Review: Incipio offGRID Battery Case for iPhone 5/5s
To say that offGRID Battery Case for iPhone 5/5s ($80) was late in arriving would be an understatement: we first saw it back in January at the International CES, and although it was promised for release much earlier this year, it somehow was delayed until October. As the long-awaited sequel to the original offGRID for iPhone 4/4S, offGRID now packs a huge 2600mAh battery -- the biggest we've seen in an iPhone 5 case so far. The structure is otherwise very similar to the Pro version of the case, except for the swappable batteries, and the pack-ins include a screen film, applicator card, cleaning cloth, headphone extender, and micro-USB cable.
Continuing a design element found in most battery cases these days, offGRID splits apart into separate front and back pieces. There’s the plastic sled that houses the battery, making the physical Lightning connection with the iPhone, and then a bumper that goes around the top, bottom, and sides, snapping in place to hold the handset securely inside. The back piece has a little bit of give—play with it a little bit and you’ll hear it creak—but otherwise feels sturdy. Incipio uses an opening with a series of graded ridges to expose the camera and flash, which is located inside what’s become the company’s trademark with its iPhone 5/5s cases, a cosmetic dimple that runs across the top of the case.
As you’ll find on most battery cases, the speaker and microphone along the bottom edge of the iPhone are ported out through the front of the case. That’s also where Incipio has placed its power button and battery indicator lights. Four blue LEDs show the remaining charge. Underneath are the micro-USB port, which is used for recharging the battery, plus a deep hole leading down to the headphone port. Moving up to the top, the plastic edge protector includes coverage for the Sleep/Wake and volume buttons.
The 2600mAh battery is the single largest cell we’ve seen packed into an iPhone case to date, yet offGRID isn’t bulky. Based on prior tests, we expected it to deliver a charge of somewhere between 115% and 120% to a discharged iPhone 5. We were blown away to see that it was able to deliver 142% over the course of three different charging sessions; we had to run the battery down when it got back up to 100%. To pack almost a charge and a half into a sleek case is an achievement.
Regrettably, offGRID offsets its stellar battery performance with a problem that seriously detracts from the overall appeal of the case. If you listen closely while the case is charging—say, if you hold your iPhone 5 up to your ear—you’ll hear what sound like quiet mechanical noises. That’s an odd issue, but not as problematic as the considerably more evident high-pitched squeal the case lets out when it reaches higher charge levels. We were able to hear the higher-pitched noise from a foot or two away, and while it didn’t worry us at all, that’s not the kind of sound users do or should expect from a battery case. Only a handful of wall chargers we’ve tested over the past decade have emitted similar noises; the vast majority of companies engineer their chargers and batteries to run silently. The best thing that can be said about this issue is that the sound goes away when you manually turn the battery off.
Combined with its price and generally very clean design, the stellar recharge performance makes offGRID a truly impressive battery case. If not for the high-pitched noise it emits, it would be worthy of a very high rating; it’s hard to find any single-cell battery case with as much power for the dollar. Unfortunately, the idea of walking around or sitting in a quiet place with a phone that’s making a high-pitched noise just isn’t going to fly for most people—this is a deal breaker for a case that would otherwise run Mophie’s entire line of Juice Packs right out of town. Because of this issue, offGRID regrettably earns a limited recommendation; hopefully the long-awaited offGRID Pro for iPhone 5 doesn’t suffer from the same problem.
Updated October 25, 2013: After our initial review, we received a second evaluation unit of offGRID. While the mechanical whirring noises can still be heard if the case is held up against the ear, the high-pitched squealing is gone.