iDesign: The Art of Designing Great iPod and iPhone Cases | iLounge Article


iDesign: The Art of Designing Great iPod and iPhone Cases

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The Art of Protecting Click Wheel iPods

Because Apple’s Click Wheel design and its similar 2001-2004 predecessors have been around for so many years, companies have been able to master the art of literally completely protecting these devices; it is possible to cover every millimeter of a Click Wheel iPod’s body with some material, affordably, while still enabling you to conveniently use its screen and controls. This fact has been at the root of our many comments over the years that certain case designs were “lazy,” “inconvenient,” or “weak;” why should users have to struggle to see or control their iPods when smarter solutions have been so widely available?

Apple was widely pilloried in 2006 for releasing overpriced, inconvenient leather cases for 2005-vintage iPods

Just as Apple spent considerable time choosing each of the Click Wheel iPod’s components, these parts require individual attention in order to offer a satisfactory combination of protection and ease of use. We go through them each in turn.

Body: Sides, Back and Front Facade

Most Click Wheel iPod cases make an attempt to cover as much of the device’s sides, back, and front facade—everything except the screen and Click Wheel—as possible. This is typically accomplished by the use of either a properly tailored or molded soft material, such as fabric or rubber, or a precision-molded hard material, such as hard plastic or metal.  It is the least difficult element of case design, and the one that requires the least discussion; nowadays, it is extremely rare to see a case that fails to cover all of these surfaces.


The only exceptions are occasional leather and fabric cases that haven’t been tailored to cover the iPod’s side corners. Though there are reasons that some developers have cited for leaving the corners open, we generally view this as a design fault, and in cases of omission, a reason that consumers may well prefer another company’s version or a different protective material.

Body: Top and Bottom, Headphone Port, Dock Connector Port, and Hold Switch

Due to the need to give users access to an iPod’s headphone and Dock Connector ports, even the best case makers have found that completely covering the top and bottom of a Click Wheel iPod can lead to problems. That said, some companies’ designs do better than others.


Though it is hardly universal, the most protective designs we have seen incorporate soft, attached, part-time coverage for the headphone port, whether it is located on the top (iPod classic) or bottom (iPod nano) of the device. This is accomplished through the use of pliable rubber or fabric in the shape of a flap that covers the headphone port when not in use, and allows it to be exposed whenever needed. Due to considerable variations in the size of headphone plugs—Apple’s are small and thin, everyone else’s tend to be larger, and differently shaped—it is ideal to tailor the headphone port opening to accommodate large and small plugs alike, rather than just fitting Apple’s unusually small housing. We often use the oversized plugs from Ultimate Ears’ custom-fit earphones as a reference: if these monsters can fully and properly connect to an iPod’s headphone port, anything can. iSkin was an early pioneer of a part-time headphone port plug, and was amongst companies that learned to taper and rubberize the headphone port hole to help accommodate larger plugs.


Apple’s Dock Connector port is another story. Again, though this is far from universal, the most protective designs we have seen incorporate either spring-loaded bottoms that open like lips, exposing this bottom-mounted port when needed, or part-time rubber/fabric flaps that can be pulled back from the Dock Connector when it’s needed. Early part-time Dock Connector protection designers include Speck and Marware; PDO’s recent rubber cases also feature examples of such a design in use. However, as desirable as Dock Connector coverage may be—the tiny pins are susceptible to lint, dust, and many other things found in pockets and bags—the recent trend for better or worse has been to omit full-time or part-time coverage. The same trend applies to the headphone port, as well. Again, this is a design decision that may reasonably lead customers to consider other, more protective case options.


The reason for omitting coverage is that some companies and users consider either immediate headphone port or Dock Connector access to be so critical to use of the iPods that coverage—even part-time—only gets in the way. Flap-style Dock Connector port covers need to be pulled back every time you want to place the iPod in a dock, connect it to a cable, or attach a bottom-mounting accessory. Depending on the thickness and material chosen for the case, having any bottom coverage whatsoever may impede the connection of certain accessories. Thus, some companies leave the Click Wheel iPod’s entire bottom exposed; others, only the Dock Connector, and still others, as little as possible, using a rubber Dock Connector port cover that can be attached or detached at will. The latter solution works, but the covers are typically easy to lose. A flip-open bottom that provides access when necessary is a good compromise solution.


One final element of the top and bottom coverage is the iPod’s Hold Switch. This part is generally, but not always, on the top of the iPod: it has always been on the top of hard disk-based iPods, iPod minis, and iPod classics, but has moved from the tops of iPod nanos to their bottoms and back up to their tops again.


Most companies leave this switch entirely exposed with a generously sized hole. Better ones use a resilient tapered rubber or other material to cover it, letting the user activate the switch with a little added pressure.


