Smartphones are quickly turning into tiny, portable multimedia centres. You can kick back to play games or watch videos just about anywhere and they have rich graphics and surprisingly impressive processing power. But the one area where smartphones tend to struggle the most is sound: it's fine when you're wearing headphones, but if you're using the phone's speakers, it's generally a pretty poor experience.
Some smartphone case manufacturers have sought to remedy the physical limitations that phone speakers often have; the popular iPhone 5 has speakers that point down, and the Samsung Galaxy S4 has a speaker on the back of the phone that points away from the screen.
Cases like the Eclipse by Element Case help fix this problem by redirecting the sound so it's actually directed at the person watching the screen. I recently had the chance to test out the Eclipse case for the Galaxy S4, and see for myself if it could fix the directional issues with the phone, as well as providing an all-around good case.
The Eclipse is an aluminum and TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane) case with a carbon fibre protective back plate. Taking the case out of the packaging, the carbon fibre weave on the back is easily the most visually-impressive part of the case, although the whole thing has a very appealing, sophisticated look.
On either side of the aluminum case are indents for your hands to naturally rest when holding the phone. It was slightly off from where I would normally hold it, but that's something that will vary from person to person. It isn't bulky, and fit well in pockets and the Samsung holder for the car. Additionally, the case proved to be very useful when driving, as using it hands-free with the direct speakers was a much better experience. The only size issue I noticed was the snug fit around the headphone port. Other openings like the space for the camera lens seemed just fine, though.
It comes with a lanyard, which I left because it didn't look nearly as nice as the rest of the case. It also has a kickstand built in, so you can prop up the phone horizontally when you're watching videos. When not in use, the kickstand clicks flush into the case so it won't get caught on anything or be uncomfortable when using the phone normally. While I wouldn't give the phone with the kickstand to a small child to play with, it felt solid enough that it won't snap off after a couple of uses.
But the real point of this case is the SBS (Sound Boost System), patent-pending technology that channels the sound from the rear speaker to either side of the phone. When holding the phone vertically, the speakers channel sound to either side of the screen. And when the kickstand is used the speakers are on the top and bottom. This means the sound won't be stereo, because it's channeling sound from the single speaker to the front so there's only one audio channel being used.
And when the case is on the Galaxy S4, it really does make the audio sound much better. It made watching videos more viable on the phone, especially with the kickstand so you can watch hands-free. The speakers are optimally angled, in fact, for use with the stand.
When you're just using the phone as a phone, the case helps boost the sound of the ringer, too. After testing the case in a pocket and face down on a table, the ringer played nice and clearly, without nearly the same degree of muffle as without the case.
There were only two things things that actually disappointed me with this case -- and in the interest of full disclosure, I think one of them was my fault. When you're assembling the case around the phone, it's worth being very cautious of the padding on the inside of the aluminum casing. I had trouble getting the case to clip flush around the phone, and when I pulled it apart to have a look why, I noticed the padding had shifted on one side. I'm not sure if it was like that when I received it or if I squished it when trying to put the case around the Galaxy S4, but if you pick up the Eclipse, I'd advise being aware of the potential issue when putting the case together so you get the best possible fit.
The other issue I had with the case was the design of the buttons. To preserve the overall esthetics of the case, the buttons are all flush with the TPU backing of the phone. While this definitely makes it look nicer, it was awkward trying to find the buttons quickly. It takes some getting used to in terms of being able to locate the buttons without as much of a distinct feel as with some cases, or when the phone is out of a case. Certainly one of those things you could get used to, but it can be a little frustrating early on.
That being said, the Eclipse case does exactly what it sets out to do: boosts the audio and redirects the sound so it isn't playing into your hand. The kickstand is a really nice feature, and the overall look of the case is very sophisticated.
The Eclipse for the Samsung Galaxy S4 is available now through the Element Case website for $79.95.
Special thanks to my brother James Floyd for the loan of his Galaxy S4 for this review, and his valuable feedback on the case.
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