Protecting your smartphone from a hard fall

Data storage pros like to say that it's a matter of when, not if, a traditional hard drive will fail in a desktop or laptop PC. Smartphones don't have to worry about spinning platters failing, but mobile devices have their own catastrophic failure to contend with: simply being dropped into water or onto a hard surface.

Statistics that could demonstrate how many people destroy their phones by dropping them are scarce, but one survey indicates that as many as 19 percent of smartphones get dunked in the toilet. Anecdotally, I can confirm that in just over a one-year period, my swimming pool has claimed no fewer than three iPhones. And my writing partner, Rick Broida, recently lost a bet with gravity and killed his phone in the process.

The antidote, of course, is to protect your phone with some sort of case. If you worry about dunking your phone in water (be it a toilet, sink or swimming pool) nano-coating treatments like Liquipel costing under $100 are available that can render your device invulnerable to being briefly submerged.

But impacts are different. Folks really worried about this kind of damage often resort to somewhat bulky, rugged housings like Otterbox's Defender. That's not your only option, though.

Tech21 offers a pair of products that, together, provide tremendous protection from just about everything short of being run over by a school bus. Unlike other rugged options, though, Tech21's products are aesthetic and low-key.

For starters, Impact Shield is a screen protector that promises -- and actually appears to deliver -- superb protection from direct impacts to the screen. The covering is built from three layers, each formulated differently.

The top layer is a hardened plastic that diffuses point impacts laterally through the material. The layer closest to the screen is softer, designed to absorb impacts rather than transmit them to the glass. And the middle later is a BASF polymer called BulletShield which, according to Tech21, is actually used in bulletproof vests. In impact tests, ball bearings dropped from six feet shatter unprotected iPhone screens but don't damage phones with Impact Shield at all.

In addition to that dramatic ability, the screen has an antiglare coating. It's noticeably easier to read in direct sunlight than an unprotected phone and is generally scratch resistant.

Installing the Impact Shield is also quite simple. It comes with an applicator guide (a plastic form that slides onto the end of the phone and positions the screen protector quite accurately). The few bubbles that remained after a careful installation actually worked themselves out within hours, leaving a perfectly applied screen protector that's essentially invisible.

Screen protectors might keep your phone safe from impacts to the screen itself, but the greater threat is arguably from drops that land your phone on its side, edge or corner. For that, Tech21's Impact Band is a soft, rubberized bumper case that primarily protects those parts of the phone. It's filled with a Play-Do-like gel called D30, which acts like a sort of airbag for your phone, absorbing and dissipating impacts from most drops.

The Impact Shield costs $34.95, and the Impact Band goes for $29.99 for the iPhone and a number of Android phones. Both are available online on Tech21's website.

Photo courtesy Tech21