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PROTECT: Cases for your smartphone or tablet

These days, cases for your new smartphone, tablet or e-reader are just as important as the device itself. Whether it's to fit a specific style, taste or customization, there are hundreds of different options for dressing your tablet up.

We've scoured through a lot of those cases to present our picks of the year's best offerings, courtesy of the 2012 Cool Yule Tools holiday gift guide.

Holiday gift guide 2012

A quick guide to Network World's favorite gifts

Note: Products listed in no particular order or preference. Prices are also rounded-up estimates from either the product's website or Amazon.com. Better deals may be offered online during the holiday season.

X-doria Campfire

$59.99

X-doria's website says "CampFire is like a custom sleeping bag for the new iPad & iPad 2." While true, it is like a warm puffy pillow that easily slides onto your iPad, that warm cozy feeling goes away quickly if you suddenly jump up and the iPad falls and the glass breaks (but I suppose that can be the case with any sleeve that goes around the iPad).

I already have a case that tilts the iPad up, so having the sleeping bag feel didn't seem like much of an improvement. When not in use, you can reverse the cushion to protect the iPad. However, the reversal took more time than I was willing to invest. At almost $60, the cost seems a bit, well, stuffed.

- Ryan Francis

Eyn phone case (iPhone 4/4S) with storage space & mirror

$29.99

For many iPhone 4/4S owners, keeping their phone thin and light is a high priority. But for others, protecting the case from drops and scratches is more important. For the latter group, we present the Eyn phone case, which not only has a harder case to protect the phone from drops and scratches, but also comes with a "secret compartment". OK, it's not-so-secret - it's a compartment in the back that you can open up, revealing a handy mirror and a clip that can hold cash, credit cards or your driver's license.

Installing the phone into the case is quite easy - I mention this because some harder/protection cases can be a chore. The bottom of the Eyn case pops off, the iPhone easily slips in, and then you snap the bottom back on.

Opening and closing the compartment can be slightly tricky, but it's better if you have a thumbnail to do this with. In addition to storing things in the compartment, you can open the case like an upside-down V and use the backing as a kickstand for viewing movies or doing a FaceTime video chat. The unit also comes with a wristband that you can attach, giving you some extra protection in case your hand drops the phone (it reminded me of the wristband for the Nintendo Wii that stays attached to your wrist in case the remote flies off your hand). You can get the case in three colors - black, turquoise or pink, to fit a personal style or matching coordinated outfit.

The only downside is the extra bulk - this will add extra weight to the phone, so if you're like me and you carry your phone in your pocket, you're going to notice - but you'll also know that you have your phone on you as well. The extra bulk also means it won't fit into a power charging docking station correctly - but if you already charge via the cable only anyway, that's not a big deal.

- Keith Shaw

Marware C.E.O. Hybrid for iPad (3rd generation)

$50

We receive a lot of iPad and iPhone cases for our holiday gift guide, so my first rule in reviewing one is to figure out if there's something unique about the case that makes it worth writing about. If that doesn't happen, is the price low enough to make it worth recommending?

In the case of the C.E.O. Hybrid, neither of those options really fit the bill, but the case does a good enough job with the basics (and the price isn't outrageous), that it may still make for a good holiday gift. The case is a folio style that can also double as a horizontal viewing stand - it provides two positions for viewing content, or you can just lay it flat on the cover and use it for on-screen typing.

The case also features an internal hand-grip, which lets you hold the iPad with one hand so the second hand can operate it - after a while, though, that might get uncomfortable. The material feels like leather but probably isn't, but there is hard interior plastic spine that provides some protection for the iPad if you drop it. Getting the iPad into and out of the case was not super-easy, but it also wasn't as difficult as other cases I've tried.

The case comes in a choice of four colors (black, brown, red and pink), making it stylish enough for the CEO or CIO on your holiday list. The CEO Hybrid case doesn't try super-hard to get your attention - it just does what it does - I guess that's an endorsement of sorts.

- Keith Shaw

Marware MicroShell Folio for iPad (3rd generation)

$60

I'm not up on my chemical compounds, so the claim that a case made from a hard polycarbonate offers greater protection than cases made from polyurethane goes right over my head. That said, I suppose the polycarbonate can be made thinner and still offer protection, because this is made out of thinner materials than ones made from a hard plastic. With the thinner profile, the MicroShell Folio won't add extra bulk to your iPad if you are fearful that a larger case will suddenly bulk down the tablet.

