Hating on the hump is easy, getting to the bottom of Apple's new battery case takes a full review.
The Smart Battery Case for iPhone 6s and iPhone 6 has generated an incredible amount of internet noise. Much of it has been reactionary and superficial. The "hump" on the back has grabbed so much attention it's overshadowed everything else about the accessory, good and bad. Part of that is Apple's fault for not doing a proper keynote or product video introduction for the Smart Battery Case, which is different enough in design goals to have really needed it. Either way, it's terrible for potential customers. It cheats them out of what they need to know to make an informed decision.Let's fix that now.
Smart Battery Case Video Review
Give us under three minutes and we'll give you everything you need to know.
Smart Battery Case hump
Because the Smart Battery Case is essentially Apple's silicone case for iPhone with a power pack embedded in the back, it looks like it has a "hump" or "bump". An iPod on top of the iPhone. Yoda on Luke's back. Whatever you want to call it, it's there and it's impossible to ignore.
Objectively the design is fine. It's symmetrical, impeccably moulded, and enables significant functionality. Subjectively, it's awkward-looking. There's an unabashed minimalism to it that's not ugly per se, because it's not lopsided or ostentatious, but that's severely lacking in the elegant curves and lines we've come to expect from Apple.
And that's made for some fascinating reactions.
Apple is routinely criticized for putting form ahead of function. In this case, though, putting function ahead of form has resulted in some of the loudest bouts of criticism in recent history.
The "hump" is the result of hard choices made during the design process. By not running the battery all the way along the back, and by not using rigid material to cover it, Apple can hide a hinge beneath the silicone. That hinge lets the top part of the case bend backwards so you can slide your iPhone in and then slip the case back over it.
It provides an alternative to the two-piece cases that require you to remove the top or back in order to put them on. They're typically fussier and more difficult to put on, and the extra parts are susceptible to damage or loss. So, even though the Smart Battery Case is less pleasing to the eye, the resulting one-piece design is a huge win.
Likewise the reception. With other cases, the material can sometimes cause cellular signal to drop. Manufacturers have done a lot to mitigate that over the years, but in areas that already have bad reception, it can still be a problem.
Because of the Smart Battery Case's design, the antenna bands are essentially covered only by thin silicone portion of the case. Moreover, Apple has added coupled passive antennas to further maintain signal. As a result, even in areas where I typically have poor coverage, I haven't noticed any bars dropping. So, the Smart Battery Case may look awkward but the signal retention is another huge win.
The lack of bulk around the sides is also great when you hold it. Because there's no padding to "round it out", it feels especially slim. For me, my index finger naturally falls right above the hump and the rest of it evaporates into my palm. That's considerably better than the slight stretching I feel when I hold other, more voluminous cases. Likewise, it's svelte enough that it slips into pockets without feeling bulky. So, not easy on the eyes but easy pretty much everywhere else.
The hinge, the antennas, the lack of bulk—none of these would be possible if Apple had gone with a more traditional design. None of that functionality would be there absent this form.
For some it won't matter. The hump will be a deal-breaker. They'll never be able to un-see it so they'll never buy it. For others, it'll be a non-issue. They'll frown at the hump once, then pick it up and seldom if ever think about it again. (They may even find it bulldog-pretty.)
Back before the iPhone I had a Palm Treo. I bought and used an extended battery for it, one that came with an even more prominent, less pocketable hump. Over the years, HTC and other manufacturers have come out with similar designs as well. So, it's something I've been familiar with for a long time. I never loved the look, but it was also never been a problem for me.
The Smart Battery Case for iPhone 6s and iPhone 6 is the same deal, only with better, smarter functionality. I still don't love the look, but I can't argue with what it enables.
Smart Battery Case Finish
The Smart Battery Case has a soft-touch finish that comes in either white or charcoal. The white, to my eyes, matches the Magnetic Charging Dock for the Apple Watch and the charcoal is similar to the Smart Keyboard Case for iPad Pro. Unlike Apple's standard silicone case, though, there aren't any other colors. No reds, blues, pinks, or pastels. That's too bad. At least one splash of color would have been fun.
Personally, I love the space gray, silver, gold, and rose gold finishes on the iPhones 6s and would have welcomed maintaining them even with the battery case on, and even at the cost of the soft-touch finish. Reason being, I have no trouble holding on to a naked iPhone, so the extra grip isn't a big deal to me. I'm likely not in the majority with that, though.
I'm also not a fan of soft-touch in general. Never have been. It's where I'm superficial: I dislike how much lint it holds onto. Whenever I have a soft-touch phone or case I constantly find myself trying—and failing—to keep it clean. I'm likely not in the majority with that either, though.
Since the soft-touch finish, especially combined with the shape, absolutely make the iPhone easier to hold, I think most people will appreciate it.
Smart Battery Case Ports and Buttons
My biggest gripe with the Smart Battery Case isn't the hump and isn't the soft-touch. The first is more than made up for my the functionality and the second is a personal preference. My biggest gripe is the cutout for the 3.5mm headphone jack.
The slim plug at the end of Apple's EarBuds fits into the hole at the bottom of the Smart Battery Case, no problem. Anything wider—and lots of headphone plugs are wider—and it won't fit at all. That's a problem.
A bigger hole would allow for a few more headphones to fit, but not all of them. And a hole big enough to fit all of them would be impossible without cutting out most of the bottom left side.
A 3.5mm pass-through would be awkward. There'd have to be a jack built into the case, and you'd need to slide it—in addition to the Lightning plug—into your iPhone each and every time you put it on.
A 3.5mm headset jack to Lightning adapter could conceivably be built in, but it would require a digital-to-analog-converter (DAC) and other components. That would no doubt increase complexity and cost, and might not be compatible with all apps.
