Review: Griffin ClearBoost for iPhone
Pros: The first iPhone case to promise—and in some cases, deliver—improved cellular antenna performance, in a reasonable form factor and sold at a reasonable price. Can help stabilize shaky data and cell phone audio conditions when iPhone is in 2-3 bar range. Includes screen and substantial body protection.
Cons: Signal boost works only under certain conditions; does not appear to improve iPhone performance under weakest signal conditions. Plain-jane design; could look a little cooler for the price.
In the vast, ever-expanding world of iPhone cases and films, it would be fair to say that 10% are merely decorative, 10% are solely protective, and the other 80% are designed to be some combination of the two. Until today, however, roughly zero cases have been designed to improve the iPhone’s core functionality, a number that increases to perhaps 3% if you count the few cases with integrated video stands. Griffin Technology’s ClearBoost ($35), therefore, is a major stand-out. Described by the company as an “antenna-boosting case,” which “improves reception as it protects your iPhone,” ClearBoost is the first iPhone case with an integrated, stub-like antenna at the top, as well as the first that measurably improves iPhone cell reception—under certain conditions.
Contrast this for a moment with some of the quixotic Chinese iPhone metal shields that have appeared over the past six months, adding little to the device’s appearance and actually detracting from its reception. There was a reason, after all, that Apple enclosed the iPhone’s wireless antennas inside of a plastic housing rather than a metal one; why cover that panel with a metal JavoShield just to add a splash of color to the iPhone’s back?
Like most iPhone cases, ClearBoost is almost entirely made from plastic—here, jet black opaque plastic—and provides coverage for most, but not all of the iPhone’s body. There’s a clear glossy full face screen protector that leaves the ear speaker and Home button open, but covers the rest of iPhone’s glass front, and the case covers everything save the device’s side and top controls, top and bottom ports, rear camera, the speakerphone features and SIM card slot. As with all Griffin cases, it’s designed to fit into Universal Docks without an issue, and permit complete accessory compatibility; again, it works with everything save Apple’s packed-in iPhone Dock. Additionally, Griffin’s antenna is small and neutral enough that it doesn’t make your iPhone look ridiculous or dramatically change its pocketability; like all hard plastic iPhone cases, you’re more likely to notice the additional thickness than the stub’s added 0.6” height.
There’s a good chance that if you’re thinking of buying ClearBoost, you’re not doing so for the looks, and also aren’t doing so for complete, tank-like protection. If so, you’ll be completely satisfied on both counts; rather than borrowing the more stylish touches of Griffin’s recent Wave case, or the complete transparency of the many clear hard plastic cases we’ve reviewed, the opaque plastic shell is roughly comparable in plainness to SwitchEasy Capsules or Incase’s recent hard Slider cases, only with gray rubber accents on the back. Rubber coats the area around iPhone’s lower rear antenna housing, as well as the pinky-thick strip of antenna that runs up ClearBoost’s back and sticks out of its top. Inside the case, you can see the coppertoned metal traces of the antenna; from the outside, they’re invisible.
Over the course of five days of testing, we used a ClearBoost-covered iPhone indoors and outdoors alongside one or two iPhones without a ClearBoost case, trying various locations that were known to have great, good, or poor reception. We found that the antenna boosting performance displayed some fairly consistent characteristics: it is almost always a net positive, but it will not be a panacea for those suffering from complete service outages, and under some circumstances, it will do nothing.
The good news is that, under conditions that an unencased iPhone would report as being between 2 and 3 bars of service, ClearBoost did actually achieve a benefit. With one or two unencased iPhones next to the ClearBoost one, we saw gains of 1-2 bars under such conditions, such that the standard iPhone might be at 2 or 3 and the ClearBoosted one would be at 3 or 4. In some cases, this might mean the difference between a stable EDGE connection and one that seems to slow down or give up in mid-load of a web page, and this sort of benefit isn’t trivial. Since lots of users are living in places where 2-3 bar signal strength is common, ClearBoost can make a real difference.
On the flip side, when the uncased iPhone was at 4-5 bars, we saw basically no difference between ClearBoost’s added antenna and the bare iPhone’s; both worked the same and reported either 4 or 5 bars at the same time. Similarly, under 0-1 bar conditions for the unencased iPhone, ClearBoost had no benefit—in fact, under truly marginal conditions where the unencased iPhone was most struggling, ClearBoost’s reception appeared to be a little under the normal iPhone’s, as shown not in bars, but in the iPhone’s Field Test mode. Griffin makes no explicit promises about the antenna’s performance under varying circumstances, and acknowledges that its benefits are not the same at all stages of signal strength. It also notes that the antenna is optimized to benefit an iPhone in 850MHz mode, which is how AT&T provides coverage to 90% of the United States, and won’t necessarily do much for an iPhone roaming on another frequency band. In other words, if you’re trying to get reception in the middle of a spot without cell coverage, or transform your iPhone into a 5-bar powerhouse no matter where you are, ClearBoost isn’t going to make much of a difference.
At a $35 suggested retail price, ClearBoost sells for around a $10 premium over a plain but comparably protective Griffin or other company’s iPhone case, which strikes us as a little bit high relative to its benefit—had this been a cosmetically beautiful case at the same price, or had it provided a big reception boost under all circumstances, it would have rated a high recommendation, but as-is it offers a nice bump at a decent price. If you’re experiencing serious signal variation issues with your iPhone, you’ll find that it helps at least under some circumstances, and also provides above-average protection and looks. It’s worthy of our B+ rating and general recommendation; follow-up versions have the potential to be even more impressive.