Review: The Joy Factory RainBallet for iPhone 4
Truly waterproof cases aren't easy to manufacture, and to completely protect a device as complicated as the iPhone 4 while allowing full use would be an impressive feat -- one that some of the world's best waterproof case developers have shied away from attempting. We have seen a variety of compromise water-resilient styles in the past, from simple bags such as those from Aquapac and Dry Corp to more tailored options including offerings from H2O Audio and InnoPocket -- all with varying degrees of success. RainBallet ($50) from The Joy Factory offers yet another option, though with some pretty glaring caveats.
Unlike rivals that conspicuously claim certain standards of submersibility, The Joy Factory is somewhat unclear about just how protective the case is. Its website uses the word “waterproof,” and there are promotional images showing it at least somewhat submerged, and a video of a man using his iPhone normally after being pushed into a pool. Yet Joy Factory makes no specific claims as to submersion safety, saying only that the case “resists damage from rain, water jets, sweat or splashes”—no mention of underwater. In fact, the disclaimer included in the packaging makes it clear that the case is rated IPX5, meaning that it is protected against water jets but not immersion. This is an important fact, and one that could potentially be misinterpreted: this case is not meant to be dropped or held in water.
In terms of design, RainBallet is rather unique. It is composed of two hard plastic halves attached by a hinge at the bottom. The rear shell’s interior has three red rubber bumpers that act as barriers between the iPhone 4 and the hard plastic. On the back, there’s a depressed segment in the middle, while each side has an opening through which an armband could be strung—though one is not included. The rear camera is covered by a piece of transparent plastic. There are also three screws that serve to hold the case shut, and the printed message “Align to Lock.”
The locking mechanism works pretty well. Included in the package is a coin with the phrase “Use Me to Lock” on one side. Each screw turns 90 degrees clockwise, and in doing so moves an internal locking mechanism. It’s important to be careful during this process, because it is possible to close the case without creating an airtight seal if the plastic halves are not completely flush. When they are, though, the iPhone 4 is fully protected, or at least as much as it is going to be. At times, we noticed an unnerving grinding noise of the lock against the plastic case, but not against the iPhone 4 itself.
Covering the front bezel is hard rubber with a pattern of sunken dots. At the bottom is an depression for the Home button, which requires significant force to actually press through. There’s actually so little tactile feedback that double clicking becomes very difficult. Along the top there are three openings: ones for the ambient light sensor and front camera are covered in clear plastic, while the earpiece has an “Intelli-filter” covering that allows sound through but not water. It’s worth noting that the coverings for both cameras are recessed and lie flat against the glass surfaces.
Taking up most of the face is a clear, thin plastic screen cover. Unlike the camera protectors, it isn’t completely hard and has a bit of give. This means that it does not sit completely flat against the iPhone 4’s glass touchscreen; it actually tends to bubble up in the center, so the usability of the screen is somewhat diminished. Because there is air between the layers, a harder press is required to activate the screen; typing is noticeably more difficult than other tasks because the plastic frame comes right to the edge of the screen and can get in the way of the outer characters on the keyboard.
With the exception of another Intelli-filter covered hole for the microphone on the bottom of the case, there are no openings or button passthroughs on the edges of RainBallet. This means that the volume buttons, side switch, headphone port, noise-canceling microphone, and most importantly Sleep/Wake switch are completely inaccessible. While the screen-locked iPhone 4 can be turned on via the Home button, the only way to turn the iPhone 4 off while it is in the case is to allow it to fall asleep due to inactivity. This is one of our biggest issues with the case; it could and should have been engineered with proper button coverage.
The Joy Factory really seems to be trying to sell RainBallet as a solution for turning the iPhone 4 into a waterproof camera more than anything else. When no flash is used, the plastic that covers the camera does not significantly affect the quality of the photos; we saw only a modest degradation in the pictures we took. With the flash on, however, they are completely blown out and ruined. The case does remain usable for phone calls, although the quality of audio transmitted is very poor—it is difficult to make out what is being said. Music and voices coming out of the speaker also sound rather muffled. Incoming calls, however, sound about the same as they would on an uncovered iPhone 4. There is no way to access either the headphone port or the Dock Connector port while the case is on, either.
Ultimately RainBallet does generally what the company claims: for a reasonable $50 price, it mostly protects the iPhone 4 against the elements and makes it safer to use at the beach, by the pool, or in the rain. It’s designed to be a more usable water-resistant solution than tossing the iPhone into a Ziploc-style bag, and at that, it succeeds. Yet the compromises that had to be made are real. Poor audio quality, next to no button access, diminished screen responsiveness, and the inability to take pictures with flash are all real concerns. It’s a pretty good case, but it has serious issues; for that reason, it earns a B- rating. Users who are willing to make sacrifices in usability for the protection may be well served by The Joy Factory’s design.