After Mophie and several other companies created the “iPhone battery case” category, Apple’s Made for iPhone accessory team quietly began to limit what the cases could do. For instance, developers were told that they couldn’t charge both the iPhone and the case at the same time; instead they had to charge the iPhone first, then the case. And although some early battery cases used Apple connectors to recharge, that convenience was nixed by Apple, too. I covered the inception and growth of the battery case market, and heard numerous stories of last-minute scrambles to meet Apple demands, none of which appeared to be making the cases better for end users. Today, the best iPhone 6/6s battery cases are incredibly similar to one another, distinguished more by pricing and capacity than differences in features.

Years later, some of the advantages Apple denied to third-party developers have appeared in the iPhone 6s Smart Battery Case ($99), Apple’s first battery case for iPhones. Roundly mocked for its rear “hump” and unfavorably compared to best-selling $40 alternatives on raw battery power, Apple’s latest design clearly isn’t for everyone. But despite the criticism, Apple isn’t stupid, and even if it isn’t winning beauty or capacity awards, the Smart Battery Case’s few special features give it a leg up on certain competitors…

After years of seeing gently, organically curved iPhone battery cases, there’s no denying that the Smart Battery Case looks different — and somewhat weird. Clearly based upon Apple’s iPhone 6/6s Silicone Case, the design effectively just grafts a battery hump onto that case’s back, and a male/female Lightning connector chin onto its bottom. No tapering smooths out the battery’s presence; it’s just there. Yet it doesn’t feel terrible in the hand, particularly if you rotate the iPhone into landscape orientation, where the left and right of the Smart Battery Case feel atypically thin. Nor does the battery hump snag as much going in or out of pockets as might be expected, though this may vary based on what you wear. Like the Silicone Case, the Smart Battery Case protects the iPhone 6’s side buttons, but not the ringer switch, which is left open.

Key Details:

  • Apple’s first battery case for any iPhone, after Mophie + others
  • No buttons, power indicators largely on iPhone’s screens
  • Weak battery capacity given both numerous rivals + its price point
  • Case looks like Apple’s iPhone Silicone Cases, plus a large hump

Two colors of the Smart Battery Case are available. The dark Charcoal Gray one I tested certainly goes well with Space Gray iPhone 6 and 6s devices, while an almost clinical-looking white rubber alternative is made for silver and gold iPhones, which have white faces. According to early reviews, the white one begins to look somewhat ratty within days, so the gray version may be a better pick. That said, Apple’s soft rubbery exterior and microfiber lining seem destined to show wear faster than the hard plastics used in most battery cases.

Apple ships each Smart Battery Case in a plain-looking box with documentation, but no other accessories, such as the Lightning cable you’ll need to recharge it, or the 3.5mm adapter you may need to connect your favorite headphones through the very thin, deeply-recessed headphone port channel. Every other iPhone battery case at least includes one of these items, if not both, but Apple’s theory is apparently that you’ll already have the Lightning cable, and its own headphone plugs are tiny enough to sneak into the recessed port. At least some Beats headphones, however, don’t fit the hole, so you may need to spring for a separate 3.5mm headphone adapter.

Assuming you supply that Lightning cable — and a power source more powerful than the one included with the iPhone 6 or 6s — the Smart Battery Case can simultaneously charge the iPhone and battery at fast speeds. Using an affordable Anker PowerPort adapter, I was able to recharge the iPhone by 25% and the battery by 26% in 36 minutes. As noted above, most if not all of the Smart Battery Case’s competitors have been restricted by Apple from performing this same feat. That’s possibly because Apple hasn’t trusted third-party developers to properly manage the potentially differential changing flows of “high speed” and “trickle speed” energy to the iPhone and case batteries; regardless of its own low-power condition, the Smart Battery Case appears to dramatically slow down its own recharging when the connected iPhone is trickle-charging.

The Smart Battery Case’s single best feature was hidden in iOS starting with version 9.1. When the iPhone is first plugged in to the case, or the iPhone and case are first plugged into a Lightning cable, the iPhone’s Lock Screen displays a new dual battery indicator, something no other battery case can do. One battery shows the remaining power in the case as a percentage, while the next shows the current charge level of the iPhone. Unless you disconnect and reconnect either the iPhone or Lightning cable, the dual percentages can only be found on Notification Center thereafter, not on the Lock Screen, which is unfortunate.

On the other hand, the Smart Battery Case has zero buttons of its own, and only a single light, so you can’t see how much power remains unless you attach your iPhone. The tiny light is hidden inside the case above the Lightning connector, and is there solely to indicate whether the case is fully recharged when connected to power without an iPhone. It stays red if charging, turning green if fully charged. Also apparently hidden within the case is some sort of passive wireless antenna, though Apple provides no documentation on the feature, and has long-required third-party developers to make their iPhone battery cases effectively radio transparent.

From my perspective, the Smart Battery Case’s major failing is its battery performance. With only 1877mAh of power, it delivers only a 77% recharge to a completely dead iPhone 6; the number will be slightly higher on the iPhone 6s, which has a smaller internal battery. However, Apple appears to have designed the Smart Battery Case to act in different ways based on the level of charge remaining in the iPhone: if the iPhone’s battery is full, it can run off Smart Battery Case power rather than draining its own reserve, but if the iPhone’s battery isn’t full, it refuels itself to 100% from the accessory. In theory, this could reduce wear and tear on the iPhone’s internal battery by reducing the number of discharge-recharge cycles you’d normally see from a battery case, though in practice, people will need to make sure the iPhone’s well-charged before putting the case on.

It goes without saying that you have dozens, perhaps hundreds of different iPhone 6 battery case options, and no one’s forcing you to choose Apple’s iPhone 6s Smart Battery Case if you don’t like the price, the way it looks, or the battery performance. Given the $99 asking price and 1877mAh cell, it would be near the very bottom of our guide to the best iPhone 6/6s battery cases, and I wouldn’t be inclined to recommend it to most people.

That said, if the Apple name or the unique dual battery Lock Screen feature are of interest, you like the way it looks, and you’re willing to pay a premium for the package, this isn’t a bad battery case. Apple clearly could have done better, and hopefully, it will learn some lessons from this model for next year’s inevitable iPhone 7 sequel — or better yet, improve the “smaller” iPhone’s internal battery so that accessories of this sort are no longer necessary.

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