Over the last five years, our phones have become an integral part of our lives. They’ve given us the ability to do much of our computing needs from the palms of our hands. Unfortunately they’re relatively fragile and should be best kept away from liquids. If you live an active lifestyle outside the city limits, this can be a problem. I’ve had to ask myself whether I should leave my iPhone in the vehicle when I go hiking or out my uncle’s cabin on the Mighty Miss. In other words, do I risk being in an emergency situation without a way to call help or risk breaking a device that would cost over $600 to replace? And did I also mention I’m in a place that averages three feet of annual snowfall?
There are some really good rugged cases out there that will protect your device from a drop, like the Otterbox Defender series. However, they are splashproof at best. You still have to worry about taking it on the boat or it getting wet while fording a stream on a trail. That’s where aptly named casemaker LifeProof comes in. They do one thing and one thing alone: Protect your iDevices from impacts, dirt, and most importantly for me, snow and water. From talking with friends who do reviews at other publications, they do it really well too.
The latest addition is the LifeProof Frē for the iPhone 5. The name comes from the ability to free yourself to go where and do what you want, not the price. At $79.99, it’s far from free. However, maximum protection never comes cheap and this, in theory at least, is about as much protection as you can get for a Smartphone. For drops, it meets the MilSpec MIL-STD 810F-516 2 meter (6.6ft) standard. It also meets the IP-68 waterproofing standard which is also 2m. I should note this now, this case offers extra protection, not an alternative to AppleCare+ or your carrier protection plan. If it fails and your device is damaged, you’re own your own. However, we can’t just take them at their word at that, I gotta open this thing and test it.
Looking at the case, it’s minimalist enough that you wonder if it will actually work. It’s a two-piece case that simply snaps together. Aesthetically, it would be a very handsome case if not for the grey portions on the sides. That being said, it’s not as noticeable on the black version as it is if you get the white case. The front screen protector you forget isn’t the actual front of the 5. The hard plastic back with a window around the Apple logo is a very nice touch.
The case itself doesn’t add that much bulk to the iPhone 5 and in some ways the little bit of weight and thickness might actually make it more holdable. If you’re wondering if it takes away from the touchscreen at all, your fears can be put to rest. I had no issues or learning curve whatsoever. The buttons work without a hitch, with the exception of the toggle switch. It can be difficult to use and its function has been reversed. It’s now up for silent and down for turning the ringer back on.
Using Lightning cables through the door works surprisingly well. Both the USB cable and the MicroUSB adapter fit without incident. The 30-pin adapter and docks might be a problem because of the added depth between the bottom of the case and the connector on the iPhone. There would have to be an adapter similar to the one used on the iPhone 4/4S version of the case. Given how close the to the vest Apple has kept Lightning, that might not be coming for a while.
Lifeproof made the decision to have separate, form fitting panes for the rear camera and flash. Presumably this is for waterproofing reasons. Quite frankly, I was worried about how this would affect the picture quality and flash of the rear 8mp camera. The results have been negligible, honestly. The 5’s camera is seriously over-hyped to begin with. I’ve taken some really good shots with it on, some really bad shots with it off, and everything in between. I had a really difficult time telling when caseless shots ended and the in case shots began. That should tell you something. It had no effect on the brightness of the flash either. The only downside is those little portholes aren’t fun to clean with them being so small and down-set a millimeter or two.
Headphones require a screw-in adapter cable. Fortunately it works extremely well and I’ve experienced no degradation in audio or mic quality or in the functionality of the controls. It even comes with a place for the audio jack plug so you don’t lose it. Since it works with standard headphone jacks as well, I just keep the adaptor plugged into the end of my earphones. The headphone jack is also waterproof, but not designed for swimming. You’ll need a swimming adaptor and a pair of waterproof headphones.
Here’s the part you really want to know and spoiler, it holds up pretty well. The waterproofing worked and it worked exceptionally well. In my first test, it was placed in a foot of water for 90 minutes. My second test was a long cycle in the washing machine where it was not only submerged but getting tossed about. In both cases my iPhone analogue of Lifeproof’s cardboard cutout wrapped around a piece of foam from another iPhone 5 case came out bone dry. In the second test it came out clean and with an mountain fresh smell as well. I would like to test it in the full 6ft of water, but with ice floating in the Mighty Miss and John P.’s pool being a good 900 miles away, that isn’t something feasible at the moment. That being said, I’m reasonably confident this would hold up. I’ll try to have a six month long-term up coming your way sometime in the summer.
There’s always some trade-offs and it’s no exception here. The headphone adapter can be a pain. You have to unscrew the plug, screw the plug into the holder position on the cable, and then screw in the cable. When you’re used to something nearly as instantaneous as plugging in a 3.5mm cable, 15-20 seconds can seem like an eternity. The armchair quarterback in my also wonders if a plug adapter, rather the 6” cable might have been a better idea. The seal of the case can also be an issue. If you do it wrong and have too much air trapped inside, it can separate a bit in the top corner by the camera. Make sure to take the time double check the case before getting it anywhere near water.
In my opinion, this is currently the best iPhone 5 case on the market today. It offers maximum protection while being very unobtrusive to day-to-day operation of your iPhone. I’ve been using it for a week and you’ll forget it’s there most of the time. For a cell phone case, that’s a very good thing. It’s also robust enough where it takes away most of my worries. I don’t have to worry if it falls out my pocket or if I get trapped out in the rain or snow. It’ll allow you to dictate your life instead of your iPhone. It’s, well, Lifeproof.
However, at a penny under $80, its also the most expensive iPhone case I know of by a good margin. If you deal with water or snow on a regular basis, this is the case for you hands down. If not, there are quality cases with similar levels of protection against shock and dust for $30 less. So, the number one question when it comes to any review, would I pay LifeProof’s price and get another one? I absolutely would. If you have a iPhone 5, or even a 4/4S, you should too.