Rather than risk losing your iPhone, we think a true waterproof camera or a GoPro or a waterproof camera is the best way to get photos in the water. But if you have to protect yours from impact, liquid and dust, the best tough waterproof iPhone case, overall, is the $80 Incipio Atlas.
We think the Incipio is the most well rounded phone case, more secure yet just as slim as last year’s favorite.
It has a depth rating of 6 feet, but was among the driest in our endurance pool tests when many others simply flooded. It even has a 1-year warranty against water damage to your phone.
But we also have a pick for a sport camera case to turn your smartphone into a quasi-GoPro action sports camera. And finally, I recommend a serious dive case for an iPhone that can go to over 100 feet of depth.
Why You Should Believe Us (and How We Tested)
My editor Brian Lam helped me test this case and the competition in Mexico and Indonesia, as well as the ocean and a pool in Hawaii. As an ocean exploration journalist and founder of the Wirecutter, I don’t think any technology writer is as equipped to test these cases as he is.
He lives in Honolulu and tested all of these cases by verifying their seals were dust free and by swimming a half mile in open water dragging them behind him and roughing them up up to 10 feet underwater during freedives. He also kept them in a pool overnight at six feet of depth, to challenge their seals over time–most cases are only rated for an hour at their given depth so this is a really great way to test minor design flaws that would expose them over time or keep them from going deeper than their rated spec in case you needed to drop down for a moment. He also tested the deep dive case on an expedition as a fellow with MacGillivray Freeman films in Indonesia, to 80 feet.
For non-water sports, ruggedness, shock absorbing designs and materials as well as build quality was factored in. For action sports camera cases, meant to take a smartphone and transform them into a GoPro kind of camera, things like accessories (mounting options) were also important.
Before he founded The Wirecutter, he ran the gadget blog Gizmodo for half a decade and worked on the Test and Fetish section at Wired Magazine before that. He also uses iPhones for outdoor and water photography, taking them into surf, and on reporting expeditions.
He’s seen a lot of gadgets in his time and has been putting them through their paces outdoors more than your typical gadget blogger that typically tests gear in a lab or in front of a computer.
He’s also seen all the modern rugged cases worth testing.
There are likely no gadget writers who are better able to test these cases than Brian, other than those in the pocket of dive photography like our friends at Wetpixel. But they tend to focus on higher end gear, so we did not go outside for expert opinion this time around.
What To Look for In a Rugged Case
The world of rugged and waterproof iPhone cases can be split into three categories: light cases that are waterproof/tough but only to 6 feet of depth or so (actually 3 meters for an hour which is the military standard IP68); sport cam housings that turn them into GoPro camera equivalents; and full on dive housings that allow them to go over 100 feet below the surface.
You want a rugged case to protect it from moisture and water to its rated depth and time and then some.
You want a rugged case to protect it from moisture and water to its rated depth and time and then some, just in case. Then ruggedness and screen protection comes in, but that’s not as important because you shouldn’t be abusing your phone by dropping it, anyhow. Ultimately you want a case to have a good trade off between protective ability and thinness, but thinness isn’t a huge concern, either. Lastly, you want to decide if you want a case for light water use, heavier sport camera use or for true diving.
Why The Incipio
The Incipio is part of the class of light duty waterproof cases good enough for surface swimming, shallow snorkeling and boating and splashing around in the pool. It’s the best at what it does.
It’s good, like its peers, for at least 6 feet of depth for an hour, which we verified first hand in the ocean and in the pool. In fact, the Incipio beat out every single light duty case in the difficult endurance overnight pool test, emerging with only a bit of condensation–other light duty cases filled with a few thimbles of water or outright flooded completely. It performed, like most others, in our open water swim and shallow freedive test, very well, only showing a slight bit of condensation but no droplets. Other cases performed similarly although some also flooded during this easier test, too.
Even if your particular Atlas were to flood, the Incipio has a unique 1 year warranty against water damage to your phone–even if we have no experience in making one of these claims, no one else has the balls to offer that and the product quality to more than back it up. It also has a glass screen so you can more clearly see your LCD in the sun than with smudgy plastic and it is also among the thinnest cases out there at about half an inch thick–most rugged cases are 50% to 100% thicker in my experience. It also beats the competition because its headphone and lightning port are the most secure, under a single flap that is very hard to accidentally open compared to all other cases in its range, and the gasket is very well sealed going all the way around and locking with half a dozen snap clips. It costs $90, which is about the same as the other light duty cases here.
