Review: iPhone 4 Vapor case by Element Case
I can’t think of a more visually drool-worthy iPhone case than the Vapor case from Element Case. Machined from a solid block of aircraft grade aluminum and then anodized to create a hard protective coating, it is the only iPhone case I know of that still has a 6-week waiting period a full few months after going on sale. Starting at $80 and going up depending on options and colors, the price of the Vapor doesn’t seem to be hurting demand. But is it justified? Well, let’s take a look.
First up, the case is beautiful, not just to look at, but to hold. It’s kind of hard to explain the way it feels in the hand, but it just makes the iPhone feel cooler. It does add a bit of weight to the iPhone, and yes, even a bit of bulk, but the smooth contours of the metal somehow make it more “fun” to hold. I know that’s geeky to say, but if you’re reading this, you’re probably a geek.
The Vapor also feels cool to the touch, sometimes downright chilly, which is a cool feeling, although it warms quickly in the hand. Hopefully in 20 years there’ll be some sort of liquid-cooled version that remains cool to the touch. It’s just another tactile sensation that you sort of have to experience to understand why I’m mentioning it.
The case comes in two pieces, along with four small Hex screws (as two extras) as well as a small hex wrench to assemble the case. If you’re not used to assembling a case, don’t worry, it’s pretty easy. The larger piece of the case slides onto your iPhone 4, and it is a very snug fit. there’s a slight lining on the inside to keep the case from scratching your iPhone, which would be quite likely otherwise, as this thing is machined to fit extremely snugly. Once inside, simply put the right side pieces on, insert and tighten the screws, and you’re done. The fit and finish is of an EXTREMELY high quality, and it feels like your iPhone is inside a suit of armor. I’m not sure how much shock protection the case provides – Element Case claims the interior lining provides shock absorption, but given how thin that lining is, I have my doubts. That being said, I DID drop my iPhone on a wood floor a couple times, and both case and phone look brand new, so who knows. I would not recommend thinking you have your phone in an Otterbox case just the same.
While the Vapor case is by far the coolest looking iPhone case we’ve seen, it is not without its drawbacks, some of them fairly important. The first thing you are likely going to notice is that all the ports are accessible in the vapor case, but they are DEEPLY recessed. This means a standard audio cable will not fit in the headphone jack, and most Dock connector accessories will likely not be able to make contact. While other cases have similar issues, they do not require a hex wrench to remove the case to temporarily use an accessory, nor do you have to try to keep track of 4 tiny screws while out in the field. I found I had an ultra thin audio cable I could use in my car, and my car charging solution (which is just an iPhone cable connected to a USB/cigarette adapter) worked fine. But if you have something like a Griffin or Belkin docking/charging solution, or one of the GPS cradles you may be out of luck.
For me the lack of compatibility actually wasn’t all that bad, but I DID discover something that many will find to be more of a problem, namely, the case appears to hamper reception of both 3G and WiFi signals (I did not experience any loss of GPS accuracy as far as I could tell). Element case claims the interior lining of the Vapor will eliminate the iPhone 4’s infamous “antennagate” reception issue, and it may very well do that, however, the fact that beyond that lining you are still covering your antenna in an extra layer of metal seems to have some ill effects.
To test this, I used the free SpeedTest app. If you are familiar with the app, then you are also familiar with the results can be WILDLY inconsistent, so I repeated each test 10 times to get an overall impression. While these results may be less than scientific, they certainly showed a clear trend. The results consistently showed that my iPhone lost almost HALF its speed on both WiFi and 3G connections. The images below show the iPhone’s results with the case OFF (LEFT) and ON (RIGHT). All tests were performed while standing in the same place.
Above: 3G SpeedTest (the right image was taken with the Vapor Case ON)
Above: WiFi Test (the right image was taken with the Vapor Case ON)
Finally, I did a quick Signal strength test using the iPhone 4’s Field Test Mode. As you can see below, the reception dropped from -79 to -90 with the Vapor Case on. This may not seem like much, and perhaps it might not affect you at all in your area, but it could mean the difference between a successful and a dropped call, and for the record, I DID find I experienced more than a couple dropped calls with the Vapor Case over the month or so of testing.
Above: Field Test mode shows a -79 to -90 drop with the Vapor Case on
I’ve never wanted to recommend a product so much as I do with the Vapor case, but I just can’t. While some of the limitations of the case can be overlooked, such as most accessories not working with it and the difficulty of removing the case, I feel the reception issues just can’t be ignored. The Vapor case is beautiful – it looks great, it feels great, I love using it, and have no problem with the $80 price tag. Here’s hoping a second generation version can overcome these issues and retain the amazing look and feel.
Price: $80 and up
Pros: Looks awesome, feels awesome, provides good protection
Cons: Case appears to hurt reception of 3G and WiFi, deep recessed ports make accessory compatibility unlikely