Smartphone beauty really is only skin deep

Smartphone beauty really is only skin deep

Summary: So you bought a beautiful new iPhone 5 or a Samsung Galaxy S3. Are you planning to use it without a protective case? Then you're living dangerously.



Apple's aesthetics and inspired industrial design is instantly negated when the iPhone 5 is placed in a suitable protective case, such as the OtterBox Defender, shown above.

Techie work environments are always "show and tell" places for geeks to display their newly acquired toys, like the latest and greatest smartphones and tablets.

Like exotic birds showing off the wild colors of their plumage or large mammals displaying the size of their tusks in order to impress the females of their species, there seems to be an equivalent yearly ritual when the techies display their brand new smartphones to their co-workers, in order to establish their geek creds.

Because you can't get caught dead with last year's model, or God forbid, the generation previous. Oh no.  

Since the introduction of the two latest smartphone heavyweights -- the iPhone 5 last month and the Samsung Galaxy S3 earlier this summer, it seems like the "Hey! Look what I got" syndrome has swung into overdrive.

I've seen guys doing the Show and Tell thing for about two or three months now. Not a day goes by when a co-worker walks over to my desk to show me what they bought. Last week it probably happened three or four times with completely separate people.

The guy who sits next to me at my current assignment, another consultant, who I'm going to name Nick, finally got his iPhone 5 last week. 

"Cool, Nick. Nice iPhone. That's the new one, right? Can I hold it?" 

With all my co-workers that bring in their new toys, this been my latest standard response. Because if you don't want to hold it or touch it, it's like a sign of disrespect. It's kind of like refusing to look at a picture of someone's newborn child or not properly reading and then returning the business card ritual with Asian businessmen.

"Sure man, just be careful with it" Nick says. He hands over his brand new white iPhone 5 and places it on my desk. I pick it up and hold it in my hands, nervously.

The iPhone 5 is a really nice phone. Hell, I even bought one myself. I ordered it during the middle of last month shortly after it was announced and it was delivered to my house in Florida this last week.

I haven't even opened the box yet. Why not? I'll get to that in a minute.

"Geez man, this thing is really light." I said to Nick. I power on the screen, and notice the speed of the user interface and the bright colors. I then carefully hand the thing back to him.

The iPhone is thin. Like crazy thin. And it's made of aluminum. Naked, it's industrial design genius. It's like something out of freakin' Star Trek. Hell, it's more impressive than the stuff they have on freakin' Star Trek.

"So, ah, Nick, have you decided what kind of case you're gonna put on it?" I asked, sheepishly.

"Well, I dunno, if I put a case on it, it sort of defeats the purpose of how nice the phone looks and how thin it is, doesn't it?"

"Well, did you buy the phone for looks or for what it actually does?"

"I got it because the contract was up on my old iPhone. Verizon was out of accessories when I stood on line for three hours to buy the thing too."

"Okay, well, you got any kids?"

"Yeah, three, two of of them little, but what does that have to do..."

"Do you have any idea of what happens when you drop one of those phones from four feet or higher onto solid concrete or a hardwood or tile floor?"

"Um, no, but I have a good idea."

"Well, basically, on any of these new expensive smartphones, you got two areas you need to be concerned about. The first and foremost is the screen itself.

Now, smartphone vendors along with companies like Corning have improved the tensile strength of the glass since the last generation, but if it lands face down and hits any kind of portrusion, you've got a really good chance of cracking the screen.

The actual casing on the iPhone 5 is made out of anodized aluminum, so while it will do better with scratches and will not crack like the previous model which was a glass sandwich, you can still dent it and possibly chip a peice off and damage the electronics, and the forces of the impact will probably shatter the screen too."

"That doesn't sound very good. But I got the carrier insurance."

"That's only good for an actual device malfunction. If you bring that iPhone into your carrier the phone is essentially shot and the repair fee might be outrageous and the damage coverage is totally at their discretion depending on what they define as "Accidental". You need to look at Verizon's fine print.

Unless you buy Applecare+ during time of purchase, which is another $99, and will cover two incidents on your iPhone over a period of two years, each incurring a service fee at an Apple retail store of $49. If you want to buy Applecare+ after the fact, it has to be within 30 days of purchase and you need to bring the device into an Apple retail store for inspection."

If the device is found to be unrepairable and Apple or your carrier decides not to cover you, you'll have to do an in-contract unsubsidized, full retail purchase to replace it. Did you buy the phone with an AMEX Platinum card?"

"No, I got it with a Mastercard."

 "Yeah, cause if you bought it with an AMEX, you get full replacement within 90 days if you break the thing accidentally."

"So Jason, do you use a protective case on your phone?"

"Oh hells yeah." I showed him my Galaxy Nexus, which is housed in a SEIDIO Surface case.

