there’s market dominance at play, or iPhone owners are super clumsy. Maybe it’s a mix of both?

Still, I’m going to continue throwing cases onto my phones, for a couple of simple reasons.

The style case (for cases)

The review iPhone 7 Plus we have is the rose gold model. That may suit your style, but it doesn’t suit mine. Not at all, actually, and the Plus model arguably makes it worse because it’s so much pink to take in at once. Dropping a case on top of it reduces the pink impact markedly, allowing for other style choices.

For most of us, a phone is a multi-year engagement, and even if you’re taking advantage of the telco offers that allow you to switch up after a year (such as Telstra’s New Phone Feeling, for example) there’s still the likelihood that you might want your phone to appear a little different from time to time. Right at the moment I’ve got a plain black Incipio NGP Advanced case on the iPhone 7 Plus, but in other instances I might want something less austere and more fun on my phone. The gamut of style choices available for cases runs to every single extreme, and while there are plenty of cases that might not suit my personal taste, maybe they're perfectly in line with yours.

I do hear the argument that putting a case on a phone removes the style work done by the engineers building the phone, and that's reasonable, but only to a limited extent. Realistically most phone manufacturers have fixed on a particular style for the past couple of years and they're not moving much, especially as they don't want the other manufacturers leveraging design lawsuits against them. That kind of fixed thinking also leads to slightly silly design decisions, such as the faux speaker grille on the base of the iPhone 7 Plus that (according to iFixit's teardown) doesn't actually connect to anything at all. Staying with a straight phone design, ultimately, just leaves you as part of the pack of phone owners, rather than as an individual.

Still, that’s not the best reason to continue using phone cases.


Resistance is useless

OK, maybe that’s a little harsh, but every single time a manufacturer talks up their devices having resistance, I’m reminded of a a scene in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. It’s the one where the Vogon guard appointed to throw Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect out of the Vogon ship’s airlock continually shouts that "resistance is useless", and I kind of feel like that any time I hit someone who thinks that water and dust resistance means that their phones can be bounced around like superballs.

It’s simply not so, and even Apple admits this, albeit somewhat in the small print. Being IP67 rated could lead you to think that the iPhone 7 is a good fit for your underwater photography needs, but the clear intent here is more to lessen the instances of folks taking soggy iPhones into stores because they fell in the toilet (gross, but it totally happens) rather than allow users to enjoy underwater adventures.

How can I say that with confidence? It’s simply because while the iPhone 7 is rated for water resistance, Apple’s warranty for the device still doesn’t cover it for actual water ingress.

As such, while it’s harder to flood an iPhone 7, if it does happen you’re technically on your own. That could be at the whim and checking ability of an Apple Genius, or your ability to wheel, deal and conceal what’s happened to your phone if you do manage to drown it of course.

There’s also an argument perhaps under Australian consumer law based on reasonable expectations for a phone that’s meant to have been tested in up to a metre of water for 30 minutes, but I imagine Apple has carefully chosen its language to give it the best possible chances of winning that particular fight.

The same thing is true for front screen glass, too. Stories abound of folks persevering with broken smartphone screens for months rather than having them fixed, and while that makes my skin crawl, people do and will continue to drop phones. The glass that goes on the front of phones has improved over the years, and every year you can find new videos of glass screens that bend more than they break.

That still doesn’t matter, though, because nobody really warrants their phone screens as "unbreakable". The closest we get locally would be Motorola’s Moto X Force phone, which the manufacturer hypes as "shatterproof" in big type wherever it’s mentioned. Dig into the smaller print, however, and you read this:

"The display and embedded lens are warranted against shattering and cracking for four (4) years from the original date of purchase; scratches or other damage to the replaceable protective lens is not covered by this warranty. This phone is not shockproof or designed to withstand all damage from dropping."

So in other words, it might break anyway, and "shatterproof" in this instance just means "it has a warranty". The warranty should cover you, but it might not, and in any case all that means is a screen replacement. Thankfully, Apple’s dropped the pricing somewhat on AppleCare-related phone screen replacements to a level where it might make more sense to pick it up with a new iPhone than opt for a third party repair.


Or, you know, you could just pop a case around the phone. No, that’s not a silver bullet against all screen breakage events, but by absorbing even small amounts of shock, it lessens the odds that when you drop your phone (and you will, because everybody does) you won’t be faced with a hefty repair bill. Quite how far you take that is up to you, because there are slender cases that offer little protection and hefty ones that talk up their military specifications for protection but tend to leave you feeling as though you’ve got a tank in your pocket rather than a smartphone. Still, for the $50 or less for a phone case when you’re spending $1200+ (yes, even on a contract) for the phone, that seems like pretty cheap insurance to me.

Maybe in ten years time the developments in materials science will mean that we do have phones that drop to the ground and harmlessly bounce right back up into our hands, harnessing the kinetic energy to recharge themselves as they go, but right now, we’re not there, and that means that a case is still arguably a very sensible option for any new smartphone purchase.

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