After many years of varied approaches, screen coverage has thankfully become a mandatory—and straightforward—element in Click Wheel iPod cases. The makers of hard plastic cases often design the rest of their front facade coverage around a piece of clear, hard screen-covering plastic, either keeping the rest of their cases clear, or using other elements such as dyes, second-colored plastics, or metals to mask the rest of the iPods’ plastic or metal faces. Contour Design and Power Support are amongst the earliest makers of fully clear hard plastic iPod cases; innumerable companies, notably including Belkin, have created hard shells to provide clear screen protection while bonding a separate layer of designed material to the top.


What about everyone else? Fabric, rubber, and all-metal case makers have several choices: omit screen protection, bond a piece of clear plastic to the case, or include film that covers the screen. Due to aesthetic differences between cases, there is no single best practice here, save to provide some form of protection in the case’s package rather than forcing the consumer to buy something separately. We consider the lack of screen protection to be a major flaw.


The use of soft, scratchable screen-covering plastics has been tried with limited success by many developers, especially designers of fabric cases. These plastics are often stitched into fabric cases and possess a wet, slightly wrinkled sheen, as well as the potential for prismatic distortion of the iPod’s screen. Over time, they are typically marred by contact with stronger materials, and need to be replaced, but can’t without disassembling or destroying the case. Detachable hard plastic screen protectors were also tried for years with varying degrees of success; generally, companies have dropped them, while others have improved them.


Film is thus the preferred, if not ideal solution, for those who can’t, won’t, or prefer not to use hard plastic. Early film covers were adhesive and had the potential to leave residue once removed, but modern film screen covers use static cling and form excellent bonds with Click Wheel iPod screens. While the vast majority of film solutions are produced and sold in apparent violation of patent rights that have been granted, several companies—notably Power Support—produce and sell patent-licensed films that may cost a little bit more but have no legal issues. This company’s films, unlike many others, also are designed to avoid prismatic and other visual distortions that can arise from placing an additional layer of plastic on top of the iPod’s existing glass or plastic screen layer. Other companies offer similar solutions.


Screen films now come in four dominant varieties. Clear film appears to be invisible when it is installed on an iPod’s face; anti-glare film adds a matte layer that is easier to see under direct sun or artificial light; mirror film makes the surface highly reflective; and privacy film adds a layer of two- or four-way black coating that prevents the screen from being viewed off-angle by curious observers. The vast majority of included screen film is clear rather than one of the other versions, but some developers will choose to include a specific type of non-clear film for aesthetic or other reasons.

It should be noted that Apple has in recent years shifted away from using plastic to cover iPod screens in favor of using glass. While this glass is less scratchable than the prior plastic, it is still susceptible to scratching, cracking, and shattering. Protection of some sort is therefore strongly recommended.

Click Wheel

Perhaps no element of a Click Wheel iPod is as subject to protectiveness variations as the Click Wheel itself. Over the years, pretty much everything has been tried: rubber, fabric, thin leather, customized plastic and metal solutions—the only thing that you won’t see these days is a pure, unmoving metal shield. That was attempted in flip-open form in early iPod Armor cases from Matias, and their clones; users over time rejected this solution in favor of “play-through” designs that could be used without the need for a face-obscuring flap. Some leather and fabric cases continue to employ flap-style designs, which we strongly believe to be lazy remnants of a past, inconvenient age of bad cases for PDAs. We’ve thankfully come a long way since then, and with every screened iPod now capable of playing video and games, covering either the screen or controls with a flap is less practical for users than ever.


Unlike screen protection, which works best with an integrated, properly coated hard plastic cover, the single best solution for Click Wheel coverage is film. Film enables the Click Wheel’s buttons and touch-sensitive controls alike to work without significant impediment; generally, apart from its glossiness, users don’t even know that it’s there. Apple appears to have embraced film and its close equivalents by tweaking iPod Click Wheel sensitivity slightly to allow scrolling to work at a brisk pace even when these thin protectors have been installed. Once again, Power Support dominates Click Wheel film design with a custom-tailored version known as 3-D Wheel Film, which properly accommodates the differing contours of Click Wheels and their center buttons, and again is patent-protected. Most other films, notably including generic ones from Chinese and Taiwanese OEMs, can’t get center button protection right, and thus leave this part of the Click Wheel exposed. Apart from Power Support’s tailoring innovations, there have been no significant developments in Click Wheel film coverage—texture, coloration, or so on—in years.


Over the thousands of cases we have seen, the only alternative we’ve tried that compares to film in usability has appeared in certain Belkin hard plastic cases: a thin but semi-hard clear plastic layer that is bonded permanently to the harder, thicker face protector. This solution is as attractive as the best film solution, but benefits from cosmetic and physical integration with the case, rather than the iPod itself, leaving no unsightly or dust-attracting gap between case and Click Wheel. For various reasons, it is more of a challenge to manufacture, however; tolerances need to be just right to insure that the plastic makes proper contact with the Click Wheel to enable proper capacitive touch functionality.


