Well, I finally did it. I bought an iPhone 4S. Putting aside how wonderful the device itself is, and forcing myself not to contribute another “iPhone 4S Review” to the ocean of existing opinions, I decided to review something a bit more unique. Yes, there are tons of iPhone cases on the market, but have you ever heard of Element Case? Most people get their fancy new smartphone, Google something like ‘phone name here case,’ and end up buying the Speck, Switcheasy, or OtterBox case of their choice. While those brands are all wonderful in their own rights (I love me some OtterBox), I’m not one to just assume the first page of Google results present the best options for me. So I did what I do best…I researched iPhone 4S cases. God help me.
A case for a phone has a primary job: protect it. Some are thick, bulky tanks that allow you to ‘drop your phone from a 3 story building and the built-in parachute will deploy when it detects freefall’ yada yada, whatever. Other cases are super thin and flimsy to keep the form of the device intact, but they only prevent scratches and don’t protect from drops. Finding that perfect middle ground is a huge R&D area for case makers because most people want a thin case that protects as good as a thick case with airbags installed. Then, you could find that perfect case, but it’s really friggin’ ugly.
The next purpose of a case is to ‘improve’ the aesthetics of your device. Some people want the wow factor, other people want it to look like the device itself, while others want to hide the device, making it a plain, dark mystery for nobody to notice. I have been known to swing either way on things like this. I either go for the BLAM-POW-WHAM in your face unique options, or the subtle it’s-just-a-peripheral option. For my iPhone, I wanted something that was unique, but wouldn’t go out of style.
What else? A case should improve your experience with your device. If you’re a pro surfer, then your case should be built to ease your mind when it is around water and sand. If you are a journalist for Vogue Mag then a stylish option will make you feel all pretty or whatever when you text gossip on it next to the runway. A case should make your device a joy, depending on your varying preferences.
For my research, I was looking for a case that was edgy, thin, protective, and grippy (but not so grippy that it grabs lint out of my pocket). No easy task, because a lot of those things can contradict if manufactured in certain ways. I found a few cases that met these criteria:
Magpul Executive Field
All these were fun, interesting and practical options, but they just didn’t do it for me for one reason or another. The Wrangler is a bit too bulky, the Magpul is a bit too plain, and the quirky BookBook is a bit too hipster. Then, I found the Element Case.
Element Case is known for making high-end iPhone cases that usually cost a lot of money. They have a lot of fancy cases, all of which are entertaining to browse through. For the average consumer, two cases really stand out in their product lineup: the Ion series and the Formula series. Both cases are essentially the same design and dimensions, with different materials. The Formula line is molded from high impact polycarbonate, while the Ion is constructed out of a high impact resistant TPU polymer. Both have carbon fiber inserts on the back that not only make the phone look amazing but also add a bit of strength to the back, like a flat spine. It’s an added bonus that these cases are all fairly priced (starting at $40), especially coming from Element.
The specs looked good, the materials looked good, and I just so happen to be obsessed with carbon fiber, so it was easy to buy into the Element Ion 4.
When I bought the Ion 4, it was hard to find anywhere but on the Element Case’s website. Anywhere else that did have the case was priced to MSRP, or priced higher. So I ended up buying directly from the manufacturer, which I rarely do.
On Element Case‘s website, the Ion 4 was “on-sale” for $49.95 for the Kevlar/Carbon version, and $39.95 for the solid carbon fiber version. The kevlar won’t be doing any more protection than the solid carbon fiber will, so if you’re on a budget go for the cheaper option. That’s a pretty good price for a good solid case. Nice deal, right? Wrong. Shipping on this 1-2 oz case is $12! That was a bit frustrating, but luckily I snooped around and found a way to counter it.
At the time of purchasing (and still as I write this), Men’s Journal magazine is doing a 20% off promotion with Element Case. Just put in “ecmj20off12” during checkout to get $10 written off the bill. Thanks, Men’s Journal!
For the kevlar version, I ended up paying just shy of $52 when everything was said and done. Not terrible, but at the same time it’s a little on the steep side for such a simple case.
Ion 4 is a great case with limited flaws. Overall I have been very impressed with it’s performance, and my friends have been very impressed with its style. Let’s jump right into the few things I would change.
First of all, and the most noticeable flaw, is the impression left on the case from the molding process. I remember when I first saw pictures of this case, I couldn’t quite figure out what was going on with this little mark on the back of the case near the camera:
Well, it turns out it is just a molding mark. Something unexpected from such a high-end manufacturer of cases, but still negligible at most. It doesn’t hurt the performance or function at all, it’s just something to take note of.
Second, I wish Element would have recessed the carbon/kevlar insert a bit. As it is now, it bows out and creates an obtuse peak:
While not a big deal at the moment, it has made me concerned about the finish on the carbon/kevlar sheet. I predict that repeatedly setting the phone down on this peak for years of use will scratch it enough that there will be a fuzzy white spot in the middle of the sheet. It’s an unfortunate flaw, but since the case recesses the front side of the iPhone rather well I have adjusted my behavior to just set the phone down with the carbon/kevlar sheet facing up.
Those are literally the only two complaints that I can come up with on the Ion 4. It really is a great case. The fit is machined to perfection! It holds the case very snug with no wobble. The cutouts are some of the best I’ve ever seen in a case. Buttons and ports are centered, comfortable to access, and compatible with all the aftermarket speakers/headphones I have at my disposal.
The grip is just as I had hoped for. A naked iPhone is actually quite slippery, but this case makes it easy to keep a grip. It slides in and out of pockets with ease, without grabbing lint or cloth. The TPU is more firm than soft, but it still feels comfortable and stable in hand. TPU is great for protection, and I have confidence in this case protecting my iPhone 4S from small encounters with gravity. Although it is not nearly as protective as some other cases on the market, I feel that Element has perfected this middle ground between form and function. Despite the insert on the back being exposed for scratches, the phone is protected fairly well by four enlarged bumpers built into the corners of the case.
As for the iPhone 4S screen, it is recessed just enough to be safe from contacting any flat surfaces. Does this case come with a screen protector? No. Does the iPhone 4S need one? Not on the front. So long as you treat your screen with respect and common sense, the front of the iPhone 4S will not scratch. So don’t worry about getting some sticky screen protector that will collect skin cells and dirt on its edges. There are exceptions, however. The back of the iPhone 4S does not employ the same glass as the front so it will scratch easily, but the Ion 4 makes this a non-issue since the back is completely covered. Also, if you are running an iPhone 3, you don’t have the same glass as the iPhone 4S front screen either, so you might want to consider a screen protector. Moving on.
What really sets this case apart is the design! The case is so simple and clean, making the interwoven carbon fiber/green kevlar really beautiful and catchy.
Because this is what the world sees when I’m gabbing, I’ve had plenty of folks compliment the Ion 4. I am very happy with how it looks in person, and I can’t see myself getting sick of it anytime soon.
This case is everything I wanted in an iPhone 4S case. Lightweight, form-fitting, compatible, stylish, protective enough, and comfortable. If you are looking for a new case for your iPhone, I highly recommend you at least browse the selection at Element Case.