By Jason Heaton
on 1.10.13
Photo by Gishani

A tsunami of protective cases soon follows every major smartphone release. Some are functional, some are stylish — but few are both, and most are forgettable. So when we were offered a trio of new cases from SYSTM to try out on an iPhone 5, we were understandably skeptical. A month of testing has proven that these thoughtfully designed, sturdily made cases are a cut above the rest of this crowded field — and they’re a great choice for the more adventurous (or clumsy) among us.

SYSTM’s cases include the Hammer, the Chisel and the Vise. While the names sound gimmicky, they actually do a good job describing the differences between the products. The Hammer ($30) is the simplest and most lightweight, consisting of a flexible rubber boot (more on that later) built for shock absorption. It mixes textured and smooth surfaces, adding grip without stickiness as you pull it out of your pocket.

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The Chisel ($35) is similar to the Hammer, but adds a skeletonized hard armor to the outside of its soft sleeve, protecting the corners from knocks. This armor adds some weight to the phone and is a little slippery in the hand (which conveniently allowed for some impromptu testing of its protective qualities when we dropped it a couple of times). Still, the Chisel turned out to be our favorite of the three because of its mix of toughness and adventure-ready appearance. We prefer the safety orange sleeve with gray armor, which could easily be mistaken for an avalanche transceiver or two-way radio, but a matte gray version is available for those who prefer a more urban look.

The Vise ($50) is the most rugged of the three SYSTM cases, consisting of a rubber sleeve, hard shell and a second case that snaps on over the front of the phone and can be clipped onto a belt (please don’t) or a pack’s shoulder strap. While the phone is safely encased in the Vise it’s easy to pull it from its cover, though it was easily the heaviest of the three. Still, the Vise is the case to get if you’re clumsy or just hard on your phones.

The Chisel turned out to be our favorite of the three because of its mix of toughness and adventure-ready appearance.

Along with the cases, SYSTM sent us a test pad and heavy steel ball so we could beat the sh*t out of the cases perform our own drop test to prove the shock absorption of the rubber compound, PORON XRD, used in all three cases. Bristling with trademark symbols, its name is clearly as protected as your phone will be. But the drop test proved out the hype. The half of the pad made of PORON stopped the dropped steel ball dead, while the silicone side sent the ball bouncing over and over again — which is great in the lab. But what about in the real world?

We put all three cases through their paces in the field, using them in a variety of tamer activities like urban travel and at the office, but also more vigorous pursuits like running and Nordic skiing, clipped to the daisy chain on our hydration pack. (As a side note: while the best thing that can be said about a phone case is that you don’t notice it, we did get a lot of comments on them, particularly the Chisel, which doesn’t look like anything else out there.) All cases worked with no drama, despite several bumps, knocks and drops. Use of the buttons, switches, camera and earphones was easy thanks to good design and tight build tolerances.

In the end, each case gained our full approval. For those who like to shoot, share and tweet every last detail of their adventures in real time, the three cases from SYSTM are good options. They’ll handle whatever mischief you and your phone get into and look good doing it. Hopefully, the same can be said for you.

Available for iPhone 4, 4s and 5. Samsung Galaxy III coming soon.

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