In a funny way, the Smart Battery Case feels like an admission of guilt—or at least a bit of a belated attempt to address an acknowledged shortcoming. No company is eager to point out the spots where its products fall short, a fact that's always gone double for Apple.
But for all of the company's focus on design and user experience, battery life has never been the iPhone's strong suit, a fact that came into sharp relief with the release of the 6s, cited by numerous reviewers as the key dark spot on an otherwise great device.
Released to little fanfare, just in time for the holiday season, the Smart Battery Case is an awkwardly shaped Band-Aid designed at nipping those issues in the proverbial bud. Of course, the case joins an already—if not crowded, then certainly well-attended—field of third-party cases designed to combine protection with portable charging.
So, what does the Smart Battery Case bring to the table beyond the official Apple stamp of approval? There are a few proprietary tweaks here and there that help distinguish the peripheral from the pack, but whether or not there are enough to advise picking the case up over the competition is another question altogether.
Close your eyes for a moment. Think back to all of the beautifully lit commercials at Apple keynotes. All of the slow pans across the perfectly rounded glass and metal corners that populate Apple's mobile. Imagine Jony Ive softly whispering "aluminum" into your ear in that Jony Ive way as you float gently on a peaceful iCloud.
All right, now that you're in your happy Apple place, open your eyes and behold the Smart Battery Case. It's ... an awkward thing. Like the Ford Flex of battery cases, with a big, boxy bump monopolizing four-fifths of the rear. The company opted out of the gradual gradation of cases like Mophie's.
True, the case is slimmer at the top and bottom, but that doesn't mean a whole heck of a lot when it comes to portability. Instead, there's just a lump that doesn't conform to the hand particularly well—though, after a bit of use, my fingers did begin to adjust to the protrusion, finding spots just around the top and sides.
Like most competing cases, the front features a bit of a lip at the bottom, extending the front bezel by a few millimeters. Apple has utilized the added real estate to house a small, single speaker grille, to make up for muzzling the phone's built-in speakers. Along the bottom is a headphone jack and Lightning port.
A couple of notes on ports: first, it's no surprise, naturally, that Apple's gone with Lightning here—it is, after all, Apple's big proprietary port push. I've long considered the Mophie's use of microUSB a net positive—I always seem to have the cables lying around, and really they're so ubiquitous that you're a lot more likely to run into one on the road when you need a charge. Of course, there's something to be said for utilizing the same cord that came with the phone in the first place.
As for the headphone jack—it is, not surprisingly, recessed. This immediately rules out utilizing headphones with a L-bent jack. It also rules out a significant number of headphones with any significant girth. It worked just fine with the cheapie Skullcandy headphones I picked up from RadioShack and, naturally, with Apple's own proprietary ones, which I suspect Apple assumes most devoted fans are using anyway, sound quality be damned. It does, however, rule out a significant number of third-party wired headphones without the use of an adapter (not included).
As for the material, Apple's gone with a soft-touch silicone, much like its standard iPhone case. I do like the company's choice of material here, with regard to texture. Bump aside, the case's soft quality gives it a nicer in-hand feel than harder cases—though it does make it a bit of a magnet for lint. The first time I pulled it out of my pocket, it looked like it was covered in Christmas tree flocking.
The case's malleability also means that it can be slipped on and off the phone without removing a piece (this is also where the thinner top comes into play). Inside is a soft, fleecy material designed to play nice with the iPhone's aluminum backing. There's also a small charging light that's amber when the case is charging and green when it's ready.
It was, perhaps, an aesthetic choice to not include the light on the exterior, but the decision is ultimately a bit baffling, as the light can only be viewed when there's no phone in the case. There's a software fix for this which we'll get into below, but it still seems like another odd decision on Apple's part.
The Smart Case is a sort of set it and forget proposition. Unlike other cases, there's no switch for turning on the battery thrusters. Rather, the minute the case is unplugged, the iPhone starts feeding on its battery until it's spent. This ultimately removes the power from the hands of the user, but it does, perhaps, give them one fewer thing to think about.
Sure, it's a bit dumber in that sense, but there's one place where the Smart Battery Case really does live up to its name—and naturally, it's the sort of thing that only deep Apple integration can bring. Turns out there was a cool battery feature lying in wait inside of iOS for the case's inevitable arrival.
Pop the phone in the case and two battery icons show up on the lock screen: one for iPhone and one of the case. These meters can also by accessed in the phone's dropdown menu. Much like iOS's built-in Bluetooth device battery monitor, its an extremely handy feature for battery-obsessive compulsives such as myself and mostly negates the need for an exterior charging light on the case, though it would be nice to be able to see its progress without turning on the phone.
And as for the battery life itself, it's just OK. The battery rates at 1,877 mAh, which just a bit more than the 6s' built-in 1,715 and the 6's 1,810. Apple is promising 25 hours of additional talk time and 20 hours of video. In my own real-world use, I found that I was able to use my iPhone 6 an extra day without having to worry about rushing to an outlet.
It certainly takes some of the pressure off making sure the handset is plugged in before passing out for the night (I admit, I now have the extremely annoying 21st century habit of falling asleep with my phone), but the numbers don't really stack up to the competition. The comparably priced Mophie Juice Pack Air, for example, sports a relatively whopping 2,750 mAh, while the more reasonably priced Incipio OffGrid Express goes up to 3,000 mAh. In either case, it's a pretty sizable difference.
Reaction to the Smart Battery Case hasn't been particularly positive thus far, but most critics aren't mad so much as they're disappointed. Apple's set a high design bar with its products that the case doesn't come close to clearing.
It feels much more rushed than we're used to from the company, like a peripheral released solely to address complaints about the shortcomings of an existing product, reeking of first-generation pitfalls. The design is awkward, certain decisions seem strange, and the battery is a lackluster centerpiece.
Even still, there are some truly compelling features here. For one thing, the case takes advantage of the baked-in iOS dual-battery readings like only a proprietary product can. The silicone design also brings a nice feel to the peripheral. And while it doesn't have a switch, some fans may welcome the product's set it and forget it nature.
With a $99 asking price on-par with many of the more premium (and battle tested) competitors, however, this first Smart Battery Case may prove a tough sell.