We like rugged gear. We also like our iPhone, which, let's be honest, isn't very rugged. So we were stoked to see that Snow Lizard Products, a Park City, Utah-based firm that sells smartphone accessories, was crowd-funding the production of the SLXtreme, the first ever waterproof and solar charging case for the iPhone 4/4S and 5.
We chipped in on Kickstarter, Snow Lizard exceeded its goal of $200,000, and a few months later, the all-weather beauty arrived just in time for some offshore sailing from the Chesapeake Bay to Tortola, British Virgin Islands. The case comes in five different colors, including a funky "Reggae Camo." We opted for the highly visible "Safety Yellow" and we were glad to have it with us as we hit some serious seas off Cape Hatteras, NC, before being forced back to land.
The SLXtreme held its own against the elements. It got a little salt encrusted, but fended off sea spray without a problem. That's not surprising, considering that the case was designed to meet the rigorous MIL-STD-810 U.S. military standard, which addresses a broad range of environmental conditions, including extreme temperature, shock, sand exposure, and even concussions from gunfire and explosives. Fortunately, no one went overboard with the SLXtreme to test if it really is waterproof down to 20 feet.
The case weighs 11 ounces and is constructed of rugged polycarbonate with rubberized side grips. Optional brackets are available to mount the SLXtreme to vehicle dashboards or bicycle handlebars. By necessity, the case is bulky – to the point where you won't want to use it in urban environments. But the touchscreen is easily accessible and the housing is designed around using the phone's camera features underwater.
To make it waterproof down to 20 feet, Snow Lizard engineers had to create a double locking top latch that cuts off access to the 9mm headphone input. A Bluetooth hands-free device is an easy workaround. Also, they switched from Apple's proprietary connectors – 30-pin for iPhone 4/4S and nine-pin for iPhone 5 – to the ubiquitous micro-USB, which also has a waterproof cover.
Where the SLXtreme really shines is being able to recharge your smartphone from the embedded rear solar panel. When offshore for a week at a time it can be can be almost impossible to find a continual power source. Not a problem with the SLXtreme: We just put the case facedown in the sun and the solar panel tops off the case's integrated lithium-ion battery, which in turn, recharges the iPhone's battery just as if it were plugged into an outlet.
When using power-hungry apps like Navionics for GPS navigation, the case quickly becomes invaluable. The solar panel coupled with the lithium-ion battery, rated at 2000 milliampere hours, more than doubles the iPhone's battery life and keeps it charged indefinitely, sunlight permitting.
The one thing to watch for is when the integrated battery gets completely drained. At that point, it takes the SLXtreme one hour to gather enough sunlight for 10 minutes of talk time. Even "ultra-efficient" solar cells can only do so much.
The iPhone 4/4S model began shipping in late August and retails for $129.99. The iPhone 5 version is still under development and will cost $139.99. A version for the iPad 2 is also in the works and will go for $149.99. Estimated launch dates are April and May of 2013, respectively.
If Snow Lizard gets enough funding, it will build a case for the Samsung Galaxy S III as well, but there is no ETA for it yet.
We're not going offshore again without it. [$130; snowlizardproducts.com]