The case offers an automatic sleep/wake lid, which means when you open the lid the iPad will turn on (a feature of the 2nd and 3rd generation of the tablet). On the lid side there are also two ridges of softness (that sounds like a band name), which can be bended back into a triangle shape to create a small stand for the iPad for horizontal viewing or typing. The viewing stand isn't as high as you'd like for viewing things while laying back on the couch (if it's on a table or desktop, you still have to sit up to see it), but it's better than nothing I suppose.

Soft magnets help secure the lid closed to the iPad, and you still have access to all of the iPads ports, buttons, cameras and speakers. Getting the tablet into the case was quite easy. The MicroShell Folio comes in metallic silver or black - my sample was the silver, which made it look slightly like Robocop.

At $60, the price seems higher than what I'd pay for an iPad case, but then maybe that's because I'm not aware of the pricing for polycarbonates.

- Keith Shaw

CM4 Q Card Case (iPhone 4/4S model tested)

$39.99

The Q Card Case combines several elements seen in other iPhone cases into one package. First, there's a tough rubber casing that protects the sides and back of the phone from drops and general handling. Next, there's an integrated wallet pocket on the back, letting you fit up to three credit-cards or a bunch of cash inside the soft-touch and stitched pocket.

The unit then also comes with a scratch-resistant plastic screen protector that you can lay on top of the screen to help protect the front of the iPhone. I didn't test this function (with so many cases to try, I tend to not do anything that might permanently change my phone), but it appears to be quite easy to apply.

The company announced a Q Card Case for the iPhone 5 in early November, so this same form factor should fit an iPhone 5 if you like these features. Several color choices are also available to fit any stylish desires.

Just remember that if you're putting your cash and credit-cards into your iPhone, it's that more valuable and devastating should you lose or have the phone stolen.

- Keith Shaw

Ballistic SG iPhone 4/4S case

$35

I was impressed when I first read about the Ballistic SG, a hybrid soft gel/"ballistic" nylon case designed for the iPhone 4/4S (note: The company also makes a version for the iPhone 5). Smartphone owners are often forced to compromise when selecting a case: you either get a soft gel case, which does a better job protecting your device from dropping, or you get a hard case, which isn't as good for drops but does a better job protecting from sharp objects (like keys).

The Ballistic SG has solved this dilemma by bringing both together in a thin, well designed case. In total you're getting three layers of protection, the result being one of the best protected phones I've ever seen. If you're prone to dropping or otherwise abusing your iPhone, you should very much consider this case.

There is one small drawback, but it bears mentioning: the sides of the phone you use to grip the device are made of smooth, hard plastic, which is much more slippery than the soft gel. If you tend to use lots of hand lotion, the case might make the phone a little more slippery than you're used to. If (when) you do end up dropping it, though, there is some extra soft gel used on the corners, which should absorb the brunt of any impact. It really is a great case.

- Dan Hunt

Lifeproof nuud case for iPad and Cover + Stand

$100 (case); $20 (cover/stand)

It seems a shame that people would spend a lot of money on a tablet like the iPad, then not protect it with a cover or case that can prevent damage from drops, or moisture/water/dirt/etc. Lifeproof takes its cases seriously, providing ultimate protection for your iPad with its nuud case.

How seriously? First off, they give you a plastic "test iPad" that they encourage you to place in the case first, in order to test the waterproof-ness of the case. If the case passes that test, you can be sure that your case is good enough to waterproof the real iPad. In addition to the front and back case parts, there are two yellow "O-Rings" that surround the front and back part to seal it even further.

The case is waterproof up to 6.6 feet of depth (fully submerged), dirtproof (from dust particles), snowproof and shockproof (from drops). The extensiveness of the protection offered by the Lifeproof nuud case is pretty impressive, but it also doesn't block any ports that you need to enjoy the iPad. You can still touch, tap and swipe the front of the screen for your apps, and speaker ports let you hear any music. The headphone jack has this elaborate system that lets you plug in your headphones (with an included adapter) that won't break the seal (it reminds me of spaceship airlocks).

