We never would have guessed as much six months ago, but leather has turned out to be the most common material for first-generation iPhone cases. Roughly 20 of the cases we’ve tested so far with iPhone are one of five different takes on the leather theme, so we’re looking at all of them in batches of similar designs.
Four companies have released form-fitting, “play-through” iPhone cases made from reinforced leather. In alphabetical order, BoxWave has the Designio Open Screen Leather Sleeve ($44/$30), Case-Mate is selling the Signature Leather Case ($35), Macally has the mCase ($20), and Pacific Rim Technologies is selling iShield for iPhone ($35). These cases all have a design concept in common—they cover iPhone’s body while exposing its screen, bottom speaker and microphone—and vary pretty dramatically from there.
Of the four options, BoxWave’s is the least impressive. Clearly designed without access to the actual iPhone, our review sample of the Designio Open Screen Leather Sleeve was sloppy and low-class by comparison with the other options. Sold in seven colors, the inexpensive-looking leather covers iPhone’s entire back, as well as its front bezel and parts of its sides, with elastic side bands for expansion, and a Velcro bottom tab that covers the Dock Connector, holding iPhone inside. All four of iPhone’s corners are fully exposed, and there are holes cut for iPhone’s screen and ear speaker.
Except—and this is a big except—Boxwave’s ear speaker hole isn’t cut right, and obscures the speaker, rather than exposing it. Though the bottom speaker and microphone are available for speakerphone mode, the case occasionally triggers iPhone’s proximity sensor, making the screen go black and unusable as you try to dial a phone number or otherwise use the phone in your hand. We consider proximity sensor problems a major fault, as they impact the practicality of any case designed to be kept on the iPhone—a cell phone, first and foremost—which is the primary reason for this case’s extremely low rating. Add to that Boxwave’s rear design, which consists of a generic belt loop and D-ring, plus the Velcro closing tab, and you have a leather case that doesn’t look or work worth its asking price. As always, Boxwave lists it at one price ($44), but sells it at another ($30), suggesting a discount; we wouldn’t pay either for this design.
Case-Mate’s Signature Leather Case is slightly more expensive, but considerably better in design. Unlike the Designio Leather Sleeve, it was clearly designed with a sample iPhone as a reference point, as its curves and hard-reinforced interior perfectly match Apple’s shape. iPod fans will recognize its shape and look as very similar to Vaja’s classic i-Volution/i-Vod cases for iPods, which makes it the “classiest” option in this collection. You can tell the difference between its smooth, taut leather and the grainier, less expensive stuff used in the Macally and Pacific Rim cases.
Signature is sold in black, pink, or red leather, which uses slightly puffed leather to cover all of iPhone’s back except for a corner around its camera, and most of iPhone’s body, save its screen, proximity sensor, earphone speaker, bottom speaker and mic, and Dock Connector port. Full access to iPhone’s side and top switches, buttons, and headphone port are also permitted, and iPhone’s screen and Home buttons are completely exposed.
Case-Mate includes a rotating, non-ratcheting, detachable belt clip, which can be used to prop Signature up for video viewing, as well as a clear static cling screen protector that covers iPhone’s 3.5” display. This film protector barely inhibits normal use of the multi-touch interface, but Case-Mate has inserted its logo on its bottom right corner in a spot that overlaps the iPod icon on screen, as well as video playback when the iPhone’s in full-screen video mode. It’s a modest inconvenience, but an unnecessary one.
Macally’s decision to make mCase for iPhone $15 less expensive than Case-Mate’s and Pacific Rim’s cases was a wise one: mCase looks similar to Signature and nearly identical to iShield, save for the fact that it doesn’t come with a belt clip or rear nub, and it’s only available in one color (black) to iShield’s three. Because it doesn’t have a rear clip, you can’t use it as a widescreen video stand, but otherwise, the cases are nearly identical; mCase has a small Macally logo on the back, but their leathers and shapes are nearly identical. iShield covers a little more of iPhone’s face around the Home button, but not enough to matter much; neither includes screen protection.
Pacific Rim Technologies’ iShield for iPhone is, as suggested, mCase in three colors—white, red, or black. Each comes with the same detachable rear belt clip, which moves in 45 degree increments through 360 degrees of freedom. It can serve as a video stand for the iPhone inside, offering one of two different angles of recline depending on the position the clip is locked into. Of these four cases, it’s the most properly protective of iPhone’s face, save for the screen, which like all but the Signature Case it doesn’t even protect with film. Other than its price, the only issue is its non-removable belt clip nub, which makes the case technically thicker than all of the other options even when the clip itself is detached.
As between these four options, we’d be inclined to recommend three generally, but for different user preferences. mCase is the best deal of the bunch, and though it also looks less expensive than Case-Mate’s option, it lacks only for screen protection and a belt clip by comparison. You could add good screen film and come out at around the same price; the lack of a belt clip and nub may appeal to some users. iShield isn’t a great deal by comparison with the same-priced, better looking, and more protective Case-Mate design, but its color options may appeal to some people, and it’s still a good case. The Signature Leather Case is the nicest of the group, and also the most protective thanks to its included film, though its screen protector could use a modest tweak. We wouldn’t recommend the cheap-looking and feeling Designio case, which interferes with iPhone’s proximity sensor and doesn’t offer nearly as much value or class for the dollar as its alternatives.
Company and Price
Model: Designio Leather Sleeve