Tough tests for smartphone covers

Smartphone covers: Which is the toughest of them all? Here's our verdict

Not all cases for smartphones are made equal. Some merely prevent scratches, while the protection provided by others can meet rigorous military standards.
Not all cases for smartphones are made equal. Some merely prevent scratches, while the protection provided by others can meet rigorous military standards.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Oops! You dropped your prized smartphone. Does it still work? How well did the phone's case protect the device? Deputy Tech Editor Trevor Tan finds out.

The smartphone is probably the most precious gadget we own these days. Many people cannot leave home without it. And most of us have dropped it at some point.

That is why smartphone case makers have been doing a roaring trade. According to ABI Research, around 55 per cent of smartphone users globally use protective cases for their devices. The figure is even higher in the United States, at 79 per cent, according to business intelligence firm Statista.

The global aftermarket revenue for smartphone cases was US$12.5 billion (S$17 billion) last year and US$11 billion in 2015. This revenue is expected to reach US$13.8 billion this year, and increase at a compound annual growth rate of 4.5 per cent over the following five years, according to ABI Research.

ABI Research senior analyst Marina Lu said: "Driven by higher cost and the higher perceived value of smartphones, consumers are more likely to purchase protective cases for their smartphones."

She added that smartphone designs are trending towards larger touchscreen displays, and designs with more glass and luxurious materials necessitate protective cases.

But not all smartphone cases are made equal. Some merely protect smartphones from scratches, while others protect devices with a rigour spelt out in some military standards.

The military standard most commonly cited by case makers is the MIL-STD-810G 516.6 drop test by the US military. It consists of 26 drops from 1.2m. The drop surface is made up of 2-inch plywood laid on top of concrete.

But since there is no body that certifies the tests, users can only believe what the case makers say.

This is where ST Digital's drop test comes in, to find out how tough current smartphone cases are. We chose the Samsung Galaxy S8 as our test smartphone, simply because it is the latest flagship smartphone and cases for it are readily available. We tested what we think are four of the toughest protective cases in the market for the S8 - the Element Case Rev, LifeProof Fre, Otterbox Defender and UAG Monarch.

For our test, we simulated two real-life scenarios.

First, we swiped the case (with the S8 in it) off a 76cm-tall table, for a landing on a tiled concrete floor. This is to simulate the all-too-common scenario of accidentally knocking our phones from tables. We did this once for each case.

Second, we dropped the phone from eye level (about 1.5m) on to a tiled concrete floor. This is to simulate those dreaded, butterfingers moments when we are snapping away with our phone. We did this once for each case as well.

We managed to get two retail S8 sets for the test. Like any true-blue kiasu Singaporean, we affixed a $15 curved tempered glass screen protector (bought from Sim Lim Square) on the S8s. However, some cases cannot accommodate the screen protector. In such cases, we tested the case without it.

After each test, we checked the S8 for physical and functional damage. We also checked if the S8's buttons and touchscreen still respond promptly when used, and if the phone is able to take photos and send messages.

With a tempered glass protector, it's a safe bet



Price: $55

Weight: 42g

In terms of design, the Element Case Rev is probably the best-looking case in this roundup. The review unit looks sleek and futuristic with its luminous red back.

The luminous back shows off diamond-like patterns, which is Rev's proprietary X-Frame chassis. This is designed to be lightweight yet able to resist twisting and bending. At only 42g, it does not add much weight to the S8.

Its protruding four-corner design helps to dissipate energy in order to withstand bumps and drops. It also meets the US military specification drop-test requirements.

Furthermore, its maker claims the Rev can withstand being tossed out of a moving vehicle travelling at 104kmh.

It is a bit hard to believe this claim, as the case has cut-outs for most of the buttons of the S8, and is not really that beefy.

However, the relative thinness of the case means it is easy to insert or remove the S8.

You can also install a curved tempered glass screen protector on the S8 with the case.

In the first drop test, the Rev landed at an angle with the display facing downwards. But the rubberised corner allowed it to bounce up before it came to a stop with the screen facing up. The S8 continued to function normally with no visible damage.

But during the second drop test, the opposite happened. Upon landing with two bottom corners hitting the ground, it bounced up and came to a stop with the screen facing down. It also made quite a horrible-sounding bang.

I found that the tempered glass screen protector had cracked at the bottom right. But the S8 escaped unscathed.

Trevor Tan

•Verdict: The Element Case Rev is the cheapest and most good-looking case in this round-up, as well as one of the lightest. But you might want to install a tempered glass protector when using it.

Front or back, it's got your phone covered


Price: $129

Weight: 39g

The LifeProof Fre is the only smartphone case in this round-up that provides full protection for the front and the back

All the buttons, rear camera, rear flash and rear fingerprint sensor of S8 are protected with this case.


