Manufacturers love to drop terms like “Armor Aluminum” and “Ceramic Shield” to make you think your cell phone is built to survive modern warfare. But as life frequently demonstrates, your phone is really just one clumsy drop away from a costly repair.
That’s why it’s wise to cushion it in a good cell phone case.
“With premium phones costing $800 to $1,500, you want to take every precaution to keep your investment safe,” says Rich Fisco, head of electronics testing at Consumer Reports.
The hard part? Deciding which cell phone case to buy. A search for “iPhone 13 case” on Amazon, for example, yields over 40,000 results. And if you whittle that down to models with 4- or 5-star reviews, you still have 20,000 options to wade through. Talk about decision fatigue.
While you might be tempted to settle on the first case that catches your eye, it’s important to make sure it’s designed to properly protect your phone. To get a few pointers on that, I reached out to some case manufacturers and a YouTube star who has reviewed hundreds of models in the last eight years. I also asked my CR colleagues for recommendations, because they tend to be very savvy about such things, particularly when it comes to value and performance.
And, as you’ll soon see, they all confirmed that you don’t have to pay top-dollar to get a great phone case. Before you begin shopping, here’s what you need to know.
Raised Edges, Cushioning, and a Snug Fit
From sleek skins to folio-style designs that hold your credit cards, you’ll find plenty of cases to suit your style, but ultimately you want one that protects your phone from damage.
In many ways, that’s the cheapest form of insurance money can buy.
“No phone is 100 percent safe against breakage,” Fisco says, “but most cases have the basics covered.” Over the years, we’ve tested a number of phone models that were sold with a case, putting them through our challenging tumble tests, case included, he explains. Not one has emerged from the 100-drop trials cracked or inoperable.
According to Fisco and experts we consulted at Speck and Otterbox, a well-designed case doesn’t have to be too fancy. In general, you want:
- A raised edge around the screen to protect the glass from a face-down flop.
- Raised edges around the rear camera housing to protect the lenses.
- Padded corners, preferably with an “air gap” to protect the phone from impact that sends stress ripples across the glass and frame.
Those varied pain points explain why we submit each phone we test to 100-drop trials. We’re not trying to be cruel; we’re simply looking to create waist-high falls at every conceivable angle to get a true measure of the model’s durability.
Using a bulky case doesn’t automatically give you added protection, says Bryan Hynecek, executive vice president of design at Speck. A slim case can be just as effective as long as it’s snug.
Consumer Reports program specialist Emma Pyle agrees. She says the relatively thin OtterBox Symmetry ($22) has protected her iPhone 6 through years of drops. (See the full line of Symmetry cases here.)
Speck offers a Presidio 2 line for iPhone and Android models that’s similarly thin.
As you may have noticed, though, retailers have yet to create fitting rooms for phone cases. In fact, they seem to frown on you slipping the case out of its box before purchasing it. So be sure to select a model made for your specific phone, and before you put it in your shopping cart try to see what others have to say about the fit in online reviews. And if the case you receive doesn’t hug your phone like the proverbial glove, return it.
Texture and Grip
One way to avoid dropping your phone is to use a case that’s less likely to slip from your hands.
“Grip is especially important with the new glass finishes and shiny metallic edges on higher-end smartphones,” says Vincent Tse, who has tested over 200 iPhone cases for the popular YouTube channel Excessorize Me. “While they may look great, I hate how they feel in hand. I’d prefer a matte finish, some sort of texture, or anything for my fingers to grasp onto.”
Google makes fabric cases such as this $8 model for the Pixel 3a for its phones, and CR smartphone tester Antonnete Asedillo recommends them. The textured back has a nice, soft feel, she says. And it doesn’t add much bulk, allowing her to slip the phone into a small pocket.
If you own a large phone with a screen of 6.5 inches or more (measured diagonally), a case that’s easy to grip can also make the device more pleasant to hold during those marathon gaming sessions or extra-long video conference calls.
Don’t Put Too Much Stock in ‘Military Grade’
Some manufacturers claim that their cases are “military grade” certified or “MIL-STD.” While this suggests Pentagon-like protection, it might just as well be a marketing ploy.
“Military grade as some quantifiable measure of ‘toughness’ is iffy at best,” says Michael Crider, a journalist who delved into this topic for ReviewGeek. “While it generally refers to the MIL-STD 810G series of certifications, that’s so wide that it’s almost useless as a label.”
