Materials aside, hard cases for the iPhone fall into three broad categories: ill-conceived, well-intentioned and nice but not great, and thoroughly impressive. Over the next day, we’re going to briefly review eight recent iPod cases that range in price from $20 to $50, and in design from one end of that spectrum to the other: four are made mostly from metal, the other four mostly from plastic. This review covers the metal cases: JAVOedge’s JavoShield for iPhone ($20), Innopocket’s Metal Deluxe Case ($30), and identical PDair and Wireless Ground cases called Aluminum Metal Case – Flip Type ($28) and Monaco Aluminum Case ($40), respectively.
The remaining cases in this roundup all have a lot in common: they are heirs to the iPod Armor legacy started by Matias, and continued by myriad other companies: InnoPocket’s Metal Deluxe Case, PDair’s Aluminum Metal Case – Flip Type, and Wireless Ground’s Monaco Aluminum Case could easily be coming from the same factory—the latter two most definitely are. They’re all made from thin but sturdy aluminum, with a hinged front that opens to let the iPhone in, and neoprene to keep the metal from scuffing the iPhone’s back, face, or sides. InnoPocket’s design opens from the side, and has decent padding; the other two open from the top, and their padding has an unfortunate tendency to stick a little to the iPhone.
It’s worth explaining at this stage that, despite their different brand names, many cases are purchased from factories called OEMs or ODMs, which produce goods for resale under different badges, offering packaging or small branding marks to differentiate one company’s product from another. Consequently, we just happened to receive boxes from PDair and Wireless Ground on the same day, each containing the same four iPhone cases: black and silver iPhone-sized aluminum enclosures, two with built-in hard clear screen protectors, two without. Pink versions are also available, and each comes with the same pack-ins: a detachable plastic belt clip, plastic belt clip nub, and a lanyard necklace. Notably, InnoPocket’s Metal Deluxe Case comes with a metal clip nub and nicer belt clip, but no lanyard; this isn’t a loss, as we wouldn’t expect any person to actually wear a metal-encased iPhone around his or her neck.
The open-faced PDair/Wireless Ground cases and the Innopocket design have basically the same approach to iPhone coverage and access, which is to say that they don’t cover enough but provide plenty of access. Every part of the iPhone you might need to access is left open, and no stickers, rubber plugs, or other pack-ins fill the gaps. InnoPocket exposes a bit more of iPhone’s face, leaving the entire area around its ear speaker and Home button open; the PDair/Wireless Ground cases cover more. All three cases provide access to iPhone’s Dock Connector, bottom speaker and microphone, but Innopocket’s design is more open.
As a consequence of its open bottom design, Metal Deluxe Case also exposes more of iPhone’s back, particularly around the antenna compartment; with this case, iPhone’s wireless functionality doesn’t suffer. PDair and Wireless Ground’s version uses ventilated strips of metal to cover the iPhone’s back and sides; we briefly saw the phone’s signal strength nosedive during testing, but it came to rest at a bar below normal with these cases on. Needless to say, we wouldn’t pick these cases as tops for use of iPhone’s wireless features.
We noted in our review of PDair’s similar Aluminum Metal Cases for iPod touch that the company offered a choice between a hard plastic screen protector, which renders iPhone’s screen unusable unless you open the case, and no protection at all. The same thing is true here: the PDair and Wireless Ground Cases both eschew a smarter compromise solution in favor of letting the consumer pick from two bad options. InnoPocket’s single protector-free solution isn’t better; other companies do a better job of protecting the iPhone while covering it.
Overall, for $30, the Metal Deluxe Case is a good but not great design, offering a better than typical belt clip and solid, nice-looking protection for parts of the iPhone while ignoring other parts altogether—a flaw common to peer-priced, flat B-rated cases we’ve tested. The PDair and Wireless Ground cases would have rated a little under that, but for the signal strength issue we saw when we put the iPhone inside of them. That knocks them down a full grade level, and beyond that, the only reason for the difference in their ratings is pricing: we favor products with lower standard prices over those that keep changing all the time. PDair always sells its versions of these cases for $28. Wireless Ground sells its for $40, but offers on-site discounts that bring them down to lower prices; at the time of this review, a “holiday sale” has it running for $25. In other words, you might get the Wireless Ground package cheaper, but you might not. Make of that what you will; in both cases, we’d pass.