By John Gruber
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Last month I posted to Mastodon to complain that I’d somehow cracked the back of my iPhone for the second year running. I say “somehow” because I hadn’t dropped my phone — I have no idea what caused the crack. My complaint:
Second year in a row that the back cracked on my iPhone. Can’t wait until they figure out a way to stop making the backs out of glass. What a terrible material for a phone frame in every regard other than allowing for inductive charging.
My complaint, I think, is undeniably valid: glass, all things considered, is a rather terrible material for the back of a phone. The biggest upside of glass is that it allows for inductive charging. It’s also good for allowing wireless antennas to pass through signals. Subjectively, you can argue that glass makes for a premium look and feel. But glass is undeniably fragile. An expensive product you carry around in your pocket or purse ought to be made of sturdy materials, not fragile ones. Plastic would work, but plastic isn’t a luxury material.
Inevitably, many of the responses I got were along the lines of “That’s what you get for not using a case.” There’s a subset of people who consider phone cases mandatory, not optional. That’s not an altogether unreasonable stance, but to me it only proves the point that, if the inductive charging and wireless signal pass-through issues could be solved, phone backs ought to be made out of a much more durable material than glass. Apple has never designed iPhones thinking they need to be in a case.
I’m not a materials engineer and I have no suggestions for a material to replace glass. I’m just saying that ideally, Apple would find a material that looks good, feels good, isn’t slippery, allows inductive charging and wireless signals to pass through, and is crack and scratch-resistant. Also: lightweight. At the moment, only unobtainium seemingly fits the bill.
How do you typically — meaning, majority of the time — carry your iPhone?
- No case
- Apple case
- Third-party case
Let’s just get this out of the way: the people who follow me on Mastodon and Twitter are, of course, not representative of the general public. I mean come on, that should go without saying. (My question even presupposes that everyone answering owns an iPhone.) But that doesn’t mean that the case choices of people who follow me aren’t interesting.
This poll intrigued me in two ways: (a) the answers to the poll, and (b) as a test of my relative engagement on Mastodon and Twitter. Both aspects surprised me. Here are the overall poll results, combining over 17,000 responses from Mastodon and Twitter:
I started the Twitter poll a few hours after the Mastodon poll, but ran them on the same day (March 4), for the same duration (24 hours), and with the exact same language. There were 9,171 responses on Mastodon (split 30/35/35 percent, respectively) and 7,880 responses on Twitter (split 31/32/37 percent).
So on the engagement front, Mastodon flat out won, by a margin of over 1,000 responses, despite the fact that I have only 39,000 followers on Mastodon, compared to 362,500 followers on Twitter. Again, by no means am I even vaguely trying to argue that Mastodon is a more popular platform with more engagement than Twitter overall. But amongst my followers, it clearly is. I expected Mastodon to fare well in this test, but I did not expect it to win.1
As for the poll results, I was even more surprised, both by the number of “no case” responses (nearly a full third)2 and by the number of case users who buy Apple’s own.
It seems hard to find any polling or surveys on case usage amongst the general population. Best I’ve found is this poll of U.S. smartphone owners from 2017 that showed 79 percent use a case. Observationally I’d have guessed the answer would be more like 85–90 percent, but ~80 percent certainly feels plausible.
For most of the year, in most situations, I have always carried my iPhones sans case. But I do buy a few cases each year, and I do use them occasionally. Sometimes I use a case in the coldest months of winter, when I wear gloves outdoors and my ungloved hands are often cold — I seem more likely to drop, or almost drop, my iPhone in cold weather. Sometimes I use a case while travelling, when I use my phone as a camera more often than on typical days, for added grip. And sometimes I just get bored and put on a case for a few days just for the hell of it.
I don’t care for Apple’s silicone cases because I don’t like the rubbery, mushy-feeling buttons. And I don’t care for the look or feel of Apple’s clear cases. Apple’s leather cases look and feel nice, and their metal buttons are, by far, the best-feeling buttons on any cases I’ve ever tried. But there’s one aspect shared by all of Apple’s cases that I dislike: the protective rim goes around the entire edge of the iPhone, including the bottom.
