IF YOU TAKE YOUR SMARTPHONE into the backcountry or down on the river — and most people usually do, for better or worse — you need a great waterproof case. The risk is twofold: First, if you don’t have a case, you don’t take photos or videos of your adventure because you’re afraid to drown your smartphone. Second, you can take photos anyway and get some great shots . . . until you fumble your phone into the river. That means no photos and a dead phone. Great.
For the world’s most popular smartphone, the Apple iPhone, there are three waterproof cases that rise to the top. Plus, each of the three manufacturers produce waterproof cases for the popular Samsung Galaxy line of smartphones, too. I took a closer look at three of the best waterproof case options for the iPhone 5 and iPhone 5s, and I expect the overall results to map well to their Galaxy-based versions. (If you’re looking for iPhone 6 waterproof cases, check out the list at Wicked Cool Bite.) Here there are:
Incipio Atlas ID
These are all excellent, can’t-go-wrong waterproof, rugged cases — though they do all have their own pros and cons.
Basic Specs for Waterproof iPhone Cases
As for pros, they all are essentially waterproof for down to 6 feet underwater for up to 30 minutes. That means if you drop your iPhone down into a 10-foot pool of water while fishing, you better dive your ass down and retrieve it asap if you have any hope of smartphone survival — the water pressure or time on the bottom might defeat the seals. On the flip side, you can video the catching of a fish and then dunk your iPhone down underwater to capture the release where the fish swims off. Or you can take a photo or video of bare feet and wiggling toes underwater at the beach.
One of my favorites is videoing family and friends when they jump into a lake or swimming pool. You can hold your iPhone above water to capture the jump then slip it underneath the surface — before they hit water — to get the underwater shot with bubbles and the cool deceleration.
Of course, there’s a downside to using your iPhone for this: Risk. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. You’ve got a $600 device wrapped up in a case that could fail due to user error or (less likely) manufacturer defect. Occasional, careful use? You bet. Scrambling along rivers and streams, hiking through mud, riding motorcycles in the dust, and dropping your iPhone in the forest. Yes. Yes. Yes.
For rough and tumble water play, though, I have to recommend a grabbing one of the best dedicated waterproof cameras available today. Starting at prices as low as $139, waterpoof cameras can be a compelling way to get higher-quality footage without risking your smartphone.
As for call quality, every case resulted in slightly muted calls for the caller — but little-to-no issues for callers on the other end.
Still, there’s no denying the desire to use your iPhone in wet, wild and rugged places. Check out these three waterproof case options:
Note: While there are some waterproof cases available for the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus right now, I wouldn’t trust any of them with my own iPhone 6, much less with any memories I captured on video. It’s better to wait a bit until the trustworthy manufacturers deliver. If you have an iPhone 6 or 6 Plus, check out “The Best Waterproof Cases for iPhone 6” at WickedCoolBite.com for updates.
Incipio ATLAS ID Waterproof Case
The best thing about the Incipio ATLAS ID is its slim construction paired with a high-quality tempered glass screen protector. It feels great. The overall fit and finish is excellent. On the downside, getting your iPhone in and out of the ATLAS requires technique and attention. The case also works well with the iPhone 5s Touch ID fingerprint security system. Customers in the U.S. who buy the U.S. version (at a slightly higher cost than international versions) can register for a warranty that not only covers the case for manufacturer defects but also covers the contents — your iPhone — in case of damage sustained while inside the case. This is a pretty amazing feature, but it does require some hoops — to register, you’ll need to download a free ATLAS app and register by identifying your iPhone and snapping a photo of your receipt (online or retail).
LifeProof frē Waterproof Case
The LifeProof frē waterproof case for iPhone is the slimmest waterproof case around, and because of that slimness feels the best in your hand or pocket. It comes in a whopping ten color options, including camo. The frē case for the iPhone 5s use a thin polymer film over the home button that lets Touch ID continue to function. Instead of using a rubbery foam back panel to create the seal between the two halves of each case — like the ATLAS ID and Preserver cases — the LifeProof frē uses a bright yellow gasket. What’s nice about the yellow gasket is that it’s easy to examine for debris like dirt, sand, or hair, all of which can compromise any seal. The frē also boasts a warranty water protection program, but it also requires a few hoops. To get it, you have to buy the case and the $10 add-on directly from LifeProof or Verizon in the U.S. and you must be a U.S. resident, then you have to fill out an online registration form. The only downside to the frē is the screen protector, which tends not to fit perfectly flat against the screen. The touchscreen still works admirably, though. (After starting this series, I suddenly noticed several LifeProof cases out and about. One good friend and his wife have been using the frē in their outdoorsy household (with kids) for months as their always-on case.
OtterBox has been making rugged cases for years, producing enviable durability in high-quality cases. The OtterBox Preserver Series for iPhone 5/5s does not disappoint. The fit and finish is outstanding, the slightly rubberized top panel fantastic, and the durable protection impressive. The screen protector isn’t glass like the ATLAS, but it does feel great and fits perfectly flat against the iPhone’s screen. It also works with Touch ID. The downside to the OtterBox is the thickness. The ATLAS is slightly thicker than the frē, and the OtterBox is thicker than the ATLAS. Despite the bulk — or maybe because of it — the OtterBox feels more rugged. The bottom features two flush-fitting panels that pull out to expose the Lightning port for charging and syncing or the headphone port for using headphones. The OtterBox doesn’t have a solution for using headphones in the rain, for example, while both the frē and the ATLAS ship with a headphone extension with rubber seals. If you want to use headphones with a fully sealed OtterBox Preserver, you’ll have to use Bluetooth headphones. OtterBox, it turns out, does not offer any warranty for the contents of the case — just the case itself.
Is There a Clear Winner?
There is no clear standout for any of these cases — I trust all of them about the same for underwater and rugged use, that is, giving you quick photos and video in the middle of messy adventures. Snorkeling? Seems too risky. But a drop in the mud, snow, or a pitcher of beer? No problem. Choose the LifeProof frē if you want the thinness case possible. Choose the Incipio ATLAS ID for its glass screen cover and fit and finish. Choose either the LifeProof or Incipio if you think you want the waterproof case on 24/7. Choose the OtterBox Preserver (my favorite) if you want an extra durable case with a great screen protector. The bonus is that it’s the easiest case to install or remove, making it a great case to put on when you head out the door — or take off when you go out on the town.