Kraken Adaptive Modular System for the iPhone 4/4S Review

The growing range and breadth of uses for the versatile iPhone and all its functions and apps exposes one drawback… the phone is designed to work OK for most of them, but it is simply not ideal for many.  The need for some type of mounting or for ruggedized protection and water resistance can lead to the purchase of numerous specialized accessories or cases to fit the situation at hand.

Kraken AMS Back View

Kraken AMS for iPhone 4/4S

Enter the Kraken Adaptive Modular System from Trident.  It’s actually a hybrid case that starts with Trident’s Perseus silicone sleeve as the base layer.  The Kraken AMS is a two piece hardened polycarbonate case that snaps around it and forms a pretty tight seal.  If you are detecting a hint of Clash of the Titans in the naming scheme, the Trident lineup is loaded with Greek mythology references.  The back of the Kraken case features a slot for attaching at least six different modules, making this the Swiss Army knife of iPhone cases.

While my review unit was an iPhone 4/4S version, the Trident website claims that the Kraken AMS will soon be available for the HTC Evo 4G LTE and the Samsung Galaxy S III.  So far I only see versions for the iPhone 4S and HTC Evo 3D on their site.  There could be more, but there doesn’t seem to be a way to search for Kraken AMS; you can only search by device.

At $49.95 for the Kraken AMS Case, you get a lot of protection with some sacrifices to the user experience.  The individual modules are all $14.95 apiece.  Some seem well worth the money, others less so.  Some make you wonder if the uniform pricing across the board for these might not be the best idea.

Kraken Case in package

The Kraken Case front and back

Kraken Layer One: Perseus

Perseus Case Front, Left Side

The Perseus Case viewed face up from the left


Perseus Case, Back Side

Perseus Case Viewed from the back

The Perseus is a shock absorbing silicone sleeve that wraps directly around the iPhone.  It’s a fairly simple case that provides pretty good protection on the back and sides, and it does wrap around the front of the glass across the top above the edge of the visible area of the screen.  It leaves an open window around the Apple logo, but the system does come with protective films for the front and back glass (although mine seemed to be missing the front film).

Perseus Case, Bottom View

The Perseus Case viewed face up from the bottom end

The case has a large enough area around the docking connector to allow small 30-pin modules to connect successfully.  My FM transmitter worked just fine with it.  The raised sections in the corner provide bumpers that interface with the hard outer case, but they also prevent the iPhone from docking properly in the recess of my Panasonic Alarm Clock and my JBL OnStage II.  Both have worked when I was using slimmer cases, including the id America Gasket case.

Trident recommends that the Perseus be used alone in casual situations.  This is reasonably manageable, but like all silicone sleeves it has the disadvantage of friction that makes it tougher to remove from a pocket.  The raised corners exacerbate this by grabbing the fabric even more aggressively, working to turn the lining inside out as it exits.  Alongside this problem is the relatively light hold the sleeve has on the bottom two corners of the iPhone which occasionally slip off as the user tries to extract said phone from the pocket.

And then there is the fact that the Perseus in its Trident Green form looks a little reminiscent of a certain humorous ogre.

Perseus and Shrek side by side

Anyone see a resemblance here?

Kraken Hard Outer Shell

The fun starts when we get the hard case installed.  It is a hardened polycarbonate case with silicone seals at every opening except for the earpiece.  The cameras, sensors, and area around the Apple logo are also exposed, but there is no point of entry for water or dirt into the iPhone body at any of those locations.  A clear panel in front of the screen completes the enclosure while allowing the touchscreen to work through the additional layer of plastic.


Installing the Kraken

Two step installation of the Kraken AMS hard shell

Installation is a bit of a challenge.  Getting the Perseus covered iPhone inside can be tricky as the silicone frequently gets caught or pinched around the edges of the plastic.  Once you get it in, you may still need to work a bit to get the rubber post over the lock button seated in its hole.  The area around the volume and mute switch can get a little twisted, requiring some work to locate everything where it is intended to go.  It can also take some effort to get all of the snap features securely engaged all around the case.

The multitouch works pretty well through the clear panel, but it does take more solid pressure than normal.  No matter how I try, I can’t get the clear cover to lay perfectly flat on the glass.  There is always a bubble somewhere, usually along the left side of the screen, so you get a slight travel and rebound when touching there.  On my phone with its Invisible Shield film, it can feel a little sticky when the rebound occurs.

