Review: Sena Cases LeatherSkin Case for iPhone/3G
Without a doubt, leather has become the manufacturer's material of choice for iPhone cases: we've seen more leather iPhone cases over the past three months than in the iPod's prior twelve. Today, we're briefly reviewing nine new leather cases that have recently been released for the iPhone: four of the cases are virtually the same "play-through" design, with small differences, while three are "flip-style" cases, and two are sleeves.
The play-through cases are PDair’s Leather Sleeve for Apple iPhone ($28), Uniea’s U-Suit for iPhone ($30), Sena Cases’ LeatherSkin Case for iPhone ($42), and Vaja’s iVolution for iPhone ($80). Each case starts from the same smart premise: you want to have full-time access to your iPhone’s screen, side controls, and Home button, as well as the ability to use the device as a handset or a speakerphone at will. Thus, they’re all built with a bunch of holes: camera on the back, speaker, mic, and Dock Connector on bottom, side volume and ringer, front screen, ear speaker, and proximity sensor.
Whenever a case has lots of holes, we feel obliged to point out that there are other cases—often silicone rubber ones—that try harder to cover all of the iPhone’s surfaces against scratches, scuffs, and other dings. Only PDair’s design tries to cover both the iPhone’s screen and Home button, using a layer of inexpensive-looking soft clear plastic that surprisingly doesn’t significantly impede use of the touch-sensitive surface. Though it doesn’t offer screen coverage, Vaja’s iVolution does something we’ve never seen before: it covers the Home button with leather, which needs to be pushed in just a little too much to register a pressing action.
Faces aside, the cases are basically peers in rest-of-iPhone coverage. Each covers the iPhone’s entire back save for a small area around the camera, most of its sides, and the parts of its face around the screen. PDair and Sena expose all four of iPhone’s corners but have snap-closed tabs to cover its top center surface, while Uniea and Vaja have better bottom corner protection and more exposed bottom speaker and microphone openings; the other cases partially obscure them, and thus cause feedback. Each case offers full-time access to the iPhone’s headphone port and Sleep/Wake button.
Reinforcement and fit are other distinguishing factors. Vaja and Uniea both use a leather-coated full hard shell that preserves its shape even when an iPhone is removed; PDair and Sena reinforce only the back shell, and leave their sides and faces soft and flexible. Uniea’s and Sena’s designs have enough give to accommodate an iPhone that’s been more comprehensively protected with body film, while the Vaja and PDair designs are tight, and a challenge to remove from a film-covered iPhone.
Each case takes a slightly different approach to belt clipping. Our review units from Uniea and Sena both included non-detachable nubs that stick out of their backs; Uniea includes a weird-looking clear plastic clip that doubles as a video stand, and Sena has a more conventional black plastic clip. You can also get the Sena case without a nub or clip if you prefer; there’s no extra charge. By contrast, PDair has a cheap screw-in plastic nub and a clip like Sena’s, and Vaja’s base $80 case doesn’t include anything. A plastic belt clip and non-detachable nub system is available as a $4 option; otherwise, the back of the case is entirely smooth. None of the clips mentioned here ratchets.
With so much in common, the two characteristics that are most likely to make or break your interest in these cases are their materials and pricing. At $28, PDair’s Leather Sleeve is the cheapest of the bunch, but also the cheapest-feeling by a mile: if it wasn’t for the front protection, it would have nothing to brag about relative to the others, save perhaps for its black, brown, red, white, and pink color options. Uniea’s U-Suit is only a hint more expensive, but generally feels better, putting aside its belt clip design and front protectiveness omissions. You can choose from four colors— white, black, purple, or red—which may or may not be to your liking. Of the bunch, Sena’s LeatherSkin Case feels like the best value for the dollar: it commands only a modest premium over the U-Suit and Leather Sleeve, but uses nicer leather, including distinctive crocodile textured versions and 14 different colors. Though we preferred the side and front internal reinforcement other cases offered, LeatherSkin manages to look extremely nice without breaking the bank.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Vaja’s iVolution. Requiring a 10-day hand-building process, it’s custom-built to your order in 39 different colors, ranging from bright to subtle shades, as well as black, gray, or white, and you get to choose one color for the front and another for the back if you desire. Vaja’s smooth, high-quality Caterina leather looks and feels at least as nice as Sena’s—it’s actually a bit better—and the detailing on its curves is, as always, nothing short of impeccable. Vaja’s logo appears in metal on the top right corner, and embossed multiple times inside; despite any shape similarities to Uniea’s U-Suit, the differences are immediately noticeable, and fully in Vaja’s favor. One looks mass-manufactured and inexpensive; the other looks luxurious and customizable, with the option to add text and graphic personalization at an additional charge.
Having said that, however, we’re not blown away by the value in any of these cases—the reason that none achieves our high recommendation. iVolution continues to get more expensive every year, even as it falls in protectiveness, making Sena’s not exactly cheap but equally protective $42 case seem like a comparative bargain. Uniea’s U-Suit is priced about right for what it offers—a decent but very similar alternative to Pacific Rim Technologies’ iShield—and the PDair design isn’t great, but isn’t bad, either, thanks to its added face protection. In an ideal world, all of these cases would cover more—enough to compete with lower-priced rubber alternatives—but if you’re looking for something to glam up your iPhone without reducing access to its various features, these are the right places to start looking.
Updated October 14, 2008: Sena has re-released the LeatherSkin Case for iPhone 3G, which is unchanged from the prior version except for slight tailoring changes. Photos of the new version appear above; our comments and rating remain unchanged, except to note that we aren’t pleased by the continued lack of screen protection—the iPhone 3G version preserves its rating solely based on pricing and the variety of colors and textures (14 total) that are available relative to competing leather options.