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 Touchscreen iPods + iPhones

Though Apple only recently introduced touchscreen iPods and iPhones, and designers initially struggled to develop smart cases while rushing to get into stores, there’s good news: less than two years after the iPhone’s release, the standards for great touchscreen case designs are fairly obvious. Some of the traits of a great iPhone or iPod touch case come directly from prior Click Wheel iPod designs, while others are unique to the characteristics of the versatile iPhone and less complicated touch. Refer to the prior section for additional details.

Body: Sides, Back, and Camera

Sides and backs are almost always protected in today’s iPod touch and iPhone cases, however, these elements differ between devices and have been approached with varying degrees of protection and success by developers.

Originally, the iPod touch was distinguished from the iPhone by the latter’s speaker and integrated side volume controls, but the release of the second-generation touch changed both of these things: now both devices have side-mounted volume buttons and built-in speakers. The best solutions we have seen protect the side buttons with flexible rubber, plastic, or fabric rather than leaving them exposed. Flexible, resilient rubber is also a preferred solution for protecting the iPhone’s side-mounted ringer switch, however, the majority of case makers leave it exposed.

The backs of touchscreen iPods and iPhones differ mainly in one respect: the iPhones have cameras, and iPod touches do not. To date, only two or three companies have successfully attempted to protect the iPhone’s camera: iSkin notably once used a clear hard plastic insert in an otherwise rubber rear casing, and Griffin Technology developed Clarifi, a case with an integrated lens enhancer and protector. For various and not always good reasons, most companies leave the camera exposed, and the result can be significant scratching or other issues with its lens. While we would prefer to see cases with at least part-time camera protection, the reality is that they are uncommon.

Protecting the rest of the iPod touch’s or iPhone’s back is very straightforward: opaque or clear coverage is easy to achieve with many materials, fabric, hard plastic, rubber, and otherwise. The only real challenge is in avoiding interference with each device’s wireless functionality, namely the cellular, Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth antennas in the iPhone, with Wi-Fi and Nike + iPod custom wireless in the iPod touch. Some cases, particularly metal ones, but also thick plastic ones, can interfere dramatically with these wireless signals; magnets have also been quietly discouraged by Apple for the iPhone 3G in particular. Developers need to test their cases to determine the effects of their chosen materials on wireless functionality.


Some companies have used unsightly cut-outs from their otherwise metal or plastic cases to expose the wireless antenna compartments of iPhones and iPod touches, while other companies have shifted away from materials that interfere with wireless signals for practical and aesthetic reasons. There is no single ideal solution here, but obviously, cases that offer more protection, elegantly, are preferable to consumers than ones that look like mish-mashes of materials.


One strong rear design flaw that is unfortunately increasingly common in low-end OEM cases is a wholly unnecessary cut-out circle surrounding the rear Apple logo. Such cut-outs look terrible, reduce protectiveness, and speak to the poor design considerations of their creators; the rear is better left covered, even by an opaque material, than interrupted like this.

Body: Top and Bottom, Headphone Port, Dock Connector Port, Sleep/Wake Switch, and Speakers

Top and bottom coverage varies dramatically from case to case and iPod touch to iPhone, due to differences in Apple’s placement of ports and speakers on these devices. To date, both iPod touch and iPhone models are guaranteed to have a Sleep/Wake button on top and a Dock Connector port on the bottom. The best companies protect the Sleep/Wake button with flexible rubber, plastic, or fabric; some do not. Most companies do not protect the Dock Connector port on the iPhone, due to its proximity to the bottom speaker and microphone that are commonly needed for telephone or other purposes; all three elements are therefore left exposed. Developers such as SwitchEasy and Power Support sometimes include detachable rubber or plastic Dock Connector covers, however, and companies such as Marware have come up with part-time mesh covers as well. Waterproof case makers have similarly struggled with the right balance for these features, but correctly assume that most users will not be making phone calls or using the integrated speakers underwater. Still, there is no ideal universal solution, at least yet.


iPhone case developers have generally followed the model of Click Wheel iPod cases in headphone port protection. On iPhones, the headphone port is always on the device’s top, and most commonly, it is not covered at all. In iPhone 3G cases, tailoring is preferred to enable oversized headphone plugs to connect as easily as Apple’s own, super-small ones—a problem that required different solutions such as extension cables with the recessed headphone port of the original iPhone. Some developers, including PDO, have used part-time rubber flaps to cover the headphone port when it’s not in use; this is a nice solution to prevent dust and lint from getting inside the device. Rubber is generally the ideal material to permit part-time protection and expansion for various types of headphone plugs.


The second-generation iPod touch presents different challenges. Like the first-generation model, and also iPod nanos, its headphone port is found on the bottom, extremely close to the Dock Connector port. Apple dramatically changed the shape of the second-generation touch, using tapering techniques that now render these ports curved, rather than flat. As a result of the placement and shape of these ports, and users’ interest in accessing them, most developers have chosen to just leave them entirely open, rather than covering them in any way. Some developers, including PDO, have tried part-time flaps for either the headphone port, Dock Connector port, or both. These flaps are great for pocket protection but in some cases make the use of accessories more difficult; there is, again, no ideal solution here.


