Few people have greater insight into the follies and foibles of humans than smartphone repair technicians. Sure, Shakespeare is the master when it comes to cutting observations about human nature, but the people who repair our phones see us at our most vulnerable—mangled hardware in palms, usually with some embarrassing and revelatory mistake to confess.
Laxmi Agrawal of Cupertino iPhone Repair and Sam Shoman of SF Smart Wireless have seen it all. A client who dropped his phone in the snow and found it two months later in a puddle of snowmelt. A client whose phone was run over by a truck and brought the device in with tire chain marks crushed into the screen.
Their experience shows that even if you’ve vowed to be careful, the world is filled with potential tech treachery, so it’s best to act preemptively and wrap your phone in a protective case. We talked to these two experts who have witnessed the most harrowing smartphone horror stories, and they offered some advice you can use to avoid witnessing your own.
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Protect Your Phone From Impact
The most common problem Agrawal says brings customers to repair shops is shattered glass screens. Screens are particularly vulnerable to shattering if the point of impact is at a corner of the phone, where the force exerted on the glass is more concentrated.
For a baseline level of protection, choose a case made of a shock-absorbent material (like silicone or rubber) that covers your phone’s vulnerable corners. Shoman advises smartphone owners against plastic cases, which do not effectively absorb shock and are likelier to translate any impact to the device itself.
Beyond that, what you buy depends on how and where you use your phone. A slim case may be fine if you’re confident you’ll only subject your phone to everyday bumps and minor drops. Try a translucent slim case like Totallee or Peel’s cases for iPhones, Google Pixel handsets, and Samsung Galaxy devices to show off your phone’s design.
Cases with thick, bulky shells add more weight and absorb greater shock. Agrawal recommends these cases for younger phone users.
“Teenagers are very much prone to breaking their phones,” she says, noting stories of younger customers dropping or stepping on their phones. For teens (or let’s face it, grown adults) who prefer heavy-duty protection, Agrawal recommends OtterBox brand cases. OtterBox offers cases for iPhone and a wide variety of Android phones. The hallmark of the OtterBox brand is the Defender series cases, which undergo rigorous tests for durability. The Defender Series Case for the iPhone 13, for example, offers a durable polycarbonate shell, flaps that shield charging ports, and a holster. (Yes, a holster.) It gives your phone the hardy air of a miniature Transformer.
Consider Your Needs
In Agrawal’s experience, water damage is less common than screen damage, though she notes that aquatic accidents tend to occur during long weekends and summers when swimmers mistakenly take their phones along for a dip. If you can’t resist the call of the sea, Pelican’s Marine cases for iPhone offer waterproof, drop-tested protection to withstand surprise dunks.
Water damage is less of an issue since water resistance became standard in the top phones, but bear in mind that this type of protection doesn't extend to the ocean. Saltwater is corrosive, so a waterproof case could be a good idea if there's any risk your phone is going to come into contact with it.
If you’re constantly stretching the limits of your phone’s battery, Mophie offers cases that double as chargers. Folio or wallet cases, like these Pad & Quill ones for iPhone, can tote your phone, along with other necessities, like your ID and that stamp card you always seem to forget to bring to the frozen yogurt place. As a plus, Shoman notes that these can provide a surprisingly good level of protection, as many offer full coverage around the edges and a metal clasp that keeps the phone in place.
For non-iPhone users, specialized phone cases can be more difficult to find. Shoman, an Android user himself, observes that many phone case companies design products solely for iPhones. You can usually find tons of options if you use a Samsung phone, a Google Pixel, or even a OnePlus phone, but your choices get slimmer from there. Shoman recommends consulting with a local phone repair shop to have a customized case built.
Should You Use a Screen Protector?
Phone accessory retailers often carry screen protectors, which adhere directly to the phone’s touchscreen surface. Our experts recommend investing in tempered glass screen protectors, which deflect scratches more effectively than plastic screen protectors.
Shoman recommends that his clients look for screen protectors with a 9H hardness rating. “It’s the perfect thickness, and you still get that high-definition clarity in the screen,” he says.
But Agrawal and Shoman warn that a screen protector’s level of defense again damaging impacts is limited. While adhesive screen protectors effectively shield phones from direct force on the touchscreen, they don’t hold up as well when the phone is impacted from the sides or corners. A tempered glass screen protector should be used in conjunction with a case.
Finding Your Ideal Case
You will want to pick a color and design that suits your style, but there are a few other things worth thinking about. Consider how the case will feel in hand. Many cases have ridged sides or special finishes to enhance grip. After all, the best drop protection is not dropping your phone in the first place. Do you want a kickstand to prop the phone up in landscape mode while you watch movies? How about MagSafe compatibility if you have a recent iPhone?
Beware stiff button covers or ill-fitting cutouts. Openings for ports and camera lenses should be generous enough to not cause issues while using your phone. Thicker, rugged cases can sometimes interfere with wireless charging. If you can't try a case out before buying, read some online reviews or ask the manufacturer.
Plastic is the most common material used for phone cases, usually polycarbonate, TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane), or a mixture of the two. But what happens when you upgrade your phone in a couple of years? That case will likely join the growing tide of plastic waste and could easily outlive you. We are starting to see biodegradable plastic phone cases, but if you're concerned about the impact of plastic on the environment, it might be better to go with another material, like sustainable wood.
The experiences our smartphones allow us to have (receiving the latest information, taking pictures we cherish, staying in touch with loved ones) are well worth protecting. But as phones become increasingly portable, we expose them to greater risks, from the elements to good ol’ human error. Agrawal and Shoman emphasize that while cases are the best way to preemptively protect your phone, no case is 100 percent foolproof.
Shoman’s no-nonsense advice for smartphone owners: “Honestly just be on it less. Keep it in your pocket. Use it when needed.”
Our guides to the Best iPhone 13 Cases, Best iPhone 12 Cases, Best Samsung Galaxy S21 Cases, and Best Google Pixel Cases are good places to start. Even if you don't own one of those phones, you will find useful advice and tips on some of the best case brands.
Updated November 2021: We've added some information on water resistance, a new section on finding your ideal case, and some useful links.