LifeProof frē iPhone 5 Case – Not All That?

Dave Zatz —  December 4, 2012 — 24 Comments

lifeproof-fre-backAfter much anticipation, the Lifeproof frē ($80) arrived at Best Buy last week. Like its predecessor, this iPhone 5 case is designed to protect your smartphone from dirt, water, and drops… in a much more svelte form factor than the fairly well known ruggedized Otterbox line. Yet, while Lifeproof’s marketing materials are compelling, I don’t have much confidence in the reality.

My case survived the recommended one hour water test, sans phone, and I expect it would have done fine job protecting from splashes at the kitchen sink or in the rain. But there’s no way I’d be comfortable fully submerging the iPhone 5 — given the case’s construction, including an issue with the bottom corner that didn’t have a flush seal (below right) despite realigning the O ring. Also, speaking of construction, while the frē is certified to survive 6′ drops it’s less rugged feeling and thinner than the competition — so they’ve presumably achieved this feat via superior engineering, yet I wouldn’t want to test their claims.

However, my biggest issue with the Lifeproof frē is the concave screen protection that bulges towards the top and bottom of the iPhone 5 screen. It’s not the greatest look, as you can see above, but more practically it results in an inconsistent touchscreen experience. Interacting with the iPhone screen works as expected towards the center, but the top of the iPhone is essentially no longer touch sensitive and requires a press of the plastic film to close the gap. It’s highly annoying. And for 80 bucks, I’d expect a better design and higher quality.

lifeproof-fre-gap1

While there’s no such thing as “The Best iPhone 5 Case”, here are a few we’ve recently sampled – including our daily driver. And don’t be turned off by the MSRP, as online prices are often 50% less.

Diztronic Clear Flexible Case, $10
This case was probably our favorite… until it started yellowing on the back. It’s a simple clear gummy skin that looked good on the white iPhone 5 and had the right amount of tackiness to hold on to, but not enough to get stuck in your pocket. I assume many vendors on ebay and Amazon are reselling the same case, with custom logos of course.

iSkin Solo, $30
After good luck with prior generation iSkins, we were extremely disappointed with the new iSkin Solo for iPhone 5. While the case looked sharp and felt good, the fit was off and the phone would shift around in the case – they must have gotten the measurements wrong. Unfortunately, you’ll pick up the tab for return shipping and to receive a RMA you’re going to have to call Canada. We’re still waiting for a refund a couple weeks later…

Speck Candy Shell, $35
I really loved the look, feel, and perfect fit of Speck Candy Shell for iPhone 5. But we went with the glossy white model… which is an entirely different shade of white than the one Apple uses, and the colors were not at all complimentary. However, we suspect another color or using this case with a black iPhone would yield better results.

Otterbox Commuter, $35
We wanted to give Otterbox’s semi-rugged “Commuter” solution a look, over their bulkier “Defender” series. And believe it to be a good value given it’s quality, included screen protector, and given online pricing. The two layer matte white/grey variant looked sharp with the white iPhone 5 and the phone felt well protected. Unfortunately, we found the lip surrounding the screen to be somewhat too high and occasionally uncomfortable when accessing the screen.

iphone5 cases

Belkin Grip Candy Sheer, $25
Belkin may not get home automation, but they’ve produced a winner in the Grip Candy Sheer iPhone 5 case. It’s slim, encases the phone snuggly, and comes in a variety of funky color combos. It’s not rugged, but it will protect your scratch-prone phone from day-to-day scuffs and has a tall enough lip around the front to place the phone face down without fear. And this is the case that I’m currently sporting, although I do worry it’s a little too slippery.

Ballistic Smooth, $30
This is a case we would have liked to have tested, given The Wirecutter’s endorsement and unique styling with flared, contrasting colored corners. Yet the charcoal case is perpetually out of stock at Amazon… and some reviewers have indicated those corner nubs have popped out and been lost, which gives us pause.

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24 responses to LifeProof frē iPhone 5 Case – Not All That?

  1. I went with the Speck Grip Case along with a Zagg Invisishield and I’m pretty happy.

    It’s not going to survive me swimming in the ocean with my phone in the pocket but for day to day use it works really well. The Zagg shield keeps the screen from getting all scratched up and the Speck Grip Case keeps the rest of it from getting scratched/beaten up but still keeps it thin so it can slip into my pocket.

    When I was getting the Zagg shield the guy kept trying to upsell me with the fancier Zagg shield (basically thicker plastic) by showing me the iphone blasting through a wine glass and getting a bowling ball dropped on it, etc (video). I said, “None of those things really ever come up in my life. I’m just trying to keep it from getting the screen scratched up because there was a speck of sand in my pocket.”

