Review: Speck SmartFlex for iPhone 5
Since the iPhone 5 was so similar in shape to the iPhone 4 and 4S, developers had little reason to radically change their successful earlier products for the new device. Consequently, Speck's late 2012 iPhone 5 versions of CandyShell and PixelSkin HD looked nearly identical to their popular iPhone 4 predecessors, with neither strictly requiring a near-term replacement. However, Speck has continued to tinker with both designs, releasing CandyShell Edge ($40) and SmartFlex ($30) as improved sequels that could as easily have kept the prior versions' names. Price differences account more for their new ratings than anything else, but fans of either franchise will find their cosmetic changes interesting, as well.
CandyShell Edge and SmartFlex differ more in aesthetics than protection. Just like earlier CandyShells, CandyShell Edge is made from permanently bonded-together layers of hard plastic and rubber, resembling a glossy Skittle with a softer core. By comparison, SmartFlex is made from a single layer of TPU polymer that’s firmer than silicone rubber but more pliable than typical plastic shells. Inserting your iPhone 5 into either one is as simple as pushing it into the slightly-yielding frame; removal requires a quick few pushes on the case’s back to pop the iPhone out by its corners. Each case provides the same basic quantity of iPhone coverage, protecting everything except the device’s face, rear camera, ringer switch, and ports. The bottom speaker and microphone are covered by grilles with tiny circular perforations.
We’ll admit to being thoroughly confused by SmartFlex’s name: having tested SmartFlex Card and View last year before SmartFlex Shine this year, the family name seemed to be Speck’s placeholder for CandyShell-like cases that weren’t exactly CandyShells in execution. By comparison, the iPhone 5 SmartFlex isn’t a CandyShell at all—it’s effectively a third-generation PixelSkin with a slightly more complex design. The original PixelSkin was a matte rubber case with a grid of rounded squares (“pixels”) wrapped around its back and edges; PixelSkin HD was a dual-textured soft plastic case, using a glossy finish to contrast with a more detailed matte rear grid.
SmartFlex’s chief innovation is to turn PixelSkin HD’s rear grid on a 45-degree angle, roughly quadrupling the pixel density, and tilting them slightly to create light-assisted variations in color. Even without actually coloring the squares, the effect resembles a matte tile mosaic, with the gloss toned down to appear solely as a frame. Like PixelSkin HD, SmartFlex uses black to ring each case’s rear camera hole; unlike it, all of the button protectors and the Speck logo each have a separate color from the rest of the case. The gray version is accented with green, while the red version has black accents, and the black version’s buttons are a nearly black dark gray.
Whereas CandyShell Edge offers functional improvements over its predecessor with a slight step down in cosmetics due to the pinstriping, SmartFlex is functionally identical and a little better-looking. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a mosaic-like rear on an Apple device case—for instance, SwitchEasy’s Glitz used a similar trick—but it’s very nicely implemented here, adding a distinctive finish to what’s otherwise a very simple design. All you lose over a CandyShell is the hard plastic layer and its related extra rigidity, which means that SmartFlex can slightly flex on its left and right sides, allowing dust in.
The only other factor meriting attention here is pricing. Sold for $30, SmartFlex is just great enough for its price to receive a rating bump to a high recommendation and A-. When PixelSkin HD debuted at $35, we thought that it was just a bit too expensive, an issue Speck subsequently remedied by dropping the price—now you can choose from either PixelSkin HD or SmartFlex for $30. We’d go with the more distinctive SmartFlex. Although it would certainly benefit from packed-in screen protection, it’s otherwise a very nice case, and different from so many we’ve seen from other companies.