Except for some pre-production coverage, there are few reputable review of the Atlas, but it has the lessing of Wirecutter writer and iPhone case authority for iLounge Nick Guy. He gave the Incipio Atlas an A-, “Highly Recommended.” He particularly praised the glass screen’s responsiveness, which protected without inhibiting the screen’s functionality. “Although we’ve often found built-in screen protectors leaving us wanting, we are quite impressed with what Incipio has done here,” he says. “While other screen protectors can sometimes leave a small gap they leave a small gap that can affect the touch-sensitivity of the display.”
Oh there’s one negative Amazon review, but the guy judges it for sound quality. He doesn’t even realize that this case’s screen is glass. He’s basically a moron. Don’t listen to him. Listen to me, because I’ve tested nearly all the cases around and this one is great.
The Otterbox Armor is very sturdy, even if it’s too big and not waterproof enough to be our main pick for a light duty case–again, when testing both iPhone 4 and 5 versions, it flooded more easily than our main pick. I wouldn’t get it, but if you want to make it so that your phone is water proof-ish for immersion but not safe in heavy surf or horseplay, and you need to protect it while driving over it in a small car, this is the case. It’s rated to support 2000 pounds of weight, and has two metal clips that secure the case and its big rubber gasket shut–those keep the water out to the same rating of 6 feet for an hour as the Incipio Atlas. But the ports for headphones and the charge cable aren’t really secured well–and don’t lock into place like on the Incipio, so I believe this is where the case’s waterproofing weakness lies. There’s also no glass screen protector and it’s almost twice as thick as the Incipio Atlas. iLounge found the same thing.
In his review, Nick Guy said, “For most users, however, such an insane amount of protection likely isn’t necessary; slimmer cases can handle occasional drops and bumps, and some even offer waterproofing at lower prices, without this sort of brick-like bulk.” It’s for hikes and dips into a lake or pool, and mountain biking rides. But unless you really plan on smashing your phone a lot (this could be good for clumsy bouldering) go for the Incipio.
The Lifeproof, last year’s favorite, hasn’t changed much except it’s available in an iPhone 5 version. I’ve tested both over the long term. Get this–after an overnight test, I first thought the cases did flawlessly, thinking I was looking at cases that had not even condensation inside. When I opened them, they spilled water all over the floor. Each had completely flooded. In the open water quarter mile swim test with occasional shallow dives, both the iPhone 4 and 5 versions flooded partially with about 15% of the case full of water. This is a complete failure, even if by last year’s standards, this was the best light duty waterproof around.
The Lifeproof case may have a 1-year water damage guarantee but they don’t have a very secure locking or gasket system, just a simple tiny latch and a tupperware type seal. There’s also virtually no shockproofing. It’s build quality was considered ok last year because there was no competition. This year, that just isn’t acceptable. That isn’t a problem with the beefy armor or the extremely secure yet still just as thin Incipio with its 1 year water damage warranty. Forget this case entirely. I would not enter the water with one in anything but the calmest conditions and it won’t protect your case from much of a drop, either.
You’ll notice that published reviews of the Lifeproof are mostly flattering, but know that most assessments, unlike our testing, were done without availability or consideration for new competition. Besides our findings of the case’s fragility, reviewers found the plastic screen cover to inhibit touch responses and make the case feel cheap. PC Mag said, “The plastic screen cover and muffled audio are a bit of bummer.” Know that this feature improved since the iPhone 4/4S model, but we’re not fans of the plastic. The Incipio’s glass is more our speed.
Other cases we did not try because they were not available or worth a trial are theGriffin Survivor + Catalyst (no water damage protection warranty and not out yet), theSeidio OBEX (no water damage warranty, only rated to 6 feet for 30 minutes or 3 feet for an hour, but beloved so we’ll try it later) and the Outdoor Technology case (Wired gave it a 5/10 score).
There are other cases by Otterbox and the lovely Lunatik Taktic Extreme with a Gorilla Glass screen that are rugged without being waterproof, and those are kind of a waste in my book, so I didn’t feel the need to recommend any of these over a standard iPhone case or the waterproof models like the Armor.
Action Sport Camera Cases
In fact, a last generation case that I lost off Waikiki beach was later returned to me working a week later by a lifeguard who found it snorkeling on duty.
About a year ago, a few companies thought it would be cool if they could turn your iPhone into a replacement for the GoPro sports camera. Turns out this is a horrible idea, in general, because if you lose or break your GoPro, its sad, but if you lose or break your phone, you’re going to be pretty annoyed and out a few hundred bucks. The other thing is, on a set of skis or a surfboard or a car, a camera phone is a lot less sleek than a GoPro camera. Things can easily smack it off or wind or water (especially water) has more surface area to pry your precious gadget off your vehicle or body where it can be lost forever.