A bundled extension dongle is what companies like mophie have used to "solve" the problem. Apple could have likewise bundled one in. I think they should have. They're horrible, but the best of the bad solutions. (Queue the wireless world rumors).
The rest of the cutouts are great, though. There's ample room around the rear-facing iSight camera and flash, and around the mute switch. The acoustical port for the speaker channels sound to the front of the case. Not only does it prevent audio and calls from being muffled, it projects them loud and clear.
The edges of the case rise up above the screen so you can put it face down without scratching the glass. I was worried it might interfere with bezel gestures, like swiping to go backwards or forwards in Safari, but I haven't had any trouble.
The passthroughs for the other buttons, including the volume rocker and sleep/wake button, are similarly well done. You have to press a little harder but unlike some other cases they're move cleanly and feel precise.
Smart Battery Case Charging
Apple has two huge home-court advantages with the Smart Battery Case. First, they get to use a fully functional Lightning passthrough—a Lightning port on the outside and plug on the inside. Second, they get full integration with iOS.
Since the Smart Battery Case has a Lightning instead of a microUSB, you can charge it with the same cable you use to charge your iPhone. Moreover, since it's fully functional, you can charge both the case and the iPhone at the same time. That's one less cable you have to keep around or carry with you, and one less thing you have to remember to charge separately.
The charging is literally "smart" too. With the iPhone adapter, it'll charge the iPhone first then the case. With the iPad adapter, it seems to charge the iPhone and, because there's so much juice, charge the case at the same time. Either way, your iPhone gets priority, which means it'll always have the most charge possible.
Also, your iPhone knows when it's connected to the case rather than a plug so it's smart enough not to begin any backups or background tasks, "always listening" Siri on iPhone 6, or other processes that cause excessive drain. If you plug the case in, though, it's also smart enough to open up all those power-hungry processes.
Some people might want a case to enable all that activity, of course, and plenty of cases do. Apple is doing something different: solving for maximum power efficiency in the lightest possible package.
I've only had the case for a couple of days so I haven't had a chance to put it through long-term testing. The one time I did charge both fully on an iPad adapter, they charged fast enough that when I came back from a few hours at lunch and the mall, they were already full up. It'll take longer with an iPhone adapter, of course, but since it only takes one cable to charge both, I'll just plug them in at night and not ever think about it.
Apple hasn't released any details on the battery capacity other than to say it'll add 25 hours of talk time, 18 hours of LTE browsing, and 20 hours of video playback.
Following a teardown, iFixit pegged the battery at 1877 mAh. That's compared to 1715 mAh in the iPhone 6s and 1810 mAh in the iPhone 6. But the numbers aren't supposed to be comparable. They're supposed to be commutative.
Thanks to the iOS integration, charge status for both the iPhone and the Smart Battery Care is prominently displayed immediately on the Lock screen when you plug it in. Charge status for both is also available at any time from Notification Center. Simply swipe down from the top.
Lightning bolt icons show you exactly what is being charged and when. If the case is on, you see it charging the iPhone. If the case is plugged in, you see both the case and iPhone charging. And because you can see the exact percentage for each, which is far more precise then a sequence of four LED lights, you can make a more informed decisions about exactly how much power is left and exactly how you want to spend it.
Other cases sometimes have independent on/off switches. That way, if you want them on your iPhone but not actively charging it, you can do that. Not so with the Smart Battery Case. If it's on, it's charging. That's a benefit. It's handling the power management so you don't have to, and in so doing, keeping the battery as healthy as possible.
Likewise, there's no physical button and light system to show you charge level on the case. That means you can't just pick it up by itself and see how much charge is left. You have to put it on the iPhone.
There is a small LED light inside the case that, when you plug it in, will glow amber when charging and green when fully charged. It can't, however, tell you the level of charge. So, you're back to having to put it on your iPhone.
Again, unabashed minimalism. The case simply keeps your iPhone at the best possible power level at all times, and makes sure you're unnecessarily racing through your battery's charging cycles. You put it on and use it as needed—set it and forget it. For most people, letting the case do the work just works.
Smart Battery Case Bottom Line
At $99 to roughly double the charge capacity of the iPhone 6s or iPhone 6, the Smart Battery Case seems much more expensive than budget battery cases. Coming from Apple, that should surprise absolutely no one.
Just like you can find cheaper phones than the iPhone, cheaper smart watches than the Apple Watch, and cheaper computers than the Mac, you can find cheaper battery cases than the Smart Battery Case. You just typically can't find them with the same level of materials, manufacturing, and integration. Those come with the Apple logo on the back.
Beyond that, though, Apple is doing something novel here: efficiency. The company is trying to get the absolute most power from the absolute least battery. Bigger is heavier and that comes with a cost in the hand and the pocket or purse. Apple's case is for those who need a little extra juice some of the time, but want to be weighed down and bulked up as little as possible. That's what they're solving for.
If you don't care about any of that, then you should absolutely buy something else. There are plenty of alternatives available for people who want lower prices or bigger batteries.
If neither the hump nor headphone jack are deal-breakers, if you need to extend your battery life in the most minimalist, integrated way possible, then get the Smart Battery Case.
iPhone 6s Plus battery cases
There's no Smart Battery Case for iPhone 6s Plus or iPhone 6 Plus. Perhaps it'll come later or perhaps Apple believes the extra battery they've already built inside negates the need for extra battery outside. Either way, if you do need a battery case for your iPhone 6s Plus or iPhone 6 Plus, there are several to choose from.
Updated 15/12/11 with battery size and more information on the case "smarts".