Review: XPAL/PowerSkin Gaming Case for iPhone + iPod touch
XPAL/PowerSkin's Gaming Case ($100, aka PowerSkin Boost) for iPhone and iPod touch is the latest accessory designed to enhance iOS gaming, and the rare device made to work with several generations of Apple's portable devices. Supporting all iPhones and iPod touches save for the first-generation models, the hard plastic sled not only has a built-in 2050mAh battery, but also a vibration motor and stereo speakers.
Gaming Case is much larger than most battery cases, which usually only have a chin at the bottom and some extra thickness on the back. This has both of those features, but also extends past the top of your iPhone or iPod, creating a symmetrical, rounded rectanglular shape. The front is shiny chrome, while the back is soft touch black plastic. Not only is it bigger, but it’s heavier as well: the case weighs 0.26 pounds, just a bit less than the iPhone 4S itself. As such, we can’t picture many people carrying this around in their pockets.
Even though the case does fit all of the models the company lists, it is clearly designed for iPhones rather than the much thinner iPod touches; they flop around inside too much to be practical. Once inside, the iPod’s or iPhone’s top and bottom edges are both covered, while scoops on either of the long sides allow access to the volume buttons and the side switch. The camera hole is just large enough to support the flash on the iPhone 4 and 4S, but its shape and size lead to serious diffusion issues. Because the headphone port is covered, XPAL built-in a pass-through port, and there’s also a Mini-USB port for charging with the included cable.
The battery in Gaming Case is actually just a bit larger than that in the original PowerSkin, a battery case that earned a B rating earlier this year, but the 50mAh difference between them is close to negligible. In fact, we found the Gaming Case’s battery extension to be just a little bit less than its predecessor’s: while the earlier model was able to deliver an 88% charge, we got about 86% from this one. We used the same conditions for both tests—the screen of the iPhone was turned off, it was connected to a cellular network and Wi-Fi, with push notifications turned on and nothing playing—but the differences between the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S may have played into this small discrepancy. It’s not the best result we’ve seen, but certainly not bad.
While one of the advertised features of the case is its built-in speaker functionality, we were disappointed by the actual output: the speakers don’t sound particularly great—at least not any better than the speaker on the iPhone itself. And since the speakers are on the back of the device, the sound is directed away from you. While they’re admittedly louder from that side, the volume level doesn’t seem that much greater with the unit facing towards you, as it will be in most situations. Shoulder buttons on the case give you physical control of the volume, although they seem to be backwarrds; in landscape orientation, the volume up is on the left and volume down is on the right.
As with similar products we’ve seen in the past, the “haptic feedback” Gaming Case offers is based on the low notes of the audio coming from your device. The result is somewhat weak vibrations that travel from the motors through the whole unit. Depending on the game, they’re not especially well tied to the action, but instead simply reliant on the music and sound effects. Since there’s no way for the case to know when you actually have a game running, you’ll feel the effects of any sound playing from your device, so long as it has bass.
A handful of other buttons on the case cause some actions that aren’t necessarily intuitive. On top is a power/mute button: pressing it once turns off the speakers, but does not stop the vibrations, while holding it down actually toggles Gaming Case on or off. There are also a pair of buttons on the bottom; one stops the vibrations without affecting the sound, while the other locks the screen. This is important because the case completely blocks access to the iPhone’s Sleep/Wake button. Unfortunately, XPAL/PowerSkins’s solution to this problem isn’t perfect. Instead of replicating what happens you press that button, it makes the screen go dark but leaves the app running. That means the only ways to truly lock the device are to pull it out of the case and hit the button or insure that your Auto-Lock is on.
Although it has a lot going on, none of the individual components nor the sum of them all could lead us to recommend Gaming Case. As a battery case, it’s large, expensive, and not particularly powerful. Some may appreciate the vibrations, but until there is an API that supports haptic feedback tied to the game itself and not the audio, it’s pretty pointless. The speakers are equally disappointing, and they certainly don’t improve the gaming experience at all. Combine that with poorly implemented buttons, and we see no good reason to pick this one up; it’s worthy of a C- rating.