The Curious Case of the Curious Case

Joanna Stern tested Apple’s new Smart Battery Case for five days, and likes it a lot:

Let’s get this out of the way: The bar for battery-case design is extremely low. Most are chunky and made of black matte plastic, requiring you to attach two pieces to your phone. You choose a battery case for utility, not fashion.

Apple’s Smart Battery Case, though still fairly unsightly, is ahead of those. Bend back the top and slide in your phone. It feels just like Apple’s smooth, soft-touch wraparound silicone case, except… with a protruding, awkward battery on the back. The battery juts out as if your phone will soon give birth to a rectangular alien.

Still, I’ll take it over all the ugly messes sold by Mophie, Anker and others, especially since it provides better protection for the phone. A lip curves just above the screen to prevent the glass from hitting a hard surface and an interior lining provides better shock absorption than hard plastic. Plus, the grippy material is much easier to hold and doesn’t feel like it will slip from my hands.

The Verge’s Lauren Goode disagrees:

Apple’s smart battery case is fine, then, if you want a softer case or a “passive” battery charging experience, with zero control over or understanding of how the case actually charges your phone. Maybe that’s what Apple is hoping: that buyers of this thing will slip it on and never take it off, charging their iPhones entirely through the case’s Lightning port going forward, forgetting about its big ol’ bump in the back. They will be pleased, finally, with their iPhone 6’s or 6S’s battery life, and the memory of spending an extra $99 for it, rather than having it just work that way in the first place, will eventually fade away.

It’s fine if you don’t want exterior indicator lights, or a even a case that gives you a 0 to 100 percent charge. After all, this one was designed for the iPhone, by the same company that made your iPhone. For some people, that’s a big draw.

In either case this will probably sell like hot cakes. It fits nicely in holiday stockings. ’Tis the season. Just know that from a pure performance and even a design perspective, Apple’s effort is not the best you can get.

(I can almost see her eyes rolling as she typed those italicized words in the second quoted paragraph.)

Lewis Hilsenteger of Unbox Therapy best captured what most of us thought when we first saw it: “These things look weird.”

That was certainly my first impression when I got mine Tuesday morning. The looks-like-it’s-pregnant-with-an-iPod-Touch design is certainly curious. I think to understand why it looks like this we have to ask why it even exists:

  • People who use their phones heavily — power users, if you will — struggle to get through a day on a single charge with the iPhone 6/6S.

  • The Plus models offer so much more battery life that getting through the day on a single charge isn’t a problem, even for power users who are on their phones all day long. But most people don’t want an iPhone that large.

  • Apple has long sold third-party battery cases in its stores, so they know how popular they are.

  • Existing battery cases all suffer from similar design problems, as outlined by Joanna Stern above. They make the entire device look and feel chunky, and most of them are built from materials that don’t feel good. None of them integrate in any way with the software on the iPhone, and most of them use micro USB instead of Lightning for charging the case.

  • Lastly, Apple claims the Smart Battery Case tackles a problem I wasn’t aware existed: that existing battery cases adversely affect cellular reception because they’re putting a battery between the phone’s antenna and the exterior of the case.

So I think Apple’s priorities for the Smart Battery Case were as follows — and the order matters:

  1. Provides effective battery life equivalent to the iPhone 6S Plus.
  2. Feels good in your hand.
  3. Makes it easy and elegant to insert and remove the phone.
  4. Works as a durable protective case.
  5. Prevents the case’s battery from affecting cellular reception.
  6. Looks good.

That “looks good” is last on the list is unusual for an Apple product, to say the least. Looking good isn’t always first on Apple’s list of priorities, but it’s seldom far from the top. But in this case it makes sense: Apple sells great-looking silicone and leather cases for people who aren’t looking for a battery case, and all existing third-party battery cases are clunky in some way.

Ungainly though the case’s hump is, I can’t help but suspect one reason for it might be, counterintuitively, a certain vanity on the part of its designers. Not for the sake of the case itself, but for the iPhone. Third-party “thick from top to bottom” battery cases make it impossible to tell whether the enclosed phone is itself thick or thin. Apple’s Smart Battery Case makes it obvious that it’s a thin iPhone in a case which has a thick battery on the back. And I’ll say this for Apple: they are owning that hump. The hero photo of the case on the packaging is a face-on view of the back of the case.