Note also that the second-generation iPod touch’s speaker radiates sound through its body, with only slight venting through its bottom port holes; the iPhone instead radiates sound directly through two integrated speakers, one in its face, one on its bottom. Blocking either of these iPhone speakers effectively prevents their use, thus, most developers leave them entirely exposed, while a minority use a protective mesh instead. It is extremely important to test speaker- and microphone-covering solutions for any impact on speaker and microphone performance, such as echoing during conversations or diminished volume.

Screen and Front Facade

Front facade protection is where most of the variation in iPod touch and iPhone case design has occurred, but a consensus on best practices appears to have developed. Some developers tried to cover all of the fronts of these devices save for their screens and the iPhone’s speaker, accidentally impeding access to hidden proximity and ambient light sensors found nearby. Other developers decided to cover nothing, leaving everything from Apple’s front metal bezels to the glass screen exposed, and instead focusing all of their attention on the sides, tops, and bottoms of the devices. This approach made these cases feel incomplete—only half protective. Some companies continue to release these half cases and sell them at full prices, forcing consumers to do without screen and/or bezel protection unless they buy it separately. This is, in our view, a serious design fault. The glass used for iPod touch and iPhone screens is more resilient than plastic, but is still subject to scratching, chipping, and cracking. We have seen our own devices’ screens damaged, so this isn’t an abstract concern. Inexpensive solutions exist to offer substantial protection without in any way impeding use of the devices’ multi-touch functionality under normal usage scenarios.


The best companies have developed a two-part approach to front protection: extend the case to provide coverage for the device’s metal bezel, stopping short of the glass surface that encompasses its touchscreen, Home button, and front-facing sensors. All of the glass is then covered by an included screen protector in one of several varieties: clear film appears to be invisible; anti-glare film adds a matte layer that is easier to see under direct sun or artificial light; and mirror film makes the surface highly reflective. The vast majority of included screen film is clear rather than one of the other versions; as with Click Wheel iPod films, Power Support is one of few companies that offer films that respect apparent patent rights on this form of protection.


Another version, privacy film, adds a layer of two- or four-way black coating that prevents the screen from being viewed off-angle by curious observers; however, we have not as yet seen any privacy film that covers the entire iPod touch or iPhone face due to its impact on the aforementioned sensors, and due to a number of factors, it is also thick and almost invariably sold only as a rectangular box that sticks up noticeably from the rest of the device’s surface.


Capdase notably released a full-face privacy protector for the original iPhone some time ago. We do not regard the rectangular alternatives as complete face-protecting solutions, or generally recommend them to our readers.


Other companies, inspired by Germany’s Artwizz, have been testing hard plastic and glass screen covers with some degree of success. These covers tend to be more expensive than film and also introduce substantial manufacturing challenges, as they need to make direct contact with the iPod touch or iPhone screen in order to work; a failure to do so due to minute case or device tolerance issues can seriously reduce screen response and multi-touch performance.


It is our view that the aesthetic and convenience benefits of glass and plastic solutions are potentially considerable, however, they are in most cases outweighed by the price and manufacturing tolerance issues they introduce. Film generally works better and costs less, but this may change over time.

The most neglected element of the iPhone’s and iPod touch’s faces is the Home button. This glossy, concave button is key to accessing each device’s menus. Almost no one bothers to protect it, and few consumers appear to mind. However, some developers include a solution: special stickers, or continuations of the case’s bezel coverage with flexible plastic, rubber, fabric, or leather. Most of these options work just fine. Testing to be sure that the material does not impede button sensitivity, or accidentally trigger button presses while in a pocket, is key.

A Brief Note on Scratch, Shock and Water Protection

Protection can be understood as comprising at least three styles of coverage: scratchproofing, drop- or shockproofing, and waterproofing. Most iPod touch and iPhone 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. With iPod touch and iPhone users, the concept of shockproofing is not as critical due to their universal use of flash memory rather than hard drives; however, users often prefer the cases to be able to absorb the impact that the corners, backs, and faces of these devices will take in the event of a drop onto a hard surface. Due to warranty and design considerations, virtually all 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

Engraving and Apple logos. Unlike Click Wheel iPods, which have almost all been offered with the option of user-specified engraving, iPhone models are not offered by Apple with that feature. As such, there is no need to leave visible space on the back of an iPhone case to render anything visible. By comparison, the iPod touch can be engraved with up to two lines of text that appear, centered with the Apple and iPod logos, below the rear wireless antenna compartment. 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 as we previously noted in the Click Wheel section, 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 and iPhones 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 or iPhone 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. The only touchstones of good aesthetic design that we would cite are as follows: 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. And 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 a little odd.


The iPod touch and iPhone have not seen as many “outside the box” case designs as prior, Click Wheel iPod models, though developers such as Marware and Incipio have been experimenting with grippy, game controller-like cases, at varying degrees of success.


Durability and Quality Control. Users generally do not expect to have to replace or return their cases during the usable lifetimes of their touchscreen iPods or iPhones, 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. iPod touch and iPhone prices start at $199 and range upwards to $399. As a general rule, the less expensive an iPod is, the less users want to spend protecting it; developers initially attempted to charge premium case prices for iPhone cases on the basis that Apple was selling them for $499-$599. Those prices have fallen, and so too have the prices for cases. iPod touch and iPhone cases now generally sell for $25-$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. Once again, there are, of course, exceptions.

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