iPhone cases are an easy target. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld just mocked them and their users in a video. Apple executives once claimed during a Q&A session that they didn’t use iPhone cases, despite selling them. And some particularly hard-core Apple fans have opined that iPhones are too beautiful to cover up. Yet cases are exceptionally popular with the rest of the population, and have been for years. Last month, an internal Apple survey revealed that 78% of iPhone owners buy cases, a number that tracks with the 80% result from a 2010 iLounge poll on the same topic. So when Seinfeld scoffs at iPhone cases and their owners, he’s actually knocking four out of five people.
What explains this chasm? Based on years of survey results, numerous discussions with developers, and comments, three factors appear to determine whether a person uses a case: the device’s initial price, the perception of likely repair costs, and the user’s wealth.
From what we’ve learned, interest in cases peaks when a device is both expensive and perceived to be fragile. Demand for iPod cases was historically highest for the $249-$499, damageable iPod classic and touch models, declining for nanos as their bodies became more resilient and prices fell, yet all but non-existent for $99 and lower shuffles regardless of their durability. iPhone cases have remained popular for years, though demand traditionally drops off for prior-generation devices, while remaining particularly strong for the glass-bodied iPhone 4 and 4S. The plastic-backed iPhone 3G was the first model to develop small housing cracks, but Apple’s switch to a glass rear panel increased the likelihood of chips and shatters.
The user’s pocketbook is also an important factor. While the initial $99, $199, or $299 a user initially spends on an iPhone mightn’t seem like a lot of money to some people, those heavily subsidized prices are significant expenses for a large percentage of the population. Similarly, a screen-shattered iPhone 4/4S costs $199 to replace—versus $29 for a shattered back—and as dropping an iPhone during its two-year expected lifespan is foreseeable, the only question is whether the user wants an insurance policy of some sort. Apple sells AppleCare+ as a $99 policy against two incidents of accidental damage, charging an additional $49 plus tax each time you replace your phone. In other words, you pay $99 up front, which jumps to around $150 as soon as your phone needs to be replaced.
If you’re a celebrity like Jerry Seinfeld or an Apple executive, going without insurance and replacing a broken iPhone out of pocket is pretty easy. But for most people, a well-designed case is a far more cost-effective alternative. The average iPhone case costs around $30, around the same price you’d pay to replace a shattered iPhone back, though far less than the cost of a shattered screen or a replacement with AppleCare+. You never know which side of a bare iPhone is going to hit the ground when it falls, giving you a 50/50 chance of damaging the expensive front or simpler back if it doesn’t make contact with one of the smaller edges.
We’ve reviewed hundreds of iPhone cases, and still think that Speck’s CandyShell Flip continues to offer some of the best anti-drop, anti-scratch protection we’ve seen in a nice-looking design. If you’re particularly clumsy or concerned about dangers in the environments where you’ll be using your iPhone, you can spend more and get an OtterBox, Survivor, or similarly ruggedized alternative. And if you want to take a risk on more modest protection, simple plastic shells can be had for $15 and up, offering anti-scratch protection and slight drop coverage. Just don’t be surprised if your iPhone winds up cracking after a big fall—two of our editors have occasionally risked their iPhones in overly thin cases, only to shatter their devices’ backs.
If you don’t want to use an iPhone case, that’s obviously your prerogative—it’s your device, your wallet, and your risk to take. Moreover, it’s possible that the partially metal back of the next-generation iPhone will improve its long-term durability enough that only cracked front screens and rear antenna panels will be major issues going forward. Based on past history, however, a case seems like a wise early investment for any iPhone, a comparatively small outlay of cash that most users will gladly pay for piece of mind. As always, you can count on us to help you find the best new options, as soon as they’re available.