    I know the Otterbox is popular. I used to have one. It really protects your phone but changes it from something that can slip inside your pocket to a belt-brick.

  2. Yeah, yeah the Otterbox Defender adds a lot of bulk (and isn’t water resistant). It only makes sense if you plan to use a belt holster, as one of my pals with two kids does, or intend to throw it in a purse, as my mom does. Too much bulk for me. I had high hopes for the Commuter as a reasonable compromise, but that lip is too high. The Speck Grip is basically the same Speck I took a look at with more a more rubberized exterior. I was very happy with the fit and look, but like I said was put off by that shade of white. I’ve never put a screen protector on a phone as far as I can recall. And I only use cases with iPhones (other than gen 1) – this new one is amusingly too thin and too light, plus the finish is so easily dinged – especially the black one.

  3. I haven’t had any issues with the glass getting scratched up, I’m more worried about drops since I busted my iPhone within 2 weeks of purchase (Apple replaced it for the price of AppleCare+).

    I looked for a long time to find a case that wasn’t ugly, bulky, too slick, or too expensive and finally settled on the the Magpul field case. It’s $10 on Amazon and made by a company that manufactures grips for gun magazines. The material is soft enough to not be slick, but doesn’t get stuck in a pocket. Also, it looks cool.

    FYI, there’s no iPhone 5 case yet, they’re in the process of making one.

  4. Yeah, I shattered my iPhone 4 and would prefer to skip another incident. The semi-rugged Otterbox was nearly perfect, other than some trouble pushing the power button and like I said that tall lip which got in the way. The Speck was also nearly perfect, with super clicky buttons but the color was off and I imagine the glossy surface would get pretty scratched up.

  5. I’m gonna wait till the Otterbox Armor case comes out in January before I but another case for my 4S.

  6. i bought this same case for my wife’s iphone 5 this weekend. my wife accidentally washed her iphone 4 about 2 years ago and the phone was toast! she had an otterbox case (defender series), but she thought it was water proof. fortunately, we got to use our ’1 time get out of jail free card’ at the apple store before they stopped replacing broken phones at no cost. so it was a good lesson learned and now my wife is extra cautious. my friend’s 2 yr old daughter dropped her phone in the toilet 2 times. after work replaced it, activated and gave it to back to my friend, her daughter put it right back into the toilet. the point i share these stories in my humble opinion, the phone is not meant to be swam with although it can go under water. i like to think of it as extra insurrance so if you did put it in water, you’re safe from these types of accidents. my wife doesn’t need a water phone, she needs a phone that can be protected from accidents.

    meanwhile, i agree, the top of the phone where the screen meets is not ideal. but it works. the case is incredibly light, thin and it has added protection from the elements. also, the mute switch is sometimes tough to flip, but she can get it. the headphone jack hurts my hand when i hold it with my right hand, because my finger will rest on it and those groves are sharp. the case rattles a bit when the speaker is used, which is my only real complaint that i personally have. my wife hasn’t even noticed yet, but i read that online that was an issue from other customers. would i recommend this phone? for $80 i expect the case to be perfect with no issues, but since it protects it from water then its worth the money.

    we’ve always had an otterbox case and i’ve already suffered a cracked screen from an easy accidental 3 foot drop with my iphone. so at the end of the day, no case is perfect. but i’m ready to switch and would buy this case for myself if i upgraded. my wife likes the case and i’m liking it, too.

  7. Evan, I was also worry a tiny bit that the back mic is obscured by the case. But Lifeproof has reached out, saying they’ve seen some issues similar to mine and they’ve been resolved, so they’re sending me a new unit to check out from another batch and I’ll take another look next week. Not sure if this means the screen protector is better or the corner seal, maybe both? I’ll post an update.

  8. dave, that’s great customer service. i want a replacement too. i’ll contact them as well, because it’s only going to be a matter of time before my wife says its a problem.

  9. For waterproofing the device itself (no case required), there’s always Liquipel. Haven’t tried it myself, but it looks like pretty cool technology.

  10. Dave, I contacted them using their form, but I haven’t heard back yet. Did you use the same form as I did or did you go a different direction? When I reached out to otterbox, because my situation, they sent me a new case asap. Just curious what did…

  11. Dave Z, any update? Curious to hear if the screen protector was any more flush on your new one?

    Thanks!

  12. Either their PR team didn’t send it out or FedEx failed to deliver, as I never received the promised replacement. So, for now, the review above stands – we can’t recommend the Fre based on the one we picked up from and returned to Best Buy as I don’t trust the seal and the touchscreen is unpleasant to use given its inconsistent application.

