Review: Incipio Focal Camera Case for iPhone 5/5s
By all indications, Incipio is no longer content to keep pumping out variations on the same products for each of Apple's devices. The first major clue to this was its acquisition of Braven in 2013. At the 2014 International CES, it showed off a wealth of new accessories that were more than just protective cases. Among them was Focal Camera Case for iPhone 5/5s ($70), a hard plastic two-piece case that transforms an iPhone into something closer to a traditional point and shoot camera using a contoured design and the addition of new electronic physical buttons.
Focal splits down its vertical axis into one small and one large piece. both made of plastic, the former is designed to look like brushed metal on the back, while the latter has a slightly rough texture. It’s augmented by a faux leather-covered hand grip, which adds about 0.15” to the overall thickness. Hidden underneath, and accessible from the inside of the case, is a coin cell battery. This bump makes it very comfortable to hold the iPhone in the same way that you would grip a pocket camera.
Incipio incorporated button protection into the case with pieces of plastic that are connected to the body, offering an appreciated level of tactile feedback. The Lightning and headphone ports are easily accessible, while the microphone and speaker are partially covered for protection; series of small holes let the audio in and out. There’s also a wrist-sized lanyard, which can be removed from the case if you choose.
While the case looks and feels nice while offering a very good level of protection, that’s just part of the story. What’s really new here is the inclusion of Bluetooth 4.0, and four physical buttons along the bottom of the iPhone’s right edge. They work in conjunction with a free app—but notably only that app. From left to right, there’s a power button that can also be mapped to trigger other features, a set of zoom in/out buttons, and a shutter button. With the app launched, you hold down the power button for two seconds to initiate pairing, after which you can start shooting away. Focal’s battery is rated to last for 300 hours, with a setting in the app allowing you to choose whether the case automatically turns off after 10 minutes, 30 minutes, or one hour.
The app is nicely designed, offering some different functionality than Apple’s built-in camera application. You can flip through different flash modes, overlay a grid and/or level, and set photo timers or a burst mode. Once you’ve done so, the controls work just as they should: the plus and minus buttons activate the iPhone’s digital zoom, while the shutter button is very responsive, as it must be. If there was a way to access the app as quickly from iOS as the integrated Camera app, which you can instantly use from the iPhone’s lock screen, it would be easy to love.
Focal does exactly what it’s supposed to do, and works well: it’s comfortable to hold, and easy to pair with your device and then start shooting away, so long as you’re using Incipio’s camera app. But the big question it raises is: “why?” The iPhone’s volume up button already works as a physical shutter control, accessible across Apple’s Camera app and software from many third parties. Pinch-gesturing the screen to access digital zoom is less than ideal, but the value of digital zoom is questionable anyways, as it’s simply cropping the full-sized 8-Megapixel image, and degrading the overall quality of the shot. Improving access to this feature is Focal’s primary reason for being, but the feature isn’t especially compelling.
Overall, Focal earns our limited recommendation. We appreciated the elegance of its features, how well the controls worked, and the fact that it’s not just another “me too” accessory. We definitely appreciated that Incipio tried to do something that hasn’t been seen before. The problem is just that the functionality isn’t worth $70, particularly when you’re limited to using it with a single app. A small subset of iPhone users with be pleased by the quality of the case combined with its special features. Most people will hang onto the $70, or put it towards actually superior camera optics such as Olloclip’s lenses.