Review: Griffin Clarifi Case with Built-in Close-Up Lens for iPhone 3G
Having reviewed literally thousands of iPod-related products at this point, we're faced with a difficult choice when we review new versions of mediocre cases that don't seem to be making any improvements from their predecessors: do we cover them, or ignore them and focus only on products we really like? We've decided to write about them for those readers who might care, but we're nearing a breaking point with overpriced retreads, and praying for some innovation.
That’s why we’ve clumped together reviews of three recent iPhone 3G cases into this review: they provide contrast. We’ll start with Incase’s Slider Case for iPhone 3G ($35), which continues to depress us by sticking to the same formula that we disliked in last year’s version. Then we’ll talk about Speck’s Fitted Case for iPhone 3G ($30), which does the same basic concept better, for less. And finally, we’ll look at Griffin’s Clarifi ($35), which takes a totally different and original spin on the Slider concept, doing much better for the same price.
Last year’s Slider was developed around an extremely simple formula: create a plastic shell for the iPhone that separates into two halves, the bottom part enabling that original iPhone to dock with Apple’s precision-molded iPhone Dock. Slider made some sense given that the Dock was packed in with every iPhone, and therefore, many users would be using it for speakerphone and charging purposes. This year, iPhone 3Gs don’t include docks, and there’s little evidence that people have rushed out to buy them. Rather than sliding off their bottom halves, most cases just provide smart bottom hole designs so that you can use the speakerphone by laying the iPhone 3G on its back, and mold the plastic so that the 3G fits into far more common Universal Dock accessories such as speakers.
Slider for iPhone 3G is a retread of last year’s design with the same issues we noted before. There’s no side or top button coverage, no screen protection, and no part-time bottom or headphone port coverage. The white one’s still glossy, while the black one uses a non-glossy soft touch rubber, and there’s a gunmetal version with a matte gray metallic finish. Incase is still charging $35 for each case, which is a steep price for a simple plastic case that leaves so much of the device exposed. They all look nice, but not special by comparison with the many other cases we’ve tested at or below the same price point.
Then there’s Speck’s Fitted Case. It also splits in two halves, but here in front and back pieces rather than top and bottom ones. It leaves the same parts of the iPhone 3G exposed, and offers the same degree of accessory compatibility—it works with oversized headphone plugs, Universal Docks, and everything else—except for the iPhone 3G Dock. If you’re using that one accessory, you’ll have an issue; otherwise, you won’t.
But what makes Fitted special is its novel use of fashionable fabric exteriors on top of its iPhone 3G-covering plastic hardshell. Three different patterns are available, including pinstripes, houndstooth, and plaid, each quite nice in person—Elan Form, but with more class and less protection. While Speck has been making interesting cases using fabrics for a while, including older ones like Converse shoes and newer, not as cool ones with leathers and plaids, these stand out as especially good picks—they’re tailored in a way that really improves the 3G’s appeal. Sadly, no screen protection is included with any of the Fitted Cases, a factor which lowers our rating a bit.
Finally, there’s Clarifi. There’s absolutely no doubt that the base design of the Clarifi case was inspired by Slider: like several other Griffin cases, it splits in two pieces at right around the same iPhone 3G Dock-friendly point, even though its bottom has been designed to work with virtually every other accessory without the need for removal. Griffin also includes a full screen protector and cleaning cloth, pieces missing from the Incase and Speck packages, as well as a hybrid matte and gloss body that’s actually more attractive than Slider’s. Slider is a little more protective on top, where Griffin leaves the SIM card tray exposed, but Clarifi is otherwise much more protective—and thoughtful—than Slider.
Why? Clarifi has one feature that sets it apart from all other iPhone 3G cases out there: a sliding macro lens that can be flipped into position to help the camera take clearer close-up pictures. Though the lens doesn’t perform magic and suddenly improve the iPhone’s color rendition, it does certainly improve the device’s ability to focus on nearby subjects, producing finer detail within the same resolution—under conditions explained below. Additionally, because this part is included, it’s one of the only iPhone 3G cases to actually protect the device’s camera—a component that regrettably is otherwise subject to scratches and other fogging damage.
Clarifi’s lens works best for “close but not super close” shots, with a distance of 6-10 inches between you and your subject. As these images show, the amount of additional detail captured under good light is significant when you’re some inches away from whatever you’re photographing—there is very obviously a benefit to turning the lens on under this condition.
Even when you’re closer to the subject—an inch or three away—there’s a benefit to flipping Clarifi’s lens on. The detail increases over the iPhone’s fixed lens, though less noticeably, and the resulting picture is fine, not fantastic. However, if you keep the lens on when the iPhone 3G is feet away from the subject, you begin to run into problems; the pictures become noticeably worse. Still, Griffin’s design is highly practical in that—unlike other iPhone lens accessories that have been developed—it’s extremely easy to slide into on or off positions as needed, and adds only the slightest extra thickness to the iPhone’s body. Though Clarifi doesn’t fix the iPhone 3G’s biggest hardware limitation, namely the lack of macro-ready or other autofocus, this is as smart a way of working around it as we’ve yet seen.
In our view, asking $35 for a plastic case requires one of two things: fantastic design or great protection. If a company nails both, or prices its product more aggressively, it has a potentially great product on its hands. Clarifi offers considerable protection, good looks, and a well-executed, novel feature for the price, while Fitted Case offers so-so protection and good looks for a lower price. Slider steps down in protection and looks without offering a price benefit. These three cases are certainly for different types of users, but in terms of ambition and execution, there’s no doubt that Clarifi tries harder than most of its peers, and succeeds. It’s worthy of our high recommendation, with its open control and port approach the only caveat worth caring about.