Review: Uncommon Capsule Case for iPhone 3G/3GS
Though we've cut back considerably on case reviews over the past year, there's occasionally a new product important enough to merit greater attention from both us and you, and Uncommon has come up with one in its Capsule Case for iPhone 3G/3GS ($40). Uncommon's Capsule Case isn't just a plastic shell for these iPhone models, but rather the product of a truly interesting process that has the potential to transform the entire market for iPod, iPhone, and eventually iPad protectors: it starts with you accessing a web site, completely customizing the photography or artwork you want to wrap around your device, and then placing an order for the case to arrive at your chosen address. Suddenly, your iPhone 3G or 3GS has a truly protective shell that looks exactly -- well, almost exactly -- the way you want it to look, and you've never had to visit a store to make the purchase. It's exciting, and though not yet perfect, it's so close that it's surely ready for prime time.
Step back three months to the Consumer Electronics Show where Uncommon debuted prototypes of the Capsule Case featuring licensed images from various artists—a quiet debut by comparison with Case-Mate’s big, more impressively ready-to-go unveiling of a similar customization service for iPhone and iPod touch shells. Case-Mate showed off a beautifully animated web site populated with trippy, colorful artwork that could be hand-positioned piece-by-piece by the user or used unchanged as originally intended by the artist. The finished product was a simple, thin rear shell akin to Incipio’s Feather, only with art inked into the outer coating. Uncommon’s version was a complete case—slide-off bottom, substantial, side- and bezel-covering top, with button protectors for the volume controls and the Sleep/Wake button. This was a bona-fide good case, we could tell in an instant. But how would it be customized?
Uncommon launched its web site with a Flash-based interface that made layout of the iPhone’s graphics simple: a window opens, giving you the choice of uploading artwork or taking images from the company’s gallery, while noting a 300dpi resolution for printing on the case. Images are supposed to be “at least 2000 x 2000 pixels in size” in JPG format—4-Megapixels—so we picked two 21-megapixel images from a Canon 5D Mark II that could easily be cropped while serving as solid tests of the process’s color fidelity and resolution output capabilities. Resizing and rotating the image was simple; finding the right crop wasn’t, as there’s a dashed line outside the case’s body that indicates how the image will extend over the case’s top, sides, and bottom past the obviously visible rear surface. It would be nice for the web site to include a tool that fills those areas completely with black—matching the forced black front bezel and button protectors—for those whose images don’t wrap as neatly around the case’s sides. That aside, the site works well, saving your images to a personalized account and charging you the $40 plus shipping for the case; three or four days later, the case arrives in the mail, sealed in a box and a silver pouch with an optional velvet pad to insert in the interior top shell.
Also interesting is Uncommon’s free iPhone app, which enables direct-from-iPhone case layout just like the web page, as well as something sort of incredible: direct-from-iPhone photography for the image. Load the app, snap a photo of something that interests you, pay for the case, and it arrives—imagine the potential of being anywhere, snapping a photo of anything, and having a case just show up a few days later. The web app even offers black and white or sepia filters for the photo, though it should be noted that the 2- and 3-Megapixel cameras of the iPhone family are below the specs Uncommon suggests for web-submitted photos, and thus won’t look as hot as pictures you take with a better camera and submit through the other interface. Those seeking better results from the app should stick with images from the company’s stock art gallery, which are available and editable if you don’t want to use the iPhone camera.
The best news about Uncommon’s process is that the final product is very, very similar to what you lay out using the tool. We deliberately laid out our cases to see whether the seams, camera hole, and other features of the case would be in proper alignment with the uploaded image, and they were spot-on: the slide-off bottom piece is printed properly with overlapping imagery in the lip that slides under the rest of the shell, so the seam between the two pieces is as minimal as possible. Uncommon’s ink transfer process is claimed to be long-lasting and durable—something we’ll be able to assess better over time—and has a nice glossy but not overly shiny finish.
Only one thing was off: both of the images on the cases were dimmer than the ones on the computer screen. The difference wasn’t huge enough to ruin either of the photos, but they could have stood to be a little brighter. Details were appropriate to a roughly 300dpi color print, which is to say great by the standards of any other photo-customized case or skin we’ve seen before for iPods or iPhones, but not as crisp as might be accomplished through more expensive printing techniques.
Color fidelity aside, our only issues with the Capsule Case relate to its fit and protection: there’s no screen film included in the package, a miss at the $40 price point, and depending on your iPhone and whether you’ve inserted that velvet pad or not, you may find the case’s top shell to be on the overly snug side—only a problem when you want to pull the whole thing off. The bottom hole is large enough to permit the connection of many cabled docking accessories, and the top hole accommodates Apple’s and slightly larger headphone plugs, not the largest ones out there.
Though we consider the absence of screen film to be non-trivial, an omission that normally would knock a case like this down into our B+ rating category, the quality of the rest of the case and the nearly flawless transfer of user-uploaded imagery onto the shell is impressive enough to earn Uncommon’s first product our high recommendation. We can’t wait to see how it does with iPod touch and iPad versions in the near future.