Removal (“Release the Kraken”)

Removal of the outer case takes some care as well.  The first several times I tried it, my fingernails felt dangerously close to delamination from the nailbed, but after a bit of practice, I figured out where the sweet spots were.  Now I can extract the Perseus pretty easily.  The silicone may get dislodged, but replacing that is no big deal.  I do notice that the force of insertion seems to pull at the edges of my screen cover, and it has left a couple of bubbles and stretched areas after removal.

Industrial Design

Aesthetics and Design Language

This case is, among other things, clearly trying to take on Otterbox as armor for your smartphone.  It isn’t a thin skin shrinkwrapped tightly to the contours of the phone.  It isn’t small or light.  It doesn’t feel great to use the touchscreen with the outer cover in the way.  It is simply a hulking mass of shock absorption and impact resistance.  Everything about the design screams this.  The hardened polycarbonate with its bevels and edges and rib patterns evokes images of video game body armor, and the designers went even further to mold in features that look like hex drive screw heads.  It is a little clever to make the snaps and front case bumpers look like fasteners, especially considering the fights most designers have with engineers to hide every single screw head from view.  In this case, it does add to the rugged aesthetic, so I will give it a pass.

Kraken Industrial Design Details- Screws

Molded in screw head details add to the heavy duty aesthetic of the Kraken

User Interface

As mentioned before, when in full-on Kraken mode, the focus of this case is protection and accessorizing.  The user experience does take a hit.  The touch screen is harder to use, the speakers and mic are covered, degrading performance (but not as much as I would have expected).  The 30-pin socket is only accessible with the docking cable connector or a dock extender, and you have to peel back a seal to get to it.  The same difficulty plagues the headphone jack, which not only has a seal to peel aside, but also will require a dongle (remember that from the first generation iPhone) to reach down to it unless you use a plug with a very narrow overmold (like the Apple earbuds have).  That said, you can’t help but feel an increased sense of security for your expensive gadget.  The hard plastic does eliminate that pocket-dragging issue as well.

The Adaptive Modular System (the Accessories)

The Holster

This would be the first accessory you see. Technically it may not really count as one of the adaptive modules as it doesn’t engage with the slot on the back.  It wraps around the Kraken from the front and seats in two cross-shaped recesses on the sides of the case.  For me this was a little counterintuitive as I expected it to wrap from the back as with other holsters I have used, but it does make sense.  This system is geared toward protecting your phone, so it makes sense that when this is attached to your belt, it would have the exposed touchscreen facing you while exposing the armored back to the rest of the world.  Exposing the back also ensures that the holster will not interfere with any of the slot-mounted AMS modules should you want to leave them installed.

The belt clip rotates a full 360 degrees with indexed recesses every 18 degrees, so you get fully four intermediate angles between each 90 degree increment.  A raised tab allows easy access for a thumb to pull the snap away from the side for quick removal when a call comes in.  As with some of the other accessories, the fact that the attachment point is offset from the center of mass can make the unit feel slightly unbalanced in some orientations. There is nothing earth shattering here, but it is still a very sound way to clip the Kraken to your belt or waistband if you don’t want to put it in your pocket.

Kraken Clipped into Holster

The Kraken in its holster viewed from the front and the back

The Kickstand

Kraken Kickstand Deployed

Kraken AMS with its kickstand deployed for landscape viewing

This is the most innocuous of the snap-in modules.  When closed, it rides flush with the back surface of the polycarbonate, providing a classy metallic accent detail featuring the Trident logo.  Snapping it out of its resting position allows for easy landscape positioning of the iPhone for movie watching.  If you prefer to set your iPhone in a portrait orientation, that will be a little trickier.  The angle of the deployed kickstand will support this position, but since there is no positive lock holding it open, great care must be take to balance the phone so that the kickstand doesn’t just fold back in on itself.  It seems to have been designed exclusively for landscape viewing, which is the most likely use case.

The kickstand also introduces the user to the insertion and removal method for these modules. It takes a little practice and on occasion more than a little force to get it seated, but the learning curve eventually makes this a fairly simple process.

Wire Organizer

Wire Organizer Mounted

Wire organizer mounted to the back of the Kraken

This is a familiar wire management solution for earbud cables attached to a clip that seats into the modular socket. The rubber “turtle” flips open to allow the wire to wrap around a central post and then flip the rubber wings down to secure the coil in place. It has notches in the rubber to allow entry and exit of the wires, allowing the coil to either store the entire length of the wire or simply take up the excess while in use.

