One of the more difficult first-world tasks we could do today is simply picking out a case for our smartphone. How often are we guilty of loitering at the mobile section of Best Buy, or spend hours on eBay skimming through hundreds of generic cases only to end up not purchasing anything. I will admit that I am guilty of this, as I am very picky when it comes to cases. I do not like the look of cases and I do not like to use them on my phone; in fact, I do not even like cases all together. But once in a while, something special comes along; something so tantalizingly alluring and intriguing that it makes you second-guess what you previously thought: that something is the AL13 bumper.
Bauhaus from start to finish
The AL13 bumper is designed by a startup that goes by the name of Designed By M, which cleverly works as their signature as well, and rightfully so. Designed By M has managed to craft one of the most elegant packaging presentations I have seen in a long time. Everything about the packaging screams quality. The box itself is a matte black unibody aluminum enclosure with a unique sliding door situated at the top. The inside greets you with a black envelope that has two top-notch screen protectors for use on the front and back of the iPhone which Designed By M claims has “Anti-Scratch, Anti-Fingerprint, UV Protection and Unmatched Clarity.” Also supplied are a micro fibre cloth and a small plastic card for removing air bubbles when applying the screen protectors. There are no other pamphlets or paper to be found inside the box, no instructions, no welcoming memo, just pure self discovery. The inside of the enclosure has a dense soft foam that nestles the bumper. Practically everything, excluding the screen protectors, is somehow branded with the AL13 or the Designed By M logo (18 logos) — it sounds a tad excessive, but it surprisingly works, and it gives a sense of luxury to each insignificant piece. Just by holding the box itself, one can get the impression of the amount of work and craftsmanship that went into the design and overall details — foreshadowing? You bet it is.
Aesthetically brilliant in every way
The AL13 bumper gives meaning to true simplicity. Cases should be an extension of the phone, not an obstacle; the people at Designed By M have figured this out. AL13 looks like a piece of the iPhone itself; if Apple were to placed their logo on it, It would certainly be believable. The bumper itself is unibody aluminum, with no seams on the sides other than the cut outs for the volume controls, silent switch, power button, ports and speakers. The review unit came in gun metal grey, so the color was fairly close to the black iPhone. The bumper came in the same finish as the iPhone as well, meaning it is just as slippery, but, the larger surface area on the sides make holding it a little easier.
Installation is fairly intuitive and is just two simple steps — enabling the user the freedom to attach or remove the bumper without much fumbling or hassle. I found I was able to remove and re-insert the bumper several times while walking. The back has a sliding door that can slide down to open, allowing the phone to be inserted from the back. The inside of the bumper is layered with a soft rubber lining which form-fits the device. The lining holds the device steady in place and doubles as a protective layer, preventing the device from making contact with the metal areas of the bumper. The rubber offers enough resistance for the device to gently fall into place when inserting, preventing any sudden drops. Once the phone is nestled in, sliding the door back in will secure it; a very discernible click will ensue letting you know it is securely locked in place. The sliding door uses a unique locking mechanism which enabled Design By M to make the bumper unibody throughout, so there are no seams, no screws and no wedges to bend.
I appreciate the meticulous subtle details that went into the engineering of this case. The bumper compliments the iPhone 5 by featuring the same chamfer edges that are already found on the device, and frankly, when looking at it from the front, it really does look like it is part of the iPhone itself — but it goes far and beyond just that. From afar, it is hard to notice, but when inspected closely, there are actually a numerous amount of subtle angles found throughout the bumper; every possible edge chamfered three times over, every minute detail intricately thought out. The sheer amount of precision carvings that went into this case is worth an ovation. In addition to aesthetics, the carvings eliminate most of the hard edges, making it a little more comfortable to hold.