Optrix is the best one of these that I have found, in terms of overall protection. In overnight endurance tests it was the only one of its peers to survive with zero droplets of water. In fact, a last generation case that I lost off Waikiki beach was later returned to me working a week later by a lifeguard who found it snorkeling on duty. This case is extremely waterproof, even if only rated to 15 feet for an hour, I suspect it can go deeper than that pretty easily.
It’s also made out of a very strong plastic, is slimmer than other cases of it’s kind and has a glass wide angle lens with 175 degrees of view (most competition has a plastic lens). There are also tons of mounting options for almost every sport and Optrix tells me that they’re hoping to build gopro mount compatibility into the case soon. Oh, it has a special app meant to be used to take shots with the case that include g-force, speed and an autofocus lock to keep the video from trying to focus on all the scenery whizzing past your head.
Lesser Competition in The Sports Cameraphone Case World
The Hitcase (here’s a link to their company page) is a bigger case that seems tougher than the Optrix, but I found that not always to be the case. The Hitcase is rated to 30 feet but the iPhone 4 version it flooded pretty badly in the pool test while the iPhone 5 version, which was brand new and out of the box, had no problem. To be honest my test is meant to push these cases beyond their limits, but the Optrix did better. Like the Optrix, the Hitcase allows you to still use the touchscreen when wet (although underwater, touchscreen action is severely limited, understandably).
Waterproofing aside, it has the best shock absorption design on account of its bulkiness, with a hard case surrounding a softer inner case, and three locks that keep it securely closed. There’s a pro model ($130 vs $90 for the base model) that has a built in wide angle lens (like a GoPro or what the Optrix has from the get go) to make sure you get the action in frame. Best of all, the case uses GoPro mounting accessories–this last point being the greatest differentiator between it and its peers. There is one problem with the mount, and that is unlike with the Optrix, which mounts to the center back of the phone, the Hitcase mounts to the bottom of the case, increasing likelyhood of shake during filming and leverage from wind and water on the mount itself. It is bulkier than the rest, too. It’s not bad, it’s just that the Optrix is better.
One camera system I absoluteIy cannot recommend is the Mophie Outride, which has some weak mounting options that seem too small, and it doesn’t let you control the phones touchscreen without use of a non-waterproof, open faced second back. So, you’re either losing water and dustproofing and screen protection from rocks, or you’re choosing a solid, uncontrollable back that limits your ability to use the touchscreen. Not good.
The truth is, as I said above, you should get a GoPro. Or get a Optrix if you absolutely must use your iPhone for instagramming in weird places where you have to go a little deeper than what the Incipio Atlas will allow. And check that you like the mounting options before you get any of these.
A Deep Dive Case
I do a good amount of reporting on boats and sometimes its nice to Instagram photos taken from the iPhone at depth.
I do a good amount of reporting on boats and sometimes its nice to Instagram photos taken from the iPhone at depth. For that, I love and fully recommend the Watershot iPhone case. (I’ve tested the iPhone 4 version and need to verify the case inthe iPhone 5 version before I can recommend it.)
The version I tested was good to 120 feet (tested at 80) and costs about $100– a steal. It has an optional GoPro mount and like some other cases they make a useful app that allows you to turn off the camera without exiting the app, so you can save batteries while underwater and reactivate the camera even without use of a touchscreen. I tested this camera diving in Indonesia and shooting whale sharks in Mexico. And I often use this camera case in Hawaii and have zero complaints–it’s basically a little pro housing, complete with dedicated buttons and a grip, for your cameraphone. They have a GoPro mount accessory and I use it with a tray and a dive light. (When you get deeper than a few feet underwater, an external light is probably the way to go for making sure everything isn’t blue.) If ocean iPhone photography and videography is your thing, you have to get one of these cases.
I’ll get tests of the iPhone 5 version and the new Pro model which is rated to 195 feet for $190 dollars, which includes a wide-ish angle lens. In the future, Watershot plans to make shutter grips with wireless triggers to make things like surf photography easier. Oh, yes–if you want to do surf photography, this is the only iPhone water housing that I’d dare that with. You can find out more about these newer cases and accessories on their site.
That’s it. Get the Incipio if you’re looking for a solid case for light duty in the water and outdoors, and look towards other options–like the Optrix or Watershot–if you’re more serious about taking your cameraphone into the deep. But keep in mind waterproof cameras and GoPros are options that won’t be as tragic to lose or break in the wilds.