Review: Element Case Vapor Dock for iPhone 4/4S
Known mainly for its Formula, Ion, and Vapor iPhone cases, Element Case has released a premium desktop mount for the iPhone 4 and 4S called Vapor Dock ($120). It comes packed with less than Apple's Universal Dock and costs twice as much, but the materials and design are meant to merit a premium. Like its namesake case, this machined aluminum dock is designed to be big and bold.
Vapor Dock’s footprint is actually very similar to the Universal Dock’s: the base has a familiar rounded rectangular shape; it’s just a little wider at about 3 3/8”, with a shallower depth of 2”. Rather than using a 90-degree shape, Element slants it into a trapezoid, such that the back edge hangs just over one and a half inches from the bottom, and the front slopes down about a quarter inch lower than that. The dock weighs around 8.4 ounces, or just under double the iPhone itself. On the underside are two surface-protecting rubber feet, as well as a cable guide and recession for the built-in Dock Connector cable. One of our review units held the cable in the guide well, while the other did not; the cable just fell out every time it was put in place. Vapor Dock’s top includes a space for an iPhone, as well as a nice-feeling, UltraSuede-lined recession for, well, we’re not quite sure what; Element Case suggests it can hold rings, or a Bluetooth headset, though it’s too small for most pens.
The dock is capable of holding a variety of iPhone and iPod devices, with the iPhone 4 and 4S being the main focus. It can hold bare iPhone units, which we tested it with, but also works with those inside of Vapor Cases. Jutting up from the center of the docking cavity is the Dock Connector plug, which is fixed in place and looks very similar to Apple’s, with only small details giving it away as a clone. This cable supports syncing and charging when connected to a computer. Because there’s room on either side to support a case, unadorned units can wobble in either direction if pushed and break the electronic connection. We found that jostling the cable could also affect the connection, even though the plug was seemingly staying in place. This is indicative of a low-quality or faulty cable.
To accommodate the thickness of different models, Element Case includes two black plastic bars that can fit into the indentation behind the plug, supporting the back appropriately. The thicker of the two is for bare devices, and while we found it a bit difficult to maneuver in place the first few times, it’s just the right size. On the front of the dock are machined holes to passively amplify the sound coming from the iPhone’s speakers. Together with a small channel underneath the speaker, they do pump up the sound a fair amount, but it’s not a night and day difference.
We found the experience of actually using the iPhone 4S while docked to be less then perfect, as Vapor Dock is oddly weighted, sometimes rocking backwards when the screen is tapped or the Home Button is pressed. While it was never at risk of tipping over, this lack of balance was surprising for such an expensive dock, given that inexpensive ones have no such issues. One of our editors didn’t like the somewhat strange-feeling sandblasted finish of the aluminum, comparing it with the surface of a chalkboard, although another editor found it to be fine. We were puzzled by the inclusion of an Allen wrench, but Element Case says it’s included so that users may replace the cable if necessary. Based on our experience with the cables, that makes some sense.
Vapor Dock isn’t for everyone, and it wasn’t made to be. It does look pretty nice on a desk with an iMac, and obviously is a unique option for users who really want to carry the metal look through from a computer to a iPhone or iPod docking station. We do take issue with a few points though. The first is the price: $120 for a dock of any kind is really expensive, especially when it is so feature-bare. Some great looking—and sounding—speaker docks can be had for comparable prices, and virtually every non-speaker dock can be had for 25-50% of this one’s price. Another issue is the poor weight distribution, which would be more forgivable if it wasn’t for the cost. At this price level, that kind of usability detail should be spot-on. Combine that with the faulty cable and cable-grabbing hole, and what you end up with is a block of aluminum that doesn’t do too much, and doesn’t even do the little it’s designed to terribly well. This isn’t a dock we could recommend in good conscience to our readers, as nice as it may look.