But I think the main reasons for this design are practical. The battery doesn’t extend to the top in order to accommodate the hinge design for inserting and removing the phone. Why it doesn’t extend to the bottom is a little less obvious. I suspect one reason is that that’s where the “passively coupling antenna” is.1 Extending the battery to cover it would defeat the purpose. Also, there’s a hand feel aspect to it — normally I rest the bottom of my iPhone on my pinky finger. With this case, I can rest the bottom ridge of the hump on my pinky, and it’s kind of nice. I also like putting my index finger atop the hump.

So the Smart Battery Case looks weird. Typical battery cases look fat. Whether you prefer the weird look of the Smart Battery Case to the fat look of a typical case is subjective. Me, I don’t like the way any of them look. But after using the Smart Battery Case for three days, and having previously spent time using the thinnest available cases from Mophie, I feel confident saying Apple’s Smart Battery Case feels better when you’re holding it than any other battery case, both because of the material and its shape. It’s not even a close call. It also feels sturdier — this is the most protective iPhone case Apple has ever made, with rigid reinforced sides and a slightly higher lip rising above the touchscreen. The Smart Battery Case also clearly looks better from your own face-on perspective when using the phone. (Mophie’s cases look better than most, but they emboss an obnoxious “mophie” logotype on the front-facing chin. If Apple doesn’t print anything on the front face of the iPhone, why in the world would a case maker?)

Patents, by the way, are a non-issue regarding the Smart Battery Case’s design. A well-placed little birdie who is perched in a position to know told me that Nilay Patel’s speculation that the unusual design was the byproduct of Apple trying to steer clear of patents held by Mophie (or any other company for that matter) are “absolute nonsense”. This birdie was unequivocal on the matter. Whether you like it, hate it, or are ambivalent about it, this is the battery case Apple wanted to make.

My take is that the Smart Battery Case is an inelegant design, but it is solving a problem for which, to date, no one has created an elegant solution. Apple has simply chosen to make different severe trade-offs than the existing competition. In that sense, it is a very Apple-like product — like the hockey-puck mouse or the iMac G4.

On Capacity, Simplicity, and the Intended Use Case

Most battery cases have an on/off toggle switch, controlling when the case is actually charging the phone. The reason for this is that you can squeeze more from a battery case if you only charge the phone when it’s mostly depleted. Here’s a passage from Mophie’s FAQ page:

When should I turn on my mophie case?

To get the most charge out of your case, turn it on around 10%-20% and keep the case charging without using it until your iPhone hits 80% battery life. From there, you can either wait until it gets low again or top it off when the battery is less than 80%. Apple’s batteries fast-charge to 80%, then switch to trickle charging for the last 20%.

Simplicity is a higher priority for Apple than fiddly control. If a peripheral can get by without an on/off switch, Apple is going to omit the switch. (Exhibit B: Apple Pencil.) The whole point of the Smart Battery Case is that you charge it up and put your iPhone in it and that’s it. Complaining about the lack of an on/off toggle or external charge capacity indicator lights on the Smart Battery Case reminds me of the complaints about the original iPhone omitting the then-ubiquitous green/red hardware buttons for starting and ending phone calls. Sure, there was a purpose to them, but in the end the simplification was worth it. If your iPhone is in the case, it’s charging. That’s it.

Regarding the battery capacity of the case, here’s Lauren Goode, author of the aforelinked review for The Verge, on Twitter:

A quick comparison for you: $99 Apple Battery Case 1877 mAh, $100 Mophie Juice Pack Air 2750 mAh, $50 Incipio Offgrid Express 3000 mAh

Nothing could better encapsulate the wrong way of looking at the Smart Battery Case than this tweet. The intended use of the Smart Battery Case is to allow prolonged, heavy use of an iPhone 6/6S throughout one day. In my testing, and judging by the reviews of others, its 1,877 mAh battery is enough for that. Adding a bigger battery would have just made it even heavier and more ungainly.

And the very name of the Incipio Offgrid Express suggests that it is intended for an entirely different use case: traveling away from power for more than a day.

Which in turn brings me to Tim Cook’s comments to Mashable’s Lance Ulanoff yesterday:

Some also see the introduction of an Apple battery case as an admission that battery life on the iPhone 6 and 6s isn’t all it should be.

Cook, though, said that “if you’re charging your phone every day, you probably don’t need this at all. But if you’re out hiking and you go on overnight trips… it’s kind of nice to have.”

The Smart Battery Case would certainly help with an overnight hiking trip, but I think Cook was off-message here, because that scenario is really not what it was designed for. Big 5,000 mAh (or more) external battery chargers (or the highest capacity, extremely thick battery cases from third parties) are far better suited to that scenario than the Smart Battery Case. But Ulanoff’s preceding paragraph points to the marketing predicament inherent in a first-party Apple battery case: that it implies the built-in battery of the iPhone 6S is insufficient.

