Maybe you've had the same thought I've had for a long time. Smartphone cases: what a scam. Phone manufacturers must be in cahoots with the case companies and the retailers, always designing unadorned, vulnerable phones and churning out new models to justify a new size of case.
But recently I've changed my tune. Just as you can't own a do-it-all jacket, you can't roll out a phone with a universal case and expect it to work for everyone. I tested this theory with the jumbo iPhone 6 Plus. (Android people, this review applies to you as well. All of the cases shown here, except IvySkin's, are available for the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 and other Android models.)
Now, that whole thing about the 6 Plus bending and breaking in your pocket was overblown, but any device this thin and expansive is vulnerable. That's Reason Number One for a protective case. Reasons Two, Three, and Four: You're an Outside reader, which means you bike, climb, and paddle, and you bring your 4G device along so you can snap photos and then find your way home. One Outside editor deals with this by stashing his phone in an empty egg carton, sliding it into a plastic bag, and carrying it in a hydration pack. That probably works as well as any of the models shown here, but since you might not carry a backpack (and as most pant designs don't accommodate egg cartons), we decided to confine our review to traditional cases.
These cases offer a spectrum of features, progressing from least protective to most—which is by no means a way of saying worst to best. There are trade-offs with bulkier cases: the whole package can start to approach the size of a jumbo bar of Irish Spring (we left out the battery-powered cases for this reason: they're great if you're always on the road, but given the improved battery life on the newest phones, and the sheer starting size, it's a bridge too far for us).
A second drawback to more built-up cases is the port covers. This is already a phone with a long breadth from ear to mouth, and non-phone-yellers like me might already hear the word "What?" enough without the muffling that comes from an obscured mic. Yet if you're going to be in wet conditions, then by all means go for more water protection.
Griffin Identity All Clear ($30)
Starting on the minimalist end, this sleek clear-polycarbonate back with clear rubber sides allows your phone to look naked while being a little safer in the event of a drop, and adds reinforcement for those moments when you do, say, move around to one too many barstools one night and forget by the fifth barstool that you placed it in your back pocket. The Identity All Clear case is rated for four-foot drops, but it's best not to try to replicate that; if it falls facedown from that height, you're at the mercy of physics and luck. The Identity can also be customized with different colors and designs. (Griffin makes a wide range of good cases that have much more protection, but their super-tough cases, in my experience, have a small squishy-button problem.)
Speck CandyShell Grip ($40)
This is a step up in protection. The more substantial rubber cushioning on the sides and back of the CandyShell Grip case—plus a raised bezel that elevates above the face of the phone—allows it to land on its face with a better chance of survival. Even better, the back is enhanced with a sticky rubber grip that keeps it from sliding off of dashboards or out of sweaty hands. One of my favorite cases purely on a style basis.
PureGear DualTek ($35)
Still in the realm of everyday cases that can fall out of your running shorts and still MapMyRun home, this slightly more built-up case adds shock protection with an extra rubber brace that suspends the phone in a sort of air pocket. Ergonomic rubber grips on the sides make it almost as slip-proof as the Speck (but not quite) and the corner bumpers are built out, as is the bezel on the front.
IvySkin Renegade ($40)
The Renegade is a more substantial but still very slim case, with hard carbon-reinforced plastic in the shell. That may be overkill, but if you do worry about the rigidity of your phone, this is by far the most unyielding of the bunch. (The trade-off is a bit more weight.) This case also adds a glare-free screen guard (the kind that peels on) to improve drop protection, but it subtracts the raised bezel, which cancels out the effect, making it still somewhat vulnerable to faceplants. Grip is not as good here as in the two cases above, but it's still a solid, handsome-looking option.
Pelican ProGear Voyager ($60)
Pelican is known for its burly cases; with the ProGear Voyager, they've stripped down to a more lifestyle-friendly version that is deceptively rich in features. The biggest step up from the cases above is a group of port covers that leave no hole exposed—but as we said above, this compromises call quality. Nor is it certified to go completely into the drink. That said, the super-durable polycarbonate shell has rubber to help it grab on to surfaces, comes with a peel-on screen protector, and has a separate snap-on front with raised bezel that allows a good margin of error for face drops. Finally, there's a holster that you can snap the phone into face-first before rappelling down a cliff. Just unholster that thing afterwards so we don't start to think you're here to read the meter.
Trident Cyclops ($40)
With the Cyclops we start to get more into tornado-proof territory. It's got a very tough polycarbonate back with cushion on the inside; is built out on the edges to prevent breakage; and has a snap-on front with an integrated screen protector that is much more likely to save your Gorilla Glass (the touch-through functionality is not bad either). This case definitely takes up more real estate in your pocket, but with port covers and extra dust filters, it's not only drop-proof but debris-proof, and it will withstand some moisture. Plus, when the time comes to toss it, the plastic is biodegradable. The trade-off with those filters is call quality, so we can't recommend it for everyday use—keep it as a backup for your more hardcore adventures.
Urban Armor Gear Rogue Folio ($40)
The folio look is a special category that's more for taking to the office, but this one made our list because it's a seriously built-up, shock-absorbing, rubber-bumpered case with a flip front that protects your phone on a 360-degree basis. (You can even talk on the phone with the cover closed.) The frog-skin texturing adds excellent grip, and though it doesn't have port covers to keep out water, it's got your phone's back—and front—if you want to toss it in your pack for a morning ride and then bring it to work. The drawback is the sheer size of the thing, but when you consider that you can slip your debit card and a few bills in the cover and leave your wallet at home, it's probably a net gain.
Lifeproof Nüüd ($100)
Though it will cost you a little more, the Nüüd will save your phone from both splashes and full-on dunks up to six feet, for at least one hour, and those port covers shun dust and dirt as well. The other great thing here is the slim profile: with a bit less cushioning on front and back and no integrated screen protector (the front clicks on tight to create a seal), it gives up a little (though just a little) in drop protection but becomes a more versatile everyday case in exchange. Note: This model goes on sale in early 2015.
OtterBox Defender ($70)
Nestling your phone inside a tough plastic shell that then sits inside a rubber slipcover, the Defender is the best all-around-protective case you can buy without using an egg carton. The glovelike fit and excellent design make this a case you can put on once and never take off; the mic port is fully exposed, if somewhat recessed, so voice calls are more or less unimpeded. The other ports have snug covers, and the built-in screen protector even covers up the home button (while still allowing full functionality of the Touch ID). The grippy rubber all around prevents sliding and drops, and like the Pelican it comes with a holster. Is that you, John Wayne?
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