We’ve seen quite a few super-protective cases over the years, and the major challenge has been to build something resilient at a size people will actually want to use. Most are over-engineered and way too big, turning sleek iPhones and iPods into large plasticy beasts. LifeProof Cases’ LifeProof for iPhone 4 ($70/$80*) is different, though; it’s one of the most streamlined heavy-duty cases we’ve seen. Sold as a way to protect against water, dirt, snow, and shock — “the Four Proofs” — it’s made to be a total solution for keeping your iPhone 4 safe. But thanks to a backwards screen protector design, it’s also less functional than it really should be for the price.
The design is deceptively straightforward, as LifeProof is composed of two rather plain-looking plastic halves. From the outside, it feels somewhat thin and cheap, though this may be attributable to the fact that it only weighs 28 grams. The rear piece has an O-ring running along its inner perimeter and the two halves snap together, forming an airtight seal. At the bottom is a small latch, which serves as an additional lock and also covers the Dock Connector port. Once assembled, the case has an IP-68 rating, meaning it is dust tight and can survive immersion in water beyond one meter.
As is necessary with a waterproof case, all of the ports and buttons are covered. There are acoustic vents over the microphones and speakers, leaving them usable while protecting them against elemental intrusion—no easy engineering feat. Audio quality is affected very minimally. The headphone port is filled by one screw-in stopper; a second is included, and attaches to the company’s headphone adapter for safe-keeping. The adapter is necessary for any headphones with plugs wider than Apple’s current generation earphones, and if it’s removed, the case isn’t watertight. LifeProof’s Dock Connector port opening is also very tight; only cables with ends as small as Apple’s fit. Both cameras are covered with optical glass, and we didn’t see any sort of distortion of pictures that were taken.
We really like that there’s coverage over the side switch that leaves it still usable; it’s a feature that’s pretty uncommon. Notably, the mechanism works in the opposite direction from the iPhone 4’s integrated switch, so flipping the protrusion forward actually pushes the switch back and puts the phone on silent, as well as working in the opposite direction. The modest confusion is excusable given the protection that the case offers, and there are standard covers over the volume and Sleep/Wake buttons.
The real problem with LifeProof is the plastic sheet that covers the iPhone 4’s touchscreen. Some sort of coverage is necessary, but the company didn’t pick the best possible solution. Instead of a cover that sits flat against the screen, like ones we’ve seen on cases such as Griffin’s Survivor and Otterbox’s Defender Series, this one is slightly raised, leaving air between the two surfaces. This means that you can’t use the light touches you normally would to control the device. Rather, you must ensure that contact has been made by pressing down with force. Reduced touchscreen sensitivity takes away from the experience of using the iPhone, making this a case that you’ll really only want to use under extreme conditions—ones that literally require one or all of the Four Proofs.
Overall, what LifeProof accomplishes is somewhat impressive and somewhat disappointing. Thanks to the IP68-grade elemental sealing, it offers a degree of protection that separates it from most iPhone 4 cases on the market. But the screen cover is a serious letdown, and the price is pretty high for a case that feels as light and simple as this. We offer only a limited recommendation, specific to individuals who would use such a heavy-duty case on a daily basis; they may find it to be a practical option. Other users will be better served spending fewer or similar dollars on competing designs.
Updated March 6, 2012: LifeProof has replaced the original version of its case with a new model that supports the iPhone 4 as well as the iPhone 4S; in doing so, it’s also raised the price to $80. The company cites a number of improvements over the first model, most of which are internal. They include improved audio performance thanks to improved vent material and engineering, improved seals to increase waterproof capabilities, and some material upgrades. The most notable difference is in the screen protector: LifeProof has acknowledged the large gap that caused issues with the original model, and remedied it to a degree with a manufacturing technique that causes the plastic to lay flatter. We found it to be significantly better, although there’s still a small gap that prevents it from being ideally responsive to all touch input. A variety of colors are now available as well.
Company and Price
Company: LifeProof Cases
Compatible: iPhone 4