Of the thousands of cases that have appeared for iPods over the past six years, few have the potential offered by hard plastics. If you love Apple’s designs, these sorts of cases tend to show them off much better than any of their peers except for clear full-body film, and almost always offer superior anti-drop protection. But they differ in scratch protection, frills, and a number of other ways, so today we’re looking at 11 total new hard plastic offerings from major case makers Agent 18, Belkin, and Contour Design. Our Agent 18 review also includes a soft plastic case for the sake of convenience.
Agent 18’s collection of cases breaks down into four types: the company’s basic “Shields” are two-piece clear plastic shells, glossy in some places and frosted in others, while its “EcoShields” are made primarily from black plastic. It also sells “Shield Kits” that come with an additional accessory at a higher price, and now has introduced the “FlowerVest,” a flowery rubber case for the third-generation iPod nano ($20). The standard Shield comes in NanoShield ($20), Classic Shield ($25), Touch Shield ($25) and iPhone Shield ($25) versions, while EcoShields are sold for each model at the same prices, and a Shield Kit is sold for the iPod nano for $30.
There’s only one unusual thing about each of these cases: they vary in pack-ins from model to model. The iPod nano, touch, and iPhone versions of the standard Shield come with specially fit Universal Dock Adapters, but the iPod classic version doesn’t; instead, it comes with separate rear shells for the 80GB and 160GB iPod classic models. EcoShields also vary from model to model: the nano version doesn’t include Dock Adapters, but the iPod touch and iPhone versions do. FlowerVest does, but the NanoShield Kit for the iPod nano doesn’t. Instead, that model comes with a neoprene armband.
These pack-in differences seem somewhat ad hoc until you think about each product from an accountant’s perspective. The cases with Dock Adapters tend to have nothing else special about their designs or pack-ins; the iPod nano EcoShield omits the Adapter, but instead has a nicer two-tone black and clear face plate that took more work to manufacture. At a given price, with the exception of the NanoShield Kit, you almost invariably get the same level of frills; they’re just distributed differently.
Our most positive comment about all of these cases is that they’re highly compatible with iPod accessories. Regardless of whether or not they include Dock Adapters, they’re designed to work properly in Universal Docks, and do—their open bottoms and generously sized headphone port holes make them compatible with oversized headphone plugs, as well. The flip side of each hard plastic design is that they’re comparatively lacking in protectiveness and other extras relative to more aggressive competitors. Each of the hard plastic cases has a fully open bottom surface and equally open holes for the iPod or iPhone’s controls. Unlike other companies, Agent 18 makes no effort to cover the front, top, bottom, or side control holes with rubber or film; these parts are just left open. You’re paying in each case for two pieces of plastic that cover most, but not all of the iPod or iPhone inside; the iPhone and iPod touch versions leave the screen completely open, too.
Agent 18’s nano cases vary more from unit to unit than the others. EcoShield is arguably the best of the bunch thanks to its aforementioned black and clear body, which looks like a stripped-down version of Contour Design’s more expensive Showcase nano V3. The FlowerVest is a girlie two-tone design with a floral pattern etched into the front and back; our brown and blue sample looked fine other than the odd color choices. FlowerVest actually includes an integrated Click Wheel cover, but doesn’t bother to cover the nano’s screen, while the NanoShield Kit’s rear shell has a non-detachable hard plastic clip built in to attach to the black vulcanized neoprene armband that’s inside. It’s worth pointing out that unlike other companies, Agent 18’s Kit version of NanoShield doesn’t add both a rear clip and the armband to an existing package; you lose both the standard NanoShield Dock Adapter and the flat-backed rear shell in the process, muddying the value equation. The armband looks and feels nice, but unusually mounts the nano on its side rather than upside down or rightside up, like most nano armbands, placing the headphone plug and screen awkwardly off on their sides when you’re wearing it. We’re not huge fans of this design, which unlike Apple’s, Nike’s, and other top companies’ armbands also exposes the nano to both front and bottom sweat intrusion.
Overall, the Agent 18 lineup’s ratings are pretty consistent: for their generally reasonable prices, all of these cases are good but not great by comparison with other designs out there, and a step or two behind in features relative to the best 2007 releases we tested—the reason that Classic Shield rates a bit under the otherwise identical Video Shield, which was released at a time when competing options weren’t as impressive. Control protectiveness is an area of continued major omission, especially in the lower-rated iPhone Shield, while frills such as integrated video stands, belt clips, and lanyards are nowhere to be found—except if you’re willing to pay a $10 premium for the lackluster NanoShield Kit, which we think is a below-par value for this set. The highlight of all of these cases is their superior accessory compatibility, with the iPod nano version of EcoShield getting a special nod for its atypically good looks.
Company and Price
Model: NanoShield Kit
Compatible: iPod nano (video)