I’ve owned every iPhone bar the first one, picking most of them up on day one. All of these iPhones have comfortably survived the year with me and then moved on to other loving families. The only iPhone I have ever used any sort of case on is the iPhone 4, around which I used one of Apple’s bumpers. This worked well enough, providing a comfortable barrier between my phone and whatever table I was resting it on but ultimately felt unfulfilling. The smooth, cold, solid feeling that normally accompanies the iPhone 4 was gone, replaced by a something that felt like it should be surrounding a pipe to stop leakages.
Out of all those iPhones I’ve never damaged any. Yes, there have been minor scuffs here and there, but nothing major. If nothing else, it’s a testament to the robustness of the devices themselves.
Bearing all this in mind, it would take something a little special to convince me to wrap my current handset, the iPhone 5, in a case. When the SurfacePad, by Twelve South, was revealed I snapped one up. It appeared to be the first case I’ve come across that meets my requirements for a case. Those requirements are:
- It has to protect both the front and back of the phone
- It has to be reasonably thin
- It has to look good
As you can see from the image at the top of this post, this is a handsome case. Not only that, but grouped with some of the other items I use daily, it certainly fits in to roughly the same aesthetic. It’s also unfathomably thin. It uses an adhesive to attach to the back of the phone, so there’s no bulky clip or surround adding additional heft. And it meets my first requirement as well, as the wrap-around design covers both the front and back.
Installing the case is easy to do, hard to do well. You peel some backing paper off one side of the case and attach it to the back of the iPhone 5. Luckily TwelveSouth have used nano-adhesive so the case can be repositioned if necessary. And it’s very necessary. It took several attempts to get the case satisfactorily aligned, and that’s all it is. It’s far from perfect and can be most felt when folding the front of the case over where the edges don’t quite align and the fold isn’t as crisp as it should be.
The overall effect is that your SurfacePad is not going to look as good as the ones in the beautifully produced TwelveSouth photos and videos. However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After living with the SurfacePad for a few weeks it looks worn, weathered, and in my opinion, more handsome.
I don’t think there is any doubt that this is a handsome case. The SurfacePad is made from “luxury napa leather” and feels very nice in the hand. It’s soft, supple yet grippy. I don’t fear dropping my phone, or having it slip through my grasp.
TwelveSouth have targeted this product at those of us who usually carry our iPhones around “naked”. This is what appealed to me, it felt like a company understood what I wanted from a protective case. It was the below paragraph in particular that hooked me:
iPhone cases have gotten so thick and bulky, many users have chosen to let their iPhones go naked (no case at all). We completely understand. Most don’t need a case that’s military certified or that works underwater. SurfacePad for iPhone is designed to guard against the more typical dangers of daily life, while letting the beautiful modern design of the iPhone still shine through.
I know it’s marketing of the highest order, but it’s very much aligned to my own feelings on cases. They should be out-of-the-way as much as possible, and certainly shouldn’t be more substantial than the device they claim to protect.
TwelveSouth have fortunately kept the branding to a minimum. There’s a small, embossed logo on the front and some text on the inside cover. Both are applied tastefully and aren’t particularly distracting. The biggest decision you’ll face is which colour to get. I’ve gone with black to match my iPhone, but on TwelveSouth’s site the contrast applications look rather fetching (black on white or white on black) whilst the hot red edition will suit the more flamboyant iPhone owner.
I’ve peppered this post with images of my phone arranged with other items that I carry daily. I think this is a useful exercise when it comes to a product such as this. Everyone has their own sense of style, and it’s important to understand what mine looks like when I’m calling a product handsome or good-looking.
There are three states the SurfacePad can be in. There’s closed, as seen in the image at the top of this post, there’s open, as seen above and then there’s the stand position. This allows you to prop up your iPhone so you can watch a movie or do whatever else you want to do with your device in landscape orientation.
It’s a little unstable though. You wouldn’t want to be using it for anything that requires any significant screen tapping, for instance. And even without frantic screen prodding, it can at times be difficult to get the phone to stand up reliably. This is a nice feature, but I wouldn’t wan to rely on it. Chalk it up as a nice-to-have, a bonus, and set your expectations accordingly.
The other thing to consider is that the spine of the SurfacePad, that is the part of the case that covers the side of the iPhone, covers the left side. For those keeping score, that’s the side that houses your volume rocker and silent switch. Is this a problem? It can be, but certainly not as big of a problem as I thought it might be. The leather is reasonably flexible, so flicking the case so that it’s open enough to access that part of your phone is not generally an issue.
TwelveSouth have indicated on the spine of the SurfacePad where the volume buttons are placed with small embossed logos. You’d be hard pressed to reliably press the volume buttons using these as guidance though.
The form factor of the case also creates some challenges when using the phone’s camera. There is a cut-out revealing the camera, flash and noise-cancelling microphone but when the cover is flipped fully open it covers the lens. You can prop the cover up on your hand using a rather awkward motion but this obscures the volume button which is used to release the shutter. It really is a quandary and I find it hard to believe TwelveSouth didn’t put more thought in to this use case. Taking photos in portrait orientation is the obvious solution, but only someone who wanted to see the world slide in to chaos would ever do that.
In terms of protection, the SurfacePad very much focuses on the two pieces of glass that represent the bread in your iPhone sandwich. The case is going to provide very little protection against drops or crushes. It’s more suited to shielding the front screen and back panel from your keys and loose change that cohabit your pocket. The beauty of using leather is that scuffs don’t necessarily make this product worse, in fact, they add to the character. In the images throughout this post you can see a case that I’ve been using for a few weeks, and it’s already starting to take on a nice weathered look.
The attraction of this case is the fact that it’s lightweight, thin and unintrusive. Those qualities also make it susceptible to damage.
I’ve been using this particular case for a few weeks and there are already some worrying indications that it’s not going to last. The main issue is that the leather is already separating from it’s backing, as seen in the image below.
This began after barely a week. As far as I can tell, this is a design flaw. The natural motion to open the case it to flick it from the right hand edge of the front cover. There’s no other easy way to open the case so you potentially end up doing it many many times every day. This takes its toll. In the image above I’m applying very little pressure to peel the leather back and even though I’ve used the corner to demonstrate the problem, it’s coming loose along the entire right hand edge.
I called this a design flaw earlier because I believe it is. TwelveSouth have used stitching on the back where the hinge is located and it would have made more sense to use stitching along these edges as well. I suspect the same problem will befall every SurfacePad for iPhone owner at some point, and for some (like me) it will come very quickly indeed. Some additional durability in these touch-point areas would be most welcome.
The SurfacePad for iPhone achieved something astonishing – it made me want a case for my phone. Having lived with it for a few weeks I’m beginning to question that decision. It has enough quirks and inconveniences that it’s a little too much work day-to-day. However, it’s a really nice feeling product, and it looks fantastic (and I’m sure will continue to improve with age).
If the durability issues can be addressed, this is very close to being a product I could happily use every day.
Disclaimer: I’ve not yet contacted TwelveSouth regarding the issue I’ve experienced. I’m hesitant to do so because I incurred significant shipping costs in getting the SurfacePad to the UK and would likely incur the same when returning it. I’ll update this review should I make any progress in this area.