  13. i got a response from their return policy service and mine is in the mail as of dec 21. they apologized for the delay they said. i probably won’t get the replacement version until january 3, i’m only assuming as there is no tracking number, but i really hope this “improved” model fixes the sound issue. just because this case can protect the phone from the elements doesn’t mean it should be at the price of dodgy speaker quality. should the version they send me resolves the rattling issue then i’m going to suggest only ordering it through their website, because who knows how long other retailers will be selling what i consider ‘broken’ cases until they get the fixed cases.

  14. **** UPDATE ****

    My replacement case from lifeproof arrived today.

    I’m pleased to report the following

    - Speaker audio is vastly improved. No more rattling when I play audio from the speaker. I tested ‘I Cry’ by Flo Rida for example. Before the case would just rattle/buzz like crazy rendering the speaker useless for phone calls, too. This improvement alone is worth getting yours replaced if you’re suffering from the same issue as I did.

    - Built in protective cover is more flush against the phone now, which means when I tap the screen its responsive while previously I had to press firmly on the screen to get a response from the screen.

  15. Update on my end too… wife just told me a new Lifeproof case arrived in the mail. Will check it out and report back.

  16. Evan, after a few days use are you still happy? Is the top of the screen cover as flush as the center or is it still raised off the screen somewhat?

    Dave – look forward to hearing your experience with the updated case.

    I have an early one from Best Buy and am not happy with it and will be returning (but possibly exchanging).

    Thanks!

  17. After about a week of use, I can hands down say its 100% better. For example, my wife, who used the defective case for 2 weeks complained she shared her issues typing with the case on. Now, with the replacement case, no more typing issues. For the record, the very top of the case where the sensors/ear piece is located is raised up a little but due to the sensors. I’m no expert as to why it’s this way, but the point is the protective cover is more flush on the screen. Before when we typed/tapped we could see the screen depress because it wasn’t flush but this is not an issue. I’m going to recommend not buying from best buy this case, just buy it from the official site and work with them the manufacturer and they will set you straight.

  18. Matt, the seal is much better and the sound seems better – but maybe that’s Evan subconsciously influencing me. The screen protector also seems flatter and closer to the screen, especially on the bottom (and it was always fine in the center). The top still has a somewhat noticeable gap but it’s not as bad or annoying as the first model I had. I do worry a bit about the rear mic being obscured and wonder if there’s any real world impact. Stay tuned, I’ll be giving away this PR sample sometime after CES…!

  19. to piggy back off what dave said, lets just say the audio isn’t 100% “ideal” at the end of day. i’m not impressed with the ‘increased’ bass sound that this case was designed to provide, but since the case was designed to be water proof and play audio from its speaker at the same time, i’m sure the audio would be even better. i’m not knocking the sound completely, i’m more than satisfied, because it offers a slim design, water proof, protects with a built in screen, light, protects from drops, etc, etc.

    i turned the audio up full bar and played music and made phone calls. the case no longer “rattles/buzzes”. imagine the sound of a blown out speaker, that was what it used to sound like. now with the replacement case, i can still “feel” the vibration as i hold it in my hand from the back of the case, but it doesn’t “rattle/buzz” anymore. that awful sound was a deal breaker for me.

    also, understand, just like you most likely, my experience now is coming from a couple of weeks of dealing with this sound issue. now that it’s no longer an issue, its like my speaker was fixed and now i have crystal clear sound again.

    i hope your experience is as improved as mine is. i think it took 2 weeks total to communicate the issue including my initial contact, their follow up, providing them details about my model, and finally them shipping me the phone.

  20. ** edit **

    shipping me the replacement case.

  21. Hey Dave,

    Any word on the giving away that PR sample?

    Thanks!

  22. Just got my replacement lifeproof iPhone 5 case and the only issue I’m having now is a pulsing noise while listening to the caller talk. Anyone having this issue?

  23. Joe,

    I too got a replacement from Lifeproof and I haven’t had the issue you mention.

    My experience follows for anyone else arriving here from the web looking for Lifeproof reviews:
    In general, I’ve relegated my use of this case to just when I’m skiing or on the beach, or hiking in the rain. Those sorts of things.

    I hope in the future they can reduce the thickness of the plastic that covers the screen and improve how flush/flat it is to the screen. As it is, it affects the user experience too much for me to enjoy keeping the case on full-time.

  24. Hey Matt,

    I decided to do the same thing, I’m only using lifeproof for water outings only. I did try this case by linatik which is bulky but so awesome to the touch. Not waterproof like lifeproof. It’s pure quality right down to how the speakers sound with music

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