I much prefer iPhone cases with no bottom lip — it makes the swipe-up-from-the-bottom gesture more pleasant, and that’s a gesture I make dozens of times per day every day. Apple’s cases used to have no bottom lip — but a couple of years ago they changed. My guess is that too many people feel like they “need” a case whose protective edge goes all the way around. With each passing year it seems harder to find any iPhone cases with no bottom lip.
I own two cases for my iPhone 14 Pro that I’m happy to recommend, and a third worthy of an honorable mention. All have built-in MagSafe support, and none have a bottom lip:
Bullstrap’s $85 leather case. I’ve bought cases from Bullstrap now for a few years running. They’re a lot like Apple’s own leather cases, but with no bottom lip, and with a distinctive rounded bulge for the camera cutout. I find Bullstrap’s rounded camera bulge much more pleasant-feeling than Apple’s sharp plastic insert. I don’t understand why more cases don’t have a camera cutout like this. Bullstrap also has a slightly bigger, and thus slightly nicer, cutout for the mute switch than Apple’s cases do. Bullstrap’s leather is nice, and ages well. I have almost embarrassingly sweaty hands during hot weather, so leather cases tend to darken, quickly, in my grip. Here’s a side-by-side shot of my year-old Bullstrap iPhone 13 Pro case and my then-brand-new iPhone 14 Pro case, both in “Sienna” brown. My one and only knock against Bullstrap’s case is their plastic buttons. They’re fine buttons, but they’re not as nice as Apple’s metal ones, and for $85 I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect excellent buttons.
Pitaka’s $60 MagEZ Case 3 aramid fiber case. Aramid fiber is both lightweight and strong — it’s used in body armor under the brand name Kevlar. I’ve been buying Pitaka cases for a few years, too. These cases are lightweight and so thin that they have cutouts for the side buttons and mute switch. This case is less about drop protection and more about grip. The feel of aramid fiber is a bit hard to describe — it’s soft, and feels a bit like leather. It doesn’t feel rubbery or plasticky at all. It’s not grippy per se, but it’s not at all slippery. If I could make one request of Pitaka, it would be for a case that is all black, instead of striped black-and-gray.
Honorable mention: Anson Calder’s $80 leather case. This case is sort of a cross between Bullstrap’s and Pitaka’s — it’s leather, like Bullstrap’s, but has cutouts for the buttons on both sides, like Pitaka’s. Those cutouts eliminate any complaints about buttons on the case itself, but because leather cases are thicker than Pitaka’s super-thin aramid cases, it’s a bit harder to press the buttons on the phone itself than with Pitaka’s. Bonus points to Anson Calder for having no logo or indicia on the outside of the case at all.
Special mention: Ryan London’s $56 leather case. I neither own nor have seen one of these in person, but as discussed on Accidental Tech Podcast back in November, my fellow nitpicker extraordinaire John Siracusa bought both the Bullstrap and Ryan London cases, and deems them indistinguishable, aside from their embossed logos. (Perhaps they’re both based on some sort of white-label design from a manufacturer in China?) Bullstrap embosses their logo centered on the back of the case, like Apple does. Ryan London’s branding is more subtle (and in fact isn’t pictured in their own product photography): a subtle “R” embossed on the edge with the volume buttons.
I will also note that I didn’t mention that I was running the same poll on both platforms. I know none of these polls are rigorous, but I was thinking that if I mentioned up front that I was running it on both, Mastodon users might have been encouraged to respond to show their support for the fledgling platform. I just wanted to see how many people responded to the poll simply because they wanted to answer the question. ↩︎︎
My friend Cabel Sasser, back in September: “AppleCare+ is my go-to iPhone case.” If you read the replies to my poll, you’ll see AppleCare+ mentioned several times amongst the no-casers. AppleCare+ is expensive (two years of coverage: $150 for an iPhone SE; $220–270 for iPhones 12-14, depending on the model) but with it, screen or back glass repairs cost just $29 per incident. Me personally, though, I’m a gambler: I haven’t purchased AppleCare for any product since my Macintosh LC for college in 1991, and through some combination of good fortune and careful handling, I’m now way ahead for having forgone it so many times. If I could get the cracked back glass on my iPhone 14 Pro repaired for just a $29 deductible, I suppose I’d do it, but as it stands I’ll tell myself the crack adds character. ↩︎