This has one intrinsic, annoying drawback. The nature of the system leaves the earbuds exposed after the coil is wound, so the most vulnerable part of the system is not protected and possibly at greater risk since they are in position to be put under strain with no wire slack to relieve it. The holster does seem to mitigate this risk, so I would suggest either holstering the Kraken or carrying it in a bag rather than a pocket when using this module.

Wire Organizer, Earbuds Wrapped

Kraken Wire Organizer with earbud cable wrapped


The Tripod Mount

The increasing quality of the cameras in each new iPhone iteration has made it a capable rival for most pocket point-and-shoot digital cameras. As it becomes the primary shooter for more and more users, a tripod mount starts to look like a compelling accessory. The tripod mount for the Kraken does a decent job of filling this gap. Snapping it into the accessory slot takes some force; it helps to anchor the bottom hooks first and sort of lever it into position. It can go in with the mounting threads facing either the left or right side of the iPhone, but it only supports a landscape shooting orientation (like any camera tripod mount).

Kraken Tripod Back and Side

Kraken AMS Tripod Mount Back and Side orientation

The secure mounting of the module in the case affords a solid attachment to the tripod with no wiggle or slop once in place. It does attach the iPhone well off the center of gravity of the completed system, so a small flexible tripod will need a bit more care in placement to prevent falling over. Also, since the module can mount in either direction, the camera can either be positioned on the top left or bottom right of the phone when shooting. The viewscreen of the iPhone will rotate to provide the user with a properly oriented shot, but for some programs (like Windows Movie Maker), the imported video may come in upside down and require flipping in the editing process.

When attached, the tripod mount will stick out pretty far from the back of the unit, so pocketability will be negatively impacted.  Here the reverse mounting orientation of the holster comes in awfully handy.

Windshield Mount

Windshield Mount in Box

Kraken AMS Windshield Mount out of the box

The Windshield Mount was the module that most interested me. The prospect of a handy and far safer way to carry the iPhone in the car seemed like a huge opportunity. GPS location and mapping services would no longer require fumbling with the handset as the driver tried to find the next turn. Music playback controls could be as easy to manipulate as the car’s onboard stereo system. Even if Siri were the primary means of interacting with the phone, the home button could always be handy to let her know you needed her services. Of course, the iPhone is also perfectly placed to shoot video of whatever is on the road in front of the car. For the more adventurous drivers out there, this could capture their breakneck trips down twisty mountain roads or their crazy drifting exploits from the driver’s point of view.

The minute I installed it, a new use case presented itself. Over the years we have seen Cali and John shooting videos of themselves from inside the vehicle with one or more internally mounted cameras. Here was an excellent way for me to use the front facing camera to shoot a vlog of myself as I drove down the road as safely as if I were having a conversation with a passenger.  Here is my first attempt at podcasting behind the wheel.

The module attaches to the windshield with a suction cup attached to a cam that pulls a strong vacuum behind it as it is rocked into place. I have seen other similar mounts for TomTom GPS units that have a sturdier mechanism for locking in the suction, but it seemed to grab well enough. Unlike the tripod mount, the windshield module had two stationery hooks and two spring-mounted hooks for easier attachment and removal. The first 30-minute commute into work went off without a hitch, allowing me to shoot my video and stream a podcast with all the expected ease of control. Upon returning to the car for the drive home, things started to go awry.

Kraken AMS Windshield Mount Crack

Kraken AMS Windshield Mount cracked upon second attempt to install

Attempts to attach the Kraken to the mount resulted in the suction cup being pulled off the window. When I went to replace it, that less-than-optimally sturdy lever split right at the pivot point. It could apply no more force to secure the cup to the window, and manually trying to seat it was no use. I suspect that there is some sort of molding flaw in that area such as a knit line where the plastic flowed around the hole for the hinge pin. Whatever the case, I have to count this as an Epic Fail. I had a lot of ideas planned for the use of this module, and it could easily have become a part of my daily routine had it only been more robust.

One other area I had been concerned about but never had the chance to test was the lifespan of the ball joint. It felt great and stayed put wherever I oriented the Kraken, but temperature changes and wear over time could have slowly caused the joint to deteriorate. The problem with lifecycle tests is that the whole device needs to survive long enough to perform them.