The Fre is resistant to dirt, dust, snow and ice. It can be submerged in water 2m deep for up to one hour. It is also supposed to survive drops from up to 2m. It even comes with its own screen cover.

I tried fitting the S8 into the Fre with the tempered glass screen protector on, but it just won't fit.

You can do so only without a screen protector.

Even so, fitting the S8 into the Fre is a bit of a hassle. The Fre comes in two sections - front and back. You have to place the S8 into the front section and snap the back section into place. Then, close the USB-C port door and screw the headphone jack cover tightly for the full protection.

And there's moreinconvenience to pay for protection: you need to open the USB-C port door to charge, and unscrew the headphone jack cover when you want to plug in your headphones.

In addition, there is a slight recess to get to the fingerprint sensor. Thus, your fingerprint might not be recognised until your finger is placed at a certain angle.

Also, the Fre adds 5mm to the sides, 1cm to the top and 1.5cm to the bottom of the S8. So you are getting a bigger phone as a result.

But surprisingly, it does not add much weight to your S8. At 39g, the Fre is actually the lightest case in this round-up.

During both drop tests, the case bounced and flipped a few times before coming to a stop. But the S8 suffered no damage and continued to function properly. The case did suffer a slight dent on its right bottom. But otherwise, it looked as good as new.

Trevor Tan

•Verdict: The LifeProof Fre might be the most expensive case in this round-up, but it inspires the most confidence with its all-round protection.

A sturdy defender that's built like a tank



Price: $89

Weight: 62g

The Otterbox Defender does not have military drop test specifications on its packaging. In fact, the box just says it passed the Otterbox Certified Drop+ Protection test.

This means it has undergone 24 different tests, including for drop, abrasion and sweat, over a 238-hour duration. Otterbox did not specify how the tests are done.

However, the Defender is built like a tank. It feels really sturdy when you hold it in your hands.

It has a solid polycarbonate shell with a synthetic rubber slipcover. You can also feel the rubber cushion in the inners of the case.

Except for the screen, the Defender provides ample protection to the S8.

Its port cover blocks dust, dirt and lint. While there is a single rear opening for the S8's flash, camera and fingerprint sensor, it has a deep recess that reduces the likelihood of impact damage.

On the downside, it is a tad difficult to insert the S8 into the Defender. It is even more troublesome to pry the S8 out of the case.

In fact, I found that the curved tempered glass screen protector will be forced out when you try to insert the S8 into the Defender. The side cushions are so thick that it cannot fit an S8 with the screen protector I used, although it accommodates its own Alpha Glass screen protector.

The Defender is the heaviest and second most expensive case in this round-up. But it comes with a holster that works as a belt-clip as well as a hands-free kickstand.

In both tests, the Defender landed on its back with the screen facing up. This means its rubber inners were able to absorb most of the impact, thus reducing damage to the delicate screen.

And, yes, the S8 worked perfectly after both drops.

Trevor Tan

•Verdict: If you have slippery hands and do not mind its weight and bulk, the Otterbox Defender is definitely the case that inspires confidence.

Thin but tough, with layers of protection



Price: $84

Weight: 41g

The UAG Monarch case is said to be handcrafted and boasts five layers of protection. The layers consist of a "tough armour frame" that absorbs shock and impact, a top grain-leather for looks, a polycarbonate shear plate for stiffness, impact-resistant rubber, and an alloy metal frame with torx screws to keep each layer in place.

From the back, these layers make the Monarch ruggedly handsome. There are tyre-like threads on the sides with a leather back that is covered by a metal frame, with the UAG logo in chrome accent - a great case for petrol heads.

The case covers only the side volume buttons and power button, with a single cut-out for the rear camera, flash and fingerprint sensor. The headphone jack, USB-C port and speakers at its bottom are exposed.

But the best thing about the Monarch is its thinness. It does not add much bulk to the phone. It can be used with an S8 that has a curved tempered glass screen protector. It is also the second lightest case here. Thus, it provides the best handling for the S8 in this round-up.

Its thinness does not inspire confidence, but it is supposed to be able to endure twice the amount of abuse spelt out by the MIL-STD- 810G 516.6 drop test and even has a 10-year limited warranty.

During the drop tests, the Monarch made a terrible sound on impact. It sounded as if glass had shattered or something like that.

However, upon closer inspection, both the case and S8 did not suffer any physical damage.

The screen protector did not show any cracks and the S8 continued to worknormally.

I found that the case tends to land on one corner on first impact. But it always flipped and bounced to land on its back with the screen facing up. That's probably why nothing was damaged.

Trevor Tan

•Verdict: The UAG Monarch is ruggedly good-looking and it protects the phone pretty well, despite its thinness and seeming lack of protection.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 19, 2017, with the headline 'A case for getting physical'. Print Edition | Subscribe