Other aforementioned solutions, including rubber, fabric, thin leather, and customized plastic and metal Click Wheel covers, vary considerably in convenience and user satisfaction. Click Wheel sensitivity is often impacted to at least some extent by these solutions, which are thicker and less comfortable to the finger than thin plastic. The only hybrid plastic and metal Click Wheel guard we’ve seen, on H2O Audio’s sophisticated waterproof cases, works very well but is comparatively expensive and complex to manufacture, adding a lot of thickness to the case design in the process. For most purposes, film or other thin plastic works the best.

A Brief Note on Shock and Water Protection

Protection can be understood as comprising at least three styles of coverage: scratchproofing, drop- or shockproofing, and waterproofing. Most iPod users are looking for at least scratch protection, with a sizable subset also concerned about drop/physical shock protection. It is important for developers to test their cases to insure that the materials and tailoring do not gouge or otherwise blemish devices that are inserted or removed; padding and superior molding can eliminate issues.


Many companies design their cases to withstand both iPod scratching and common drops. The latter has become somewhat less of an issue as Apple has transitioned away from shockable hard drives to flash memory. Due to warranty and design considerations, most case makers are unwilling to assume responsibility for damage to iPods due to drops or submersion in water, and only a small number of specialty cases now dominate this market.

Other Considerations

In addition to protectiveness, several other elements of good Click Wheel iPod case design are worth noting.

Engraving and Apple logos. Apple has offered a free engraving service for many iPod models, which generally places up to two lines of text on the upper rear surface of the device, etched directly into the metal. There are no statistics available on the percentage of iPods that have been engraved, nor what fraction of their owners feel the need to see that engraving on a daily basis. Few case makers appear to actively take engraving into consideration, and only one or two—notably including Incase—have ever designed cases specifically to show off what’s on the back of an iPod.


This was done at one point for the specially engraved U2 iPod series; most clear case makers merely attempt to avoid overlapping their own logos on top of Apple’s. It is a design fault, in our view, to physically expose any portion of the back of an iPod to show off a logo or engraving; even opaque protection is preferable.

Complexity, and Easy Case Removal and Insertion. More than anything else, iPods are known for the elegance of their designs, and case designs are generally expected to be straightforward—without the need for substantial user assembly, or difficulty in either insertion or removal. They may come with multiple pack-ins, expanding their utility, but when the case itself requires multiple steps to assemble, users may be unhappy.


There is no bright-line standard for case overcomplexity, but it suffices to say that users tend to prefer one- or two-piece case designs in which the developer has integrated as many of the parts as possible for them, making occasional removal and re-insertion simple. Ideally, a case should allow a user to access all of their accessories—headphones, docks/speakers, and cables—without needing to be removed.

Aesthetics. It goes without saying that the look of an iPod case is a very important, but ultimately very personal element in appealing to users; one person’s hideous design will be another’s favorite, ever. We will not endeavor to tell designers what does and doesn’t look good, beyond a few touchstones of good design: the use of common materials, such as rubber, plastic, or fabric, can be dramatically enhanced or diminished by subtle touches such as molding, tailoring, or stitching.


Thinner, less bulky designs are generally preferable to thicker ones, and the cutting-edge use of thin plastics, metals, and the like can make one case more attractive to users than another. Apparent visual simplicity is generally preferable to complexity. Of course, great designers can break some of these guidelines and still succeed; certain especially smart, unusual designs have emerged as niche/cult classics even though they’re thick, a little weird, and anything but subtle. Speck’s since-discontinued iGuy is one example of how designing for one group of users rather than the mainstream whole can generate a lot of positive reaction.

Durability and Quality Control. Users generally do not expect to have to replace or return their cases during the usable lifetimes of their Click Wheel iPods, nor do they expect to have the cases arrive in less than properly finished form. It is important for cases to be engineered and tested during the design phase for durability under common usage scenarios, and then checked during the manufacturing and shipping phases to insure that individual units conform to the final design. Many, but not all case-making OEMs are notorious for trying to cut corners—sometimes, literally—in manufacturing, resulting in large-scale problems with final products.


Simple changes to the quality of rubber, glue, or stitching can ruin otherwise great designs. Consumers should never have to fear that the items they received have been designed or assembled so poorly as to fall apart or otherwise decompose under normal use.


Pricing. Click Wheel iPod prices presently range from $149 to $249, with higher-capacity models in recent years selling for up to $349. As a general rule, the less expensive an iPod is, the less users want to spend protecting it, and thus cheaper iPod nanos typically see case prices in the $15-$30 range, while iPod classics have seen prices in the $20-$35 range. Rare is the case that merits a price higher than the ones noted here, and underdesigned generics most commonly sell at the low end of each range, or $5-$10 lower. Prices can go higher for the use of more expensive materials such as leather, carbon fiber, or precious metals, but the higher the price, the fewer users will typically be interested, and the more a developer will be perceived as out-of-touch with regular users’ needs. There are, of course, exceptions.


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