The optional cover and stand ($20) provides an extra cover for the front of the iPad - it just snaps onto the front, and then doubles as a two-position stand for viewing movies or typing on the device.

While the case will add some additional weight to the iPad, the benefits of being able to use the device in new locations (outdoors, at the beach, near water, in the rain) outweigh (sorry about the pun) the extra heft.

If the person on your gift list already owns an iPad (the case supports generations 2 through 4 of the tablet), give them the extra security of a great case.

- Keith Shaw

Zazzle.com personalized iPhone cases

Starts at $39.95

After seeing so many different varieties of iPhone and other smartphone cases, sometimes the best thing to do is just create your own. Fortunately, the folks at Zazzle.com have a very easy process to let you do just that.

At least customize with your own photo - you still are limited in the type of case you end up with. Fortunately, you can choose from a bunch of different Case-Mate or Speck cases, and those have always been very good cases (for the iPhone, at least).

Once you've selected a case, you can upload a photo, add text or logos, and then submit the order. Zazzle says it takes from three to five business days to get the case done, which isn't really that long a time to wait (just put your order in early for the holidays!).

If you thought Zazzle was all about custom-made T-shirts and hats, check out the site again - in addition to the iPhone cases, they allow for customization on several types of products.

- Keith Shaw

Jamie James Collection Cellfolio universal phone case

$35 to $58, depending on style

I'm going to admit this up front - clearly these cases are designed for women due to the different colors and styles offered by the website. The Cellfolio is a combination leather wallet and a mobile phone case - it should be able to fit any phone case (save for some of the larger Samsung models). The two halves of the case are connected by a small strap on the bottom - the top is open and another strap wraps around to snap that in place.

When you open the case one side is where the phone would rest (you connect it to the case via a stick-on Velcro patch). The other side is a spot where you can place a driver's license or work badge. This makes it convenient to just snap open the case to flash an ID or your badge, for example.

The outside of the case holds some small pockets that let you insert some credit cards or even cash if you want - the finishing touch is a wristlet (guys - it's like the handstrap on a Wiimote), which lets you wear the case on your wrist.

From my male perspective, I like the combination of functions and features combined in one package (the card holders, snap-on strap, wristlet). I can't speak to the colors or style choices, but I'm sure women would find something to like here.

- Keith Shaw

Marware EcoVue Kindle Fire cover

$35

If you get a Kindle Fire for the holidays (and after reading our review of it, you really should), the next purchase should be for a good case to protect the device and provide a small stand for viewing any TV shows or movies that you load or download onto the Kindle.

The EcoView cover from Marware does just that - made out of "eco-leather" (Marware says its process utilizes fewer toxins than traditional leather tanning), the case folds to create a horizontal stand for viewing, and inside pockets can store things like cash, a driver's license or credit-cards. A nice elastic strap can hold the device open or closed, and the case allows users to still get to all of the device's ports, speakers and buttons.

Getting the Kindle Fire into the case was quite easy, you don't need to force anything, and it fit quite nicely. Pick this case up (along with the fast power charger), and your Kindle-ized holidays should be complete.

- Keith Shaw

Vega Universal Cell Phone Purse

$15

This product claims to be a case, a purse, or a wallet. It has a large pocket intended for a phone; a thin, clear pocket that would be ideal for an ID; and one other pocket with 2 card slots within it (or one card slot and one cash slot). It comes with two removable straps: one wrist strap, one shoulder strap. Finally, its made out of this pink, windbreaker-type material.

It feels very young to me. It really only has two pockets for cards and one card for cash. Yes, you could double up your cards; but the way I see it, there is room for an ID and a debit card. One could probably also fit a chapstick/lipgloss in the pocket that has the two internal slots.

Its cute, but its not really functional for an older woman and our million cards. At the same, its not fancy enough to use going to a wedding or a club when an older woman is more likely to scale back what she brings with her. I can see it working really well for a college girl though, or any woman who doesnt have all of the clutter of a regular purse or wallet.

Overall, I think its cute, but Im not wowed by it. I do appreciate though that it can be used with a phone type besides an iPhone.

- Jen Finn

Read more about anti-malware in Network World's Anti-malware section.


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