Thin is definitely in. The AL13 bumper is gorgeously thin, not to mention extremely light, weighing roughly 14 grams (0.49 ounces) — it is thanks to the material being aluminum which Designed By M claims is ‘Aerospace’ grade. From the front, the bezel is almost flush with the device, but it is slightly raised so the glass does not make contact with the surface when faced down. Thanks to the precision cuts, the bezel of the bumper only covers the metal edge of the iPhone, exposing all of the iPhone’s glass. The bezel is relatively thin as well, being a tad bit thicker than the edges found on the iPhone 5. The back is also slightly raised due to the back door piece. But thanks to the piece’s thin profile, the back is slightly elevated by a little over 1mm (about 1/25 inches). In terms of weight, I compared a generic plastic bumper against the AL13 and found that both bumpers roughly weighed the same, so regardless to say, AL13 will not compromise the natural weight of the iPhone. Because aluminum is such a soft metal, the bumper is able to flex if pressure is applied to the sides and can permanently bend if you are not careful.
Designed By M claims that the bumper would only have a 5-10% performance hit because aluminum is not a good radio-transparent material. For this test, I will be using an iPhone 5 to see how well the bumper fairs in real world testing. I had conducted the tests in two different cities, the subway, at a warehouse and two malls and four standard buildings. Suffice it to say, in all instances, the bumper does affect performance.
In standard buildings like homes and coffee shops, I noticed that wifi takes a considerable hit in signal and speed if you deviate to the next room; in the same room as the router, speed in both download and upload remained the same regardless of the bumper. Warehouses like Costco will degrade performance for anyone, but with the bumper on, the phone will be rendered useless; dropped calls are common, and voice calls are inaudible with frequent moments of long silence. Being underground in subways and lower levels of a mall, I noticed a significant drain on my battery: it went from a full charge to 61% in a span of two hours and thirty minutes with average to little use. It is known that phones boost the power to the antenna in an attempt to increase cellular signal; I cannot say that this is the cause for certain. Excluding Costco, voice calls from all other locations were clear and sounded great with no hiccups or quality loss. LTE was attainable at all times with the case on.
Doing a series of tests using the Speedtest.net app, I was able to determine the actual performance impact caused by the bumper and tallied the average. First, I ran a speed test using LTE. Without a bumper, LTE managed an average upload of 40mbps download and 11.71mbps upload. With the bumper on, LTE averaged 31mbps download and 7mbps upload. So there is roughly a 22% performance hit in terms of download speeds with the bumper on and indoors. LTE fluctuates regardless of the bumper, sometimes LTE would be faster with the bumper on, sometimes it would be the opposite; LTE is spotty in my city, so it will vary between different regions. Wifi on the other hand, did not change much at all when in the same room with the router. With the bumper on, there was only an average 0.15 difference in download and upload when compared to the bumper off.
I did do a series of controlled drop tests. I used a yoga block for the impact surface surrounded by yoga mats for when the phone fumbles around. The goal was to not damage my phone, but to see whether the back plate of the bumper would come apart. I did my drops from chest level (I am 5’10”) and it only took two drops for the bottom back side of the case to come loose and it had to be popped back in. I am afraid that a drop on an actual hard surface, like hardwood or concrete, will make the back side come apart completely.
Originally a successful Kickstarter campaign, the AL13 bumper is now available to be purchased for $79.99 USD. The bumper is available for both iPhone 4/4S and 5 in five different colors: Gun Metal, Slate, Blue, Red, and Silver. While the AL13 bumper is an aesthetic wonder, its looks can also be its Achilles heel. Aluminum is a very poor radio transparent material, while the unique locking method used by the back of the case can come apart from a hard fall. There are also a few minor issues with the physical design. First, the hard buttons like volume and sleep/wake can be hard to reach, and requires the use of your fingernails. The second gripe I have with the bumper is that the phone can wiggle while having the case on — it makes a distinct metal on metal clacking noise when being handled. Lastly, the bumper has a slight gap on both sides which can collect dust fairly quickly. So who is this bumper really for? Those who appreciate the look and feel of the iPhone but do not want slap it with an atrocious plastic case will find this bumper a joy to use; it does not drastically alter the look of the device, but rather compliments it. On the other hand, for those that live in cities with poor coverage and occasionally get dropped calls, this bumper is definitely not for you. For those with an iPhone 4, be wary of the ‘antennagate’ issue, this case will not be doing you any favors. With a small decrease in performance and its relatively lofty asking price, it is a tough sell, but, if you have money to spare for a quality crafted cases and can overlook the minor quirks, the AL13 bumper is certainly worth considering.