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In the course of my lifetime, I have seen a remarkable transition in the perceived role of electronics in the wilderness. When I was growing up, electronics were discouraged and people sought the wilderness to escape them. Now, while that is certainly still a sentiment, they are much more widely embraced. Indeed, here at Wilderness Medicine magazine we even launched an electronics-specific wildmed product column.

No electronic tool has more diverse uses in the wilderness than a smartphone, making it one of the most likely tools to be carried into the wilderness, with some publications even comparing apps it can support on a scale with the historic "10 Essentials". Many of these apps have survival and wilderness medical application.

Hand-in-hand with the functionality of these units, however, comes the need to protect them. Much like humans, they need complex layers - specific to the environments they might encounter - to protect them. Naked, they stand little chance of surviving and being functional in most wilderness environments.

To meet that need, an entire industry of smartphone cases has emerged.

Products in this industry can be judged on many parameters, including weight, appearance, ease of use, and even additional functionality such as battery power. But as always, our "Unbreakable" column has one overarching question: Can we break it?

A feature testing each waterproof case was submersion in water, the first accompanied by screams of horror from my three boys, in the case of this picture yelling "No, Dad, don't do it!", having seen far too many watery deaths of smartphones in my hands. However, as this picture shows, smartphone cases can readily allow for full submersion of smartphones, and some even support the capability for underwater photography using built-in smartphone cameras.

Over a one year period we tested various cases, marketed for durability, in the hands of one the most destructive forces in the universe: me. For consistency, we used iPhone cases, as it has been suggested that the iPhone platform is more effective for healthcare providers, that the apps most-used by physicians are on iPhones, and that over 75 percent of medical professionals using a smartphone use an iPhone.

So, four iPhones later (with all three iPhone fatalities due to submersion in water), we had some results... which we are now happy to share with those of you looking for the ultimate in smartphone case durability.

1. Ziploc bag. Ah, the minimalist approach. Very low marks for any functionality - for effective use, the phone must be removed to use, which exposes it to the highest levels of risk. No drop protection. Very slight flaws result in waterproof failure. Bulky, especially as heavier duty bags like mini-dry bags are used. Sexy factor is zero. The benefit here is low cost, but the sacrifice in durability is too great to recommend, even if bags are frequently swapped out.

2. Ruggedized cases. In this category I put a number of cases that are fairly rugged and offer some degree of exposure protection, and even added features like additional battery life, but no true waterproofing or significant drop-proofing. One of my iPhone cases - a battery-supplementing case - was sacrificed when I fell in one of the (amazing) waterfall pools in the Kettles of N.C. These cases have attractive features, but after a significant drop or water exposure, one quickly acknowledges no case without true waterproofing - e.g., capable of underwater swimming - can be truly categorized as "unbreakable".

3. Otterbox and LifeProof waterproof cases, standard lines. Otterbox and LifeProof have been the competing gold standards of the case industry in terms of perceived durability. Once Otterbox purchased Lifeproof (thus terminating a lawsuit they had filed against LifeProof for various patent infringements) their units began looking and functioning very similarly. Both companies offer a waterproof version at the top of their line that differ slightly in functional configuration and screen protection, but which are very similar in profile. For our question - durability - both have a similar flaw. They are impressively waterproof and crushproof out of the factory. The two iPhones I sacrificed to LifeProof cases (one in an ill-advised deep-water soloing attempt out of a canoe at Summersville Lake in W.V., the other in a pool) were older than nine months and had accumulated significant wear-and-tear. On examination after water exposure, tiny tears had developed at the corners from prior drops. So I now think of these cases much like helmets: they are well-designed to protect against initial impacts, but one should have a low threshold to replace, and the older they are the higher the possibility of a catastrophic failure if frequently subjected to abuse. I would advise that these cases approach the "unbreakable" if replaced every 12 months. Although this seems onerous in light of their high cost, smartphone manufacturers help us by frequently coming out with new generations of their phones – ones that ensure the prior case will not work. As hard as it to believe, the first iPhone was introduced in the second half of 2007, less than 10 years ago, and has already released six versions.
NOTE: One specific note needs to be made that LifeProof customer service is among the best I have received anywhere. In those cases (pun intended) where case destruction occurred within the warranty period, the replacement process was intuitive, rapid, and free. Especially in my early interactions with them, they appeared to be authentically interested in serving clientele operating in extreme environments and improving their product line. So far, this appears to be maintained even after their absorption into the Otterbox corporation.

4. Otterbox Armor. The only case I have ever used where the phone generation changed before the case failed. These cases were absolute beasts in size and weight, but in keeping with our column's theme, they actually did prove "unbreakable". This was true not only in terms of my own experience (although internet anecdotes about water failure do exist), but also in formal spec testing. The cases withstood 10-foot drop tests onto concrete and two tons of crush force, as well as being fully waterproof at six feet of water for 30 minutes. Interestingly, it was also one of the easiest cases to remove, using a metal latch system. However, at almost four ounces, it was also one of the most massive cases on the market, which may have led to Otterbox's decision to discontinue this product line (although it appears that Armor cases up to the 5th iPhone generation may still be available in Asia). The price tag is also correspondingly high, but privileging indestructibility, this was the only case that I retired rather than destroyed; and its superiority over the other LifeProof and Otterbox cases was specifically its redundant rubber shell, which could take abuse and erosion over 1-2 years but not yet reach a critical failure shear. Some users found a reduction in sound transmission, but I bypassed this by always using an earbud, which removes the question of sound transmission and allows the user to focus on selecting the most durable case possible.

BOTTOM LINE: For highest durability while retaining an acceptable level of functionality, reach for a waterproof-rated Otterbox or LifeProof case, but replace it annually. However, the actual coveted UNBREAKABLE designation from Wilderness Medicine magazine will be reserved until the Otterbox Armor returns to the market on latest-generation smartphones, or a comparable unit appears, that does not require annual replacement by those of us innately gifted with extreme destructiveness.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Hawkins currently uses an iPhone 6 Plus with a LifeProof NÜÜD case and screen protector.

Posted on September 9, 2015

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