The clear lesson is that it’s far better to give a phone more battery life by making the phone itself thicker and including a correspondingly thicker (and thus bigger) internal battery than by using any sort of external battery. After a few days using this case, my thoughts turn not to the Smart Battery Case itself but instead to my personal desire that Apple had made the 6/6S form factor slightly thicker. Not a lot thicker. Just a little — just enough to boost battery life around 15-20 percent or so.2 That wouldn’t completely alleviate the need for external batteries. But it would eliminate a lot of my need — my phone dies only a few times a year, but when it does, it almost invariably happens very late at night.

I emphasized the word “personal” in the preceding paragraph because I realize my needs and desires are not representative of the majority. I think the battery life of the iPhone 6S as-is is sufficient for the vast majority of typical users. I suspect Cook went with the overnight hiking scenario specifically to avoid the implication that the built-in battery is insufficient. But the better explanation is that the built-in battery is insufficient for power users who use their iPhones far more than most people do.

My Advice

If you find yourself short on battery with your iPhone every day (or even most days), and you can’t make an adjustment to, say, put a charging dock on your desk or in your car to give your iPhone’s internal battery a periodic snack, then you should probably bite the bullet and switch to a 6S Plus. However bulky the Plus feels in your pocket and hands, it feels less bulky to me than the iPhone 6S with any battery pack. An iPhone 6S Plus, even with a normal case on it, weighs noticeably less than an iPhone 6S with the Smart Battery Case. If you need the extra battery capacity every day, you might as well get the Plus. (If you actually prefer the bigger Plus to the 4.7-inch devices, you’re in luck — you get the screen size you prefer, and a significantly longer-lasting battery. My advice here is for those who prefer the 4.7-inch size, other considerations aside.)

That doesn’t describe me, however. On a typical day, my iPhone 6S seldom drops below 20 percent by the time I go to sleep. But when I’m traveling, I often need a portable battery of some sort. Cellular coverage can be spotty (which drains the battery), and when I’m away from home, I tend to do more (or even the entirety) of my daily computing on the iPhone. Conferences, in particular, can be dreadful on battery life. At WWDC my iPhone can drop to 50 percent by the time the keynote is over Monday morning.

In recent years, rather than use a battery case, I’ve switched to carrying a portable external battery. My favorite for the past year or so is the $80 Mophie Powerstation Plus 2X. It’s relatively small, packs a 3,000 mAh capacity, and has built-in USB and Lightning cables. At conferences or for work travel, it’s easily stashed in my laptop bag, so my pockets aren’t weighed down at all, and my iPhone isn’t saddled with an unnatural case. If I do need to carry it in my pocket, it’s not too bad. It’s also easier to share with friends or family than a battery case. At night, I just plug the Powerstation into an AC adapter, and my iPhone into the Powerstation, and both devices get charged — no need for a separate charger or any additional cables.

The big advantage to using a battery case instead of an external battery pack is that you can easily keep using your phone while it charges. That’s awkward, at best, while your phone is tethered by a cable to a small brick.

If I were going to go back to using a battery case, there’s no question in my mind that I’d go with Apple’s. The only downside to it compared to Mophie’s (and the others — but I think Mophie is clearly the leader of the pack) is that it looks funny from the back. But to my eyes it doesn’t look that funny, and though third-party cases don’t look weird, they don’t look (or feel) good. In every other way, Apple’s Smart Battery Case wins: it’s all Lightning, so any Lightning peripherals you have will work, and there’s no need to pack a grody micro USB cable; it supplies more than enough additional power to get you through an active day; its unibody design makes it much easier to insert and remove the phone; and it feels much better in hand.

  1. My understanding of how this “passively assistive antenna” works is that it takes the cellular signal and amplifies it as it passes through the case in a way that makes it easier for the iPhone’s antenna to “hear”. Sort of like the antenna equivalent of cupping your hand around your ear. I have no idea whether this is legit, or some sort of placebo marketing bullshit, but it would be interesting to see someone measure the cellular reception of (a) a naked iPhone 6S, (b) the same iPhone in a, say, Mophie battery case, and (c) the same iPhone in the Smart Battery Case. ↩︎

  2. The iPhone 6 and 6S are actually 0.2mm thinner than their corresponding Plus models. That’s sort of crazy. The difference is barely perceptible, but if anything, the 6 and 6S should be a little thicker, not thinner, than the Plus models. ↩︎︎