"Holy crap, that's as big as a brick."

"Well, yeah, that's because I have a double-sized battery in mine. But I ordered an iPhone 5 myself a few weeks ago, and I'm going to put it in an OtterBox Defender when I get it."

"I've seen those kind of cases on other phones. They're really big and make the phone a lot thicker and really ugly."

"They do make it thicker and it adds weight. I currently use one on my iPad and my wife uses one on her Droid. But they are incredibly protective."

"How so?"

"Well, the entire iPhone is encased in a thick, shock-resistant polycarbonate plastic clamshell, that elevates the corners of the phone above the screen which will protect it from shattering if it goes face down. It also has built-in screen scratch protector. Then the whole thing is wrapped in a silicone rubber suit so that if the sucker hits the ground, it's gonna bounce. It's like Batman's cell phone case. Comes in a whole selection of colors now."

"What does it cost?"

"Fifty bucks, for the most protective model. They have three other models which expose more of the phone's aesthetics but of course, are less protective. So you might as well as get the best one."

"Wow, fifty bucks for a case is a lot. I only paid $200.00 for the phone."

 "An unsubsidized 32GB iPhone 5 costs about $800.00 if you break that phone, dude."

"Yeah, You've got a point. What did you say that company was called again?"


Have you sacrificed the "beauty" of your smartphone in exchange for protection and additional peace of mind? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Smartphones, Apple, iPhone, Samsung


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • I totally disagree with this article.

    iPhone 5 has put up really well with the drop test. Obviously the only concern is the screen. It's not much easier to replace, which could mean it might get cheaper. AND you're incorrect about it being "$800". Not only is it not $800, but Apple will replace a broken phone for about $200. So if you just protect the back and sides, your phone will look great, feel great, and not look ugly with an almost useless case.
    • *

      I said it's not much easier to's NOW much easier to replace.
    • iphone 5 too beautiful to hide it with a protector

      I also disagree with this article. I used a bumper case for my 4 and 4s, but decided to neglect the use of a protection case for the iPhone 5. I think a screen protector should do the job for preventing the screen to crack in case of an accidentally drop of the phone. I will go for a nice sleeve to protect it while carrying around and not using it; btw: i found a quite nice overview of stylish sleeves on this site:

      • Iphone 5

        I think you will find that screen protectors ONLY protect from scratching, as when women like to drop their phones into their purses, with keys, emery boards, scissors, etc. The will NOT help with a facedown drop on asphalt, at all.
    • I agree with you.

      I have had a smartphone for about 3 years. I have dropped each of them several time, almost always onto carpeting. No damage, of course. However, I have a case. Not the huge, UGLY, massive Otterbox, which I think is overkill, unless you plan to derail trains with your phone. I have a TPU case that has a significant front ridge to protect the screen, and which adsorbs a lot of shock should the phone hit on the sides, or corners, and the back is covered, except for the hole for the camera. This has served me well, and also serves my wife's phone well. I suppose if you have a very active lifestyle, then a more durable case would be indicated.
      It seems that a case could be made that would offer good protection, and not be either so large, or UGLY as the Otterbox.
  • iPhone 5 replacement cost

    I understand your points about the cases and what not, but your replacement costs are not accurate. I just cracked my iPhone 5 screen (16gb Blk) but I had apple care which offers 2 replacements for damages like this. That is an extra $99 regardless of the model phone, and the replacement cost is $49 (unless the apple folks feel back and wave the fee which they did for me). However I found out the true replacement cost of the my device (if I didn't have apple care or insurance) would be $239 for a new phone.

    So you are NOT forced to pay the full un-unsubsidized price for the phone should you break it. Also, if your Apple store replaces the glass (mine does) if that is all that is wrong with it, it is even cheaper still. So you are incorrect regarding some of your statements in this article.
  • Case

    I always place my beloved gadgets in a good case for everyday use. I do however release them when I am home relaxing on a soft couch and without any sharp edges around or children within 500 yards.
  • Outdoor Geek

    I go hunting, fishing, diving and hiking. I trundle through swamps, hike across log-strewn trails, scramble across rock-littered hills. I ride mowers, tractors and use heavy equipment. Sometimes I'm using a chainsaw, weedwhip or other nasty thing. I have grease under my fingernails, motor oil in my hair and fish guts on my shirt.

    I don't plop one quarter of my monthly paycheck down to look "pretty". IDGAF about "pretty". I want *FUNCTION*. And if I need to go to northern tool to check prices on a new chainsaw chain before I hike out of the woods, I darn well want to make sure my iPhone is protected at all times.
    beau parisi
    • I do all of that as well

      but I have never used a case or screen protector on any of my iPhones. I have a 4s now. I have dropped maybe half a dozen times and it has a few nicks on the side but I have not broken the glass. I do try to put it in a safe pocket and wipe the "deer blood" off my hands the best I can before I take a picture of my latest kill....but more than one of my iPhones has gotten a little of Bambi on them.

