Review: Case-Mate Clear Armor for iPhone
For our money, clear, full-body protective film is the best way to protect an iPod or iPhone against common scratches and scuffs -- it leaves the device looking almost identical to how it came out of the package, adding almost no thickness while providing substantial protection. Today, with companies such as FullBodyFilms, NLU Products, Zagg and BestSkinsEver all selling protective options, the question over which is best has just become a little more complicated: Case-Mate has entered the ring with Clear Armor for iPhone ($20). Fundamentally similar to each of the aforementioned competitors, only months or years behind them in experience, Clear Armor stumbles in ways we would expect to see remedied in a future iPhone 3G version.
Like almost all of its predecessors, Clear Armor is based upon a 3M film coating that is touted as the same protector used on military helicopter blades, the benefit of which is strength, and the chief limitation texture. While clear, the film has a rippling texture that is distracting mainly when the iPhone’s screen is off, or when the device is held under certain angles in the light. Only FullBodyFilms’ superb Protection Pack for iPhone has solved this problem, offering two different types of screen protectors, one basically invisible and the other coated with an anti-glare substance; every other company uses the same film for iPhone’s back as for its screen. You apply these films with a little bit of soapy water and then use a plastic card or credit card to work air and water bubbles out of the film, without damaging the iPhone.
The single most impressive thing about Clear Armor is what you get in the package. Case-Mate’s set includes two pieces of front film and two pieces of rear film, here cut slightly differently from competitors with different segmentation in an attempt to provide superior coverage. A soapy water application solution and applicator card are included, as are instructions with a link to a web video for more visual assistance. Strictly speaking, there’s more value in this box than in FullBodyFilms’ do-it-yourself package, which offers two front covers but only one back cover and no application items. In fact, Clear Armor is comparable in pack-ins to NLU’s BodyGuardz, but $5 less expensive, and has twice as much inside as in Zagg’s $25 InvisibleShield.
Without mincing words, the problem is that Clear Armor’s tailoring needs a bunch of work. Both the front and back film pieces have obviously been mapped with some precision to match the iPhone’s curves, but the etching of those curves and holes leaves something to be desired. We found it unusually difficult to remove the back piece properly from the 3M film backing, as you get a sheet that is entirely film, designed to separate the iPhone-ready pieces from the scrap material that’s left over. Unlike competing products, the scrap stuck to the iPhone parts, leaving us with a tangle of film and some rough edges that didn’t separate properly. The photographs here show how the film looked as it was first applied, and then how it looked when it dried.
Part of the issue is that the iPhone’s many curves, holes, and buttons require challenging curves and other shapes in film; the other part is that once these shapes have been identified, they need to be cut deeply so that the film separates correctly. We found holes for the ear speaker, side volume buttons, and camera challenging to remove, and several corners of the rear film to be problematic as well, tearing rather than just coming apart. Separation ultimately yielded rough edges in some spots that don’t look great up close. That aside, the scope of coverage was similar to competing products, leaving only the iPhone’s ports, speakers, microphone, camera, top, and side buttons uncovered, plus holes at corners and a small slice on the lower back. The chrome bezel is almost entirely coated.
As a small additional offset, Case-Mate deserves some credit for taking on the task of covering the iPhone’s Home button with a useful, nicely-shaped piece of etched film that provides protection without requiring any tricky application. Similarly, while the company’s choice of 3M film has the same front texture issues we have seen in earlier iPhone films from companies other than FullBodyFilms, Clear Armor otherwise looks nearly indistinguishable from these other options. We’d still pick FullBodyFilms first, but Clear Armor is—apart from its rough edges—a fine competitor.
Rating Clear Armor is a challenge. Its positives—fair pricing, good pack-ins, and good coverage—are offset by application and tailoring issues that keep this new film option from being all that it could be. We see it as a generally recommendable product because the result of your labor is an iPhone that’s covered about as well as its competitors, at a reasonable price considering what’s packed in; however, Case-Mate could easily rate higher with a successor by further improving its tailoring.