Seat Belt Clip

Seat Belt Clip On Kraken

Kraken Seat Belt Clip in place on back of case, open and closed

Kraken Seat Belt Clip Installed

Kraken AMS Seat Belt Clip mounted on the belt

The Seat Belt Clip was a module whose utility was not initially apparent to me. It consists of the same style of snap for engaging the slot on the back of the Kraken as the tripod mount. When in place, it provides a pair of serrated jaws that clamp down on a seat belt or a (non-padded) backpack strap. The teeth and the snap on the end of the jaws do hold quite securely, preventing the Kraken from sliding or rotating. Because of the slot placement, the only way to orient it is with the iPhone hanging upside down. This does make sense if the primary purpose is to be able to access the screen from a more convenient location than your pocket or cup holder, so you can look down and read in the proper orientation. Of course, you will either need to set the orientation lock on the phone or lift it up to tell the sensors which way you wish to see it. This performed well, but it was not terribly exciting.

Bicycle Mount

Like the Windshield Mount, the Bicycle Mount has a great deal of promise. Attached to a road bike, it can show you your GPS route or a readout of your performance when using something like the Wahoo Fitness App. Again you could access your phone for music controls if you wanted, but since it is never smart to ride a bicycle on city streets with headphones on, this should be done with care and responsibility. On a mountain bike, in addition to the mapping and fitness options, it could potentially take video of your trek (although it would have to be in the highly discouraged “portrait video” orientation.

Bike Mount Installed

Bike Mount installed to the handlebars, no Kraken in place

Kraken Bike Mounted

iPhone 4S in Kraken AMS Bike Mount, ready for access

Kraken Bike Mount- Google Maps

The Kraken AMS Bike Mount with the iPhone displaying a Google Map

Like many bike accessories, it clamps over your handlebars (up to 30mm diameter) with a foam gasket to grab tightly to the metal cylinder. Two thumb screws secure the two halves of the unit together and allow for easy loosening and repositioning of the angle. That part is simple; attaching the Kraken is a bit trickier. The slot hooks on this are spring loaded on both sides, so you have to push really hard to move them into position to get them onto the mount. I admit to many failed attempts, the most spectacular of which launched the Kraken about a yard away onto the concrete surface of the parking lot. That had the ancillary benefit of giving the Kraken its first drop test (which it passed, keeping my iPhone perfectly safe although the two parts of the Kraken did separate on impact). After enough practice, like the other mounting methods, it became easier to manage.

In the interest of getting a comprehensive evaluation of the Kraken AMS capabilities, I dusted off my mountain bike and went offroad for the first time in too many years.  iPhone securely mounted (at a bit of an angle because of the location on the handlebars), I headed down the trail.  The video captured not only the rustiness of my cycling skills, but also a much more stable and useful picture than I had anticipated.  The case stayed put, and the iPhone was safe… as long as I stayed upright.

Not long after the video had stopped rolling, I had my obligatory wipeout.  Not too bad, but the Kraken AMS did release from the bike mount (along with the lights I had mounted, so it was not alone).  The phone was safe, but as in the parking lot, it did cause the two halves of the case to separate.  Once I had collected my scattered belongings and removed a fair amount of vegetation from my person, the Kraken went right back on and didn’t come loose again.

It was not the toughest ride over very harsh terrain, but it was still a decent test of the Bike Mount’s mettle.  I was pleasantly surprised at how securely it held and that it didn’t break when the Kraken came loose.  Like ski bindings, when the torque got to be high enough, the spring-loaded clips released and let the case protect the phone on the way down.  I don’t know how many times this would hold up or how big a spill it could survive, but for my purposes it did just fine.

The Final Verdict

There is a lot to like here.  The Kraken AMS case is solid protection for the iPhone with a rugged Master Chief-ish aesthetic.  Impact, dust, and casual water contact should not concern the user while this case is on the job.  The compromised user experience in the feel of the screen cover, access to the connectors, and the clumsiness of the Perseus sleeve in a pocket probably relegate this to use for specific activities.

The modular accessories open up a world of possibilities for new ways to use your smartphone.  I really like the Bicycle Mount and the Tripod Mount.  I really wanted to love the Windshield Mount, but it was just not ready for prime time.  Hopefully subsequent versions will solve the breakage problem and give us access to the potential of this accessory.  If perhaps the performance requirements push the cost up a little, I think the utility of the Mount would warrant a slightly higher price point.  The Seat Belt Clip and the Wire Organizer have their place, but they really aren’t for me.  I could not see paying $14.95 for either of these.  The Kickstand is a neat little feature that creates a nice accent to the back of the case, but I wish it had a good way to prop the iPhone up in portrait mode.

Ultimately, you will need to decide if you want the accessories or the protection enough to fight through the compromises.  I would not want this to be my everyday case, but I would love to have it available when doing something that requires extra protection or accessory access.