Review: iPhone 4 Vapor case by Element Case

element vapor case iphone 4

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.

element vapor case iphone 4

element vapor case iphone 4

element vapor case iphone 4

element vapor case iphone 4

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.

element vapor case iphone 4

Issues

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.

element vapor case iphone 4
Above: 3G SpeedTest (the right image was taken with the Vapor Case ON)

element vapor case iphone 4
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.

element vapor case iphone 4
Above: Field Test mode shows a -79 to -90 drop with the Vapor Case on

Conclusion

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

Comments
19 Responses to “Review: iPhone 4 Vapor case by Element Case”
  1. James Katt says:

    Are you kidding me????

    Someone is trying to sell a case that makes the iPhone 4’s antenna receiption WORSE????

    That is a product that is DEAD ON ARRIVAL.

  2. brad says:

    Wow, good review and testing. I REALLY wanted this case. Think I may hold off now…..

  3. AIA17 says:

    Reception is a big issue, that’s too bad, the case is pretty neat. One question, why the hell leave a slot for the sim card? How often do you need to get to the sim card? of all the phones I have had maybe it was removed one time. Just butchers the case for an access that can be gotten to by removing the case; probably never need to.

  4. photomandab says:

    I have to concur about the signal issues – my case has sadly been demoted to my desk drawer – I even tried adding an extra layer of rubber (manufactured by cutting up an eraser) between the case and the metal iPhone 4 band to limit the signal drop effect – but to no avail. Shame because the case is sweet to look at…

  5. David says:

    I just came across this review as i was searching to see if anyone else was experiencing what i was hoping was only my omagination. I’ve had a ‘bumper’ on my iPhone 4 since release day. I work and live about 30 miles west of Manhattan where signal strength is a known issue. However, I haven’t had any problems this far from NYC. at least not until the last few weeks, coincidentally just after installing my Element case. My signal strength is now usually 1-2 bars instead of 3-4. I noticed I drop calls more frequently. I’m considering going back to my bumper and assuming I’ve wasted $100 on this Element case. How could they have not done sufficient testing to determine a hunk of metal on top of an already debilitated antenna design wouldn’t have a negative impact. I really love this case and don’t mind giving up the accessories I cant use but I won’t give up what a phone is intended to do for the sake of style.

  6. Chris says:

    I also did a seach not hoping to find what I thought was happening. Both my boyfriend and I got our cases about 3 weeks ago and both of us are experiencing reduced signal reception on the phones.
    I really can’t believe I waited this long for the bumper and paid 80 bucks only to have it make an already terrible reception through ATT worse.
    I hear class action law suit coming quick….

  7. Joseph says:

    It confirms what common sense suggested: you put an antenna inside a faraday an cage and…expect a miracle? No. Faraday is right. I’m grateful for this excellent review!
    Hands off if design disables function.

  8. spin says:

    Mmmmmm. Depressed before I have even started. Having it shipped to UK . As it’s so pretty maybe I can have it framed as a piece of art? Watch Sotheby’s for bids.

  9. Avery says:

    You can get the revised model of this case for $50…Go to RazorEdgeCases.com

    I’m told the revised model is made of a slightly different material (zinc, along with the aircraft-grade aluminum) so supposedly the reception issues were addressed?

  10. Joe says:

    Element Case customer service contact info phone number: (650) 486-1353

    Kills reception.
    They won’t respond to your emails about returning the case.
    They will censor you if you post anything that isn’t shining praise of their product.

  11. Joe says:

    Kills reception.
    They won’t respond to your emails about returning the case.
    They will censor you if you post anything that isn’t shining praise of their product.
    Better Business Bureau Rating: F
    http://www.bbb.org/greater-san-francisco/business-reviews/computers-supplies-and-parts/element-case-in-belmont-ca-365742

    Independent study confirming signal problem:
    http://video.gearlive.com/video/article/elementcase-vapor-4-iphone-4-antenna-q310/

    Element case admitting problems with the case:

  12. Steve says:

    This is definately not the kind of case you’d want for your iphone 4

  13. Bryan Morris says:

    So I purchased the AR-15 version of the element series. It’s essentially identical to the Vapor 4, but $20 more ($100) and cooler looking. I went through a lot to finally get my hands on one. I made these sacrifices and spent a lot of money in order have what I saw as the best functional solution to protect my precious phone. And all I can say is that I am truly saddened by the level of disappointment I feel owning this thing.
    The site boasts two important points I’m going to call BS on, so pay attention!!!! One, the company claims the case only supports apple approved charging cables. This is false. The case only supports the iPhone 4 cable. THAT’S IT!!!! Two, the company also claims the case promotes better signal strength. FALSE!!!!! The case actually chops your signal to roughly HALF of what it should be, if not drop the signal entirely.
    So to those of you considering the purchase of one of these cases from Element, let me be clear. DO NOT BUY AN ELEMENT VAPOR 4 CASE FOR THE IPHONE 4!!!! THEY SUCK, AND YOU WILL HATE YOURSELF FOR EVER BUYING ONE!!!!

  14. Mario says:

    Esta case não presta para o iphone 4 pois ela chega até aumentar a interferencia do sinal do aparelho provavelmente é pelo fato de ser de aluminio,Recomendo a todos os proprietarios de Iphone 4 a comprar uma case que seja de plastico ou silicone ou até mesmo de policarbonato para o meu aparelho comprei uma da Shield esta é nota dez; agora quem acha que a case da Vapor element 4 não tem problemas tenho uma aqui para vender e vendo baratinho R$ 50,00

  15. M.Irish says:

    I ordered the new Vapor R8 Pro from element case and they sent the wrong model. So i have left email and even called them. so far no responds. If anyone needs there phone number it’s 650-486-1353. Unfortunately no one answers any of the lines. Makes you wonder if this company really exists.

  16. M.Irish says:

    Nice case. But no customer service. This company is just about taking your money. If you have a issue with there product you will be ignored . Don’t believe me try calling for yourself. 650-486-1353

  17. Jayce says:

    DOC! You get 20Mbps internet?! I hate you…

  18. Zaher says:

    Beautiful case, YES. High price, YES; I paid $200 for one. Where on earth is it? I ordered one. Website stated shipping after December 27th. I called on 31st, no answer. I emailed, I get rude response stating, we told you it would not ship until 27th. They did say they would ship this week. Tonight I email again, once again, they remind me they stated they would not ship until after December 27th. Where is my freaking case??? I’ve called at least 10 times this week, never once got a live agent. For a $200 case, they can afford taking a call. Disgusted with their service. I sure hope if and when my case gets here, it does not have all the issues I’ve discovered online after researching reviews due to disappointing service. Overall, a very very very disappointing buying experience. At least they have a good photographer to take good pics of their cases.. Cause you may never see it for real.

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