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Sink or Swim: Waterproof iPhone Cases Put to the Test

Smartphones can do many things, but one thing they can’t do is swim. Yet we still insist on bringing them with us to the bathroom, the pool or the beach because we can’t bear to be away from our handsets. Until a company releases a waterproof cellphone, the least you can do is get a waterproof case.

With some trepidation, I dunked my iPhone 4 in a swimming pool and the Pacific Ocean this week to test out three waterproof cases: The LifeProof, Otterbox Armor and Dry Case. Much to my relief, all three worked and kept my phone safe and dry.

Each case is designed for a different kind of user, including those who need a rugged case for everyday use, outdoor enthusiasts and people looking for a way to keep the sand and water out of their phones during a beach vacation. Read on to see which one is the best fit for you.

The LifeProof case is ideally sized, and can be used as an everyday case. The company offers models for the iPhone 4, 4S, 5, fourth-generation iPod and iPad, but at $80, it’s not cheap. It only weighs 1.05 ounces, and measures a half-inch thick (the iPhone 4 is 0.37-inch thick), so it doesn’t add much bulk or weight unlike the Otterbox and Drycase. I didn’t find it any more cumbersome than my usual InCase Slider case.

That said, this little bit of extra thickness prevents you from plugging in your headphones like normal. Instead, you need an adapter to connect your headphones, which is included in the case.

With the LifeProof, you can take your iPhone in up to 6.6 feet of water for up to 30 minutes, though it’s not meant for deep-sea diving. It also blocks out dust, dirt and other debris, and the company says the polycarbonate frame can survive a 6.6-foot drop.

Installation is easy. The case comes in two parts — the front half, with a plastic screen protector, and the back half. After sliding my iPhone into the front half, I attached the back by going around the edges with my thumb and snapping the cover into place. There’s a latch at the bottom to lock everything into place, and it doubles as a protective cap for the power connector. There’s also a screw cap to protect the headphone jack.

I went swimming with it in a local pool, using its armband accessory ($50), and also took it out with me when I went surfing over the weekend in Pacifica, Calif. I was in water no deeper than five feet, and didn’t use it beyond the recommended 30 minutes, but my iPhone stayed dry the whole time. The case features cutouts for the camera and flash, so I was able to take underwater pictures.

There’s a slight gap between the plastic screen and the iPhone’s display, so a couple of times I had to press a little harder than usual to snap a photo or to launch apps. I did struggle with the case’s side volume buttons and silent ringer switch, which are pretty stiff.

Next up is the Otterbox Armor series. At $100, it’s the most expensive of the three cases, and it’s also a beast. It weighs 4.23 ounces and measures 0.82-inch thick.

Like the LifeProof, the Otterbox Armor can be submerged in up to 6.6 feet of water for up to 30 minutes, but Otterbox says it can survive a 10-foot drop and withstand up two tons of pressure.

The case is made from plastic and silicone, and there are two metal latches on the right side that lock the front and back pieces into place. There are protective caps for the iPhone’s power connector and headphone jack. Otterbox was smart to provide a wide-enough opening so that you could plug in your headphones without needing to use an adapter.

I ran into the same issues with the touchscreen and side buttons that I did using the LifeProof. But the Otterbox Armor did its main job of keeping my iPhone safe in my water tests. I didn’t try the 10-foot drop.

The Otterbox Armor is best suited for those who are extra tough on their phones, such as construction workers or extreme-sports fanatics. The case is available for the iPhone 4, 4S, 5 and Samsung Galaxy S III.

Last, but not least, there’s the Dry Case. It’s a universal case, meaning that it works with devices other than just the iPhone, and can go in up to 100 feet of water for up to an hour. It’s also the cheapest, at $40, but it’s not the most elegant solution.

The Dry Case consists of a vinyl pouch for storing your smartphone or MP3 player. At the bottom of the pouch is a small valve where you can attach the included hand pump to suck out all the excess air from the bag. It’s easy enough, but I had to smooth out creases and air bubbles as I was pumping.

In the same water tests I tried before, the Dry Case kept my iPhone safe and dry. I was a little worried that the plastic would produce blurry photos, but that didn’t happen. Pressing the home button and using the touchscreen through the pouch was no problem, but I had trouble accessing the side buttons.

Also, the Dry Case is not as comfortable to swim with as the LifeProof or even the Otterbox. It comes with an armband and neck lanyard, but the excess plastic and valve makes it unwieldy. It’s a cheap way to keep your tech dry and sand-free during trips to the beach or on boat rides, but it wouldn’t be my go-to solution for underwater adventures.

If you work or play in the water (or are just prone to accidents), it’s worth investing in one of these waterproof cases. They may be expensive (with the exception of the Dry Case), but it’s a lot cheaper than buying a replacement phone.

Update: An earlier version of this story stated that you had to remove the LifeProof case to plug in the power adapter. You do not have to remove the case.

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