MIL-STD-810G tests are designed to measure the durability of equipment in various situations (such as in high or low temperatures), the ability to keep liquids out, and more. But manufacturers of cell phone cases don’t have to do any of those tests according to the standard to label their products “military grade.”
Crider recommends researching the testing standards laid out by the manufacturer. Most of the major ones detail on their website how they test their products, such as how many times they’ve dropped a phone in a case and from what height.
With the Incipio DualPro Case ($30), for example, the company says the case can protect a Pixel 4a against drops up to 10 feet. CR’s associate director of web development, Michael Pasacrita, likes the model’s ruggedness, particularly because he hikes and does a lot of other outdoor activities. The model is available for other Android phones and iPhones as well.
Look for a Warranty
Some phone case brands offer warranties to assure you that their cases are well made. Models by Otterbox, for example, have a 7-year replacement warranty, and Speck has options that come with a limited lifetime warranty. Casetify’s warranty is only six months, but it covers any damage or wear and tear—unlike others that cover only manufacturing defects.
It’s hard to find a warranty that covers damage to your phone, too. At the end of the day, though, this is a simple way to see how much the manufacturer stands behind its products, particularly for those no-name brands that routinely pop up online.
“The phone case industry is riddled with knockoffs,” says Kristen Tatti, a representative for Otter Products, which makes OtterBox and Lifeproof cases. “Purchasing directly from a phone case maker’s website or the place you purchased your phone is always a safe bet.” If a wireless carrier, Apple, or Samsung carries a case, it’s a good sign the brand is reputable.
Don’t Be Swayed by 5-Star User Reviews
Like many people, I often buy products based on a low price and positive professional or user reviews. But when it comes to cell phone cases, those criteria can be misleading.
“You get what you pay for” doesn’t always apply to phone cases, where high-end end options don’t always equal better protection. In fact, most of the cases we recommend in this article cost $30 or less.
And online reviews (user and professional) rarely include details on how the case withstood the test of time.
Tse recommends reading the oldest reviews on the product page, because unscrupulous vendors sometimes use an existing listing with rave reviews to sell clearly inferior products. This review hijacking is prevalent on Amazon and other sites, according to an earlier CR investigation.
What Else Can It Do?
Like a good pair of sneakers, a well-designed cell phone case can provide protection while adding a little extra flair. A see-through model, for example, might show off the phone’s inherent beauty. Why buy a phone in “alpine green” or “phantom red” only to cover it up? Other cases might spark joy in different ways. CR program manager Yael Grauer, for instance, houses her iPhone 11 in a case filled with glitter. When you turn it upside down, the glitter shifts, giving you a delightful sideshow. Who knew placing calls could be so much fun?
But a case can add more utilitarian functionality, too:
- Cases that are compatible with MagSafe make it easy to attach various magnetic accessories to your iPhone, such as a grip or a wireless charger. Non-MagSafe-friendly cases could weaken the magnetic connection between the phone and the accessories.
- Wallet cases ensure that you have credit cards and ID on you wherever you carry your phone (which, for many of us, is everywhere).
- Cases with a kickstand are convenient if you often watch videos on your phone.
- Battery cases can extend the life of your phone. CR senior editor Paul Eng has a 4-year-old Pixel 3, with a battery that barely lasted six hours. Instead of spending $70 or more to replace the battery at a repair shop, he purchased a $40 battery case, and now his phone lasts all day again. And he won’t have to buy a new phone for at least a year or two.
- Earth-friendly cases made from biodegradable or recycled materials help both the environment and your device. CR senior reporter Thomas Germain likes his Pela Google Pixel 5 Case ($60), which comes in seven colors. It’s available for multiple Android phone models and iPhones.
Do You Need a Screen Protector, Too?
Fisco doesn’t use one, saying recent versions of Gorilla Glass are very scratchproof, unlike the average screen protector, which tends to get dinged up quickly.
But if you or your children are likely to scratch up your phone, a screen protector can serve as a sacrificial glass. Better to replace a $20 cracked screen protector than pay for a screen replacement.
Whichever route you go with the case and screen protector, make it something you’ll enjoy seeing every day. After all, if you’re going to interact with it on a regular basis, it might as well make you smile.