      I do have Apple Care.....which is my case.
  • I've accidentally launched my Droid X across the room on at least 6

    different occasions, and dropped it on the ground maybe 10 more times. and I've never had any kind of protective anything on it. it's totally fine. I hate Motorola but you have to give it up to them that they have solid phones.
    • yep...

      I must agree. Back when I had an original Moto Droid I dropped it on concrete many times without any type of aftermarket protection on it and although it's metal casing got a lot of 'battle scars' the screen remains exactly the way it looked when I first bought it and took it from it's box...and that was before all the Gorilla Glass screens came out. I saw a video on YouTube showing someone beating the hell out of the display with a metal key for around a minute and the screen didn't even have the slightest sign of a scratch.
  • Android > Apple

    Android phones like the Samsungs tend to use tough plastic for their cases, which is more resistant to scratches and dents than the metal that Apple uses. Sure, the Iphone is shinier, but what’s the point, if you have to hide it in a protective case?

    That video above nicely demonstrates the difference, I think.
    • Apple > Cheapo Phones

      Who cares about minor scratches and dents; any reasonable person would expect that after dropping a phone. What I saw in the video was the Samsung GIIIS being unusable after a 3' drop and the Apple still usable after a 6' drop. Interestingly, both phones were $199 with contract so it appears the Apple is a better build quality for the money.
      • Re: Who cares about minor scratches and dents...

        Android users do. My Galaxy Nexus is still the same sleek, monolithic, buttonless slab as the day I bought it.

        After all, Apple products are supposed to prioritize looks over functionality; if they can't even keep their looks, what have they to offer?
    • Tough Plastic?

      Wow, now you are really reaching... Perhaps it was the Samsung I had but it seemed cheaply made. At any rate I carry both an iPhone 4S and an HTC TBolt and I have both in Otterbox Defenders. I did the same with my Samsung and my iPhone 4... all 4 devices look like they just came out of the box. So I can sell my iPhone 4 on eBay for more than what I paid for my iPhone 4S... and sell it as mint as it does not have a scratch or scuff anywhere. I doubt I'd get much for the Samsung even though its in mint condition as well.

      How does your phone look?
  • Otterbox cases

    Without doubt, Otterbox is the way to go - but the Defender is not your only option. For a nice compromise between the Defender's tank-like protection and a sleek fit, I recommend the Otterbox Commuter. It gives you the same silicon sleeve bounce protection and the toughness of a hard plastic outer shell without all the bulk. I'm on my second Commuter for my second smart phone and couldn't be more pleased - plus the Otterbox screen protector is a cut above, actually enhancing the touchscreen smoothness. A real winner.
    Ed Brand
  • Common sense

    You could basically replace your screen for less than $50 -- the price of an Otterbox case -- by doing it yourself. The probability of you breaking the phone screen more than several times, costing a total of under the $200+ price Apple sets for repairs, isn't very likely.
  • Really?

    It's like driving a brand new BMW in saran wrap. There are much thinner, still protective, barely there cases. And it will still cost you less to fix it yourself in less than an hour.
    • Or..

      Or more appropriately, like driving around with pillows taped to your new BMW.
  • A Klingon communicator is like an iPhone 5 wrapped in an OtterBox Defender

    Ah, your heart IS Klingon, Jason. If I look closely at your ZDNet avatar image, I can almost see a cranial ridge begin to form.

    I've debated implementing your sound advice long and hard but I can't bring myself to encase my iPhone 5 in a protective shell only a Klingon could love.

    I have resorted to a compromise, however. When in my pocket, I encase the iPhone in a very light weight Sena leather sleeve. I've notice though out the years that the only scratches marring the screen or case of my flip phones have come from contact with objects sharing pocket space with my phone. I have only dropped my cell phone twice in 20 years. And, yes, that one time did result in a broken glass - and much more - since my car did run over it.

    I thought it had fallen inside the car but I couldn't find it - even after having a fellow passenger ring my phone. Since we were pressed for time, I started to drive away. You can imagine the rest of the story. I don't think even an OtterBox Defender could have saved the "wee little squawk box" as Scotty might have noted.

    So .. since I really like the feel of the "naked" iPhone 5 in my hands while in use and I have taken certain financial precautions - Apple Care plus, the Sena sleeve, purchase via AMEX and banning all children from it's use (grin), I will continue to sinfully delight in using the iPhone 5 as "Steve Jobs" intended and let you enjoy yours as Worf would. KAPLA!