Let's start with the facts: I've never dropped a bowling ball on my iPhone. Still, I've seen enough cracked, spider-webbed, I-hope-I-texted-the-right-words screens that I thought I might want a rugged case before I even owned one. The problem with rugged cases is that they tend to be cartoonishly big (much too thick for comfortably sliding into a pants pocket) with garish, toy-inspired color schemes.
But Incase is one company that's known to produce attractive smartphone cases, and lately it's toughened up with the introduction of its rugged SYSTM brand. Apparently, with a SYSTM case, you can drop a bowling ball on your phone and it will be fine:
OK, so maybe that's not exactly what they were saying. Instead, it's a demonstration of the high-tech material that supposedly sets SYSTM apart from other rugged cases—Poron XRD foam. Used primarily for wearable protection in impact sports like football and hockey, Poron is a lightweight foam made with soft, pliable polyurethane molecules that stiffen into a protective, shock-absorbing shield upon high-speed impact.
Honestly, I don't know if that's true, because I'm too damn cheap to drop things on my phone or toss it out the window for the sake of testing (why I got the cases in the first place, right?). Here's what I can tell you after a couple of months of use.
The SYSTM brand consists of three primary models—Hammer, Chisel and Vise—with increasing levels of protection in each. (There are others—Forged and Cartridge—that were only produced for iPhone 4 and 4s, but I have no experience with those.) As is expected from Incase, the designs are fairly clean and, aside from the Vise, sleek. The neon color schemes can be a bit much, but for the most part they're balanced out by a healthy dose of very sober black or gray.
The Hammer ($29.95) is lightweight rubber (thermoplastic polyurethane, to be specific), has a fairly thin, pocket-friendly profile—14mm at its thickest, but primarily 12mm, and incorporates Poron XRD at each interior corner. It also has exterior bumpers on each corner for extra shock absorption, which has the added benefit of providing extra grip points. This is my favorite SYSTM line. It's sleek while offering added protection over your average case.
The Chisel ($34.95) is also lightweight, though it's made of a combination of TPU and hard polycarbonate. Like the Hammer, its thickness ranges from 12 to 14mm. The polycarbonate makes it bulkier, though, and the majority of this case comes in at 14mm. The entire back of the Chisel's interior is covered with Poron, offering lots of protection against flat falls on uneven surfaces. It's the most singular case design-wise, and seems to be very tough.
The Vise ($49.95) may stop bullets, but it's got all of the thick, clunky problems of its competition. It's 17mm thick, has a full rubber case surrounded by a full polycarbonate shell that slide-locks on. It's burly, but just plain too burly for our tastes.
Of course, the biggest shortcoming of the SYSTM cases is that they offer no screen protection. All of the cases wrap around to the front side of the phone, so it should fare well in flat screen-side fall, but if it falls and the screen strikes an uneven or jagged surface, you could be out of luck.
In the end, the Hammer and the Chisel are some of the nicest rugged smartphone cases we've seen at this price point—striking a good balance between looks and impact protection. The only model that strikes an even better balance is the Lifeproof iPhone case, which rings in at a very steep (though maybe worth your while if you're calling from a surfboard or taking a video of your latest mountain bike stunt) $80.
Hits: Lightweight, sleek, not an eyesore, seems as tough as advertised
Misses: No screen protectors, the Vice is a monstrosity