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May 29, 2023May 29, 2023

MIL-STD is a fun acronym but a low bar for tech accessories

While standards are often convoluted and endlessly multiplying, it's no secret that we love having labels and keywords that we can use as cheat sheets when shopping. From maxed out RAM and the latest Snapdragon processor for your next 5G phone to multipoint, LDAC, spatial audio-enabled true wireless earbuds - or even organic, free-trade, non-GMO produce for your goulash - we're obsessed with these alleged shortcuts to quality.

And for most kinds of technology, properly understood terminology will serve you well in your searches and spur-of-the-moment purchases, but when it comes to phone cases, you have to throw the dictionary out the window. Leather cases are especially hard to navigate because terms are used almost interchangeably, and sources are often completely ignored, but heavy-duty cases go the completely opposite direction: everyone uses the same spec, to the point of it being on most cases whether they're actually heavy-duty or not.

The specification in question — in most cases, consumer products are not actually certified unless they're sold to the military — is the United States Military Defense Standard MIL-STD-810, which concerns "tailoring a material item's environmental design and test limits to the conditions that the specific material will experience throughout its service life." This standard specifies the ability for military goods — and, because the standard can be commercially applied, consumer products — to resist everything from solar radiation to cannon fire to the constant vibrations of aircraft.

The only part of MIL-STD we need to concern ourselves with for phone cases is MIL-STD-810 516: shock protection. This relates to how well a product can take a drop or sudden kinetic impact — ballistic shock is its own section — and if you see a MIL-STD rating for anything outside 516, either that's a typo, or it's not tested in a way you'll care about.

MIL-STD-810G 516.6, released in 2008, required shock testing to survive 26 drops at 48 inches in concrete-backed 2-inch plywood floor on each face, corner, and edge of a mobile or computing device. After almost 15 years of smartphones needing smart-looking cases, well over half of the cases on the market today meet this requirement — or claim to, at least, but we'll get to that in a second. Even basic TPU cases like Spigen's Liquid Air and minimal clear cases like ESR's Boost Kickstand Case can take a four-foot drop, and smartphones themselves are much more durable than they were even five years ago, which combined to make MIL-STD table stakes rather than the test of a true heavy-duty case.

This article was produced in partnership with Supcase, but its contents were not shown to the company beforehand. All content is written independently and meets Android Police's stringent editorial standards.

But then, in 2019, 810H arrived with 516.8, and it not only increased the drop height up to 60 inches, it swapped the test flooring from concrete-backed plywood to concrete-backed steel. This significant upgrade should make a MIL-STD case actually mean something again — except that it's not being widely used in the electronics world. 810G 516.6 is still the testing standard used by almost all cases today, although "testing" is also something of a loose term.

Some manufacturers have laboratory conditions for their testing, and others have more sparse field testing instead. Some do the semi-standard 26 drops at 48 inches, while others drop cases dozens, if not hundreds of times. This testing is almost always done in-house, too, so we can only take a casemaker's word on how well a case fared unless a publication has the time, resources, and the dope lab setup to put all these cases to the test.

All this is to say that MIL-STD itself can't be trusted on a case listing without the accompanying version and method — 810G 516.6 or 810H 516.8 — and even if they do list the exact standard, it's self-reported, so we still have to take it with a grain of salt.

While you can basically ignore MIL-STD on a case, the drop test number that usually accompanies it is a good place to start, although numbers can be inflated at times. 48 inches (4ft) is the standard, but plenty of cases these days claim 12, 20, or even 50-foot drop test ratings. A proper heavy-duty case in 2023 should be drop-tested in at least the 8-16ft range.

Legacy case series like the Supcase UB Pro and UAG Monarch Pro claim up to 25ft impact resistance, but I wouldn't trust a smaller brand without a solid review history to do anything over 12 feet. You only have one phone, and if it breaks, there's no second chance, so heavy-duty cases are where brand name and reputation are crucial.

Last year, we were lucky to see foldable cases that boasted anything higher than an 8-foot drop rating, but Supcase's UB Pro is rated up to 20 feet. The robust hinge guard helps it have 360-degree protection while adding sturdy grip and a sturdier kickstand.

In addition to having its 20-foot drop testing certified by a third-party lab, the UAG Monarch's use of specialty materials like DuPont Kevlar and honeycomb air cushioning has helped it hold its (admittedly expensive) crown as king of the heavy-duty mountain.

Poetic's clear-backed case bumps out its corners for added air cushioning, which helps it reach its 20-foot drop testing claim. A dust plug to cover the USB-C port is also super-handy if you spend time in any time in dusty, sandy environments or deal in any kind of lawncare.

This isn't to say everyone needs to go blow $100 on an Otterbox — I mean, really guys — but it's definitely an instance where you really do get what you pay for. The other aspect of a winning heavy-duty case is the added utility: these can do more than just bulk up your phone and take a beating. Many rugged cases use the extra space to add a kickstand, card slot or camera cover; dust plugs are popular among those who work outdoors or in dusty workshops, and some of UAG's Samsung cases even added MagSafe this year. (And with Qi2, more are bound to be coming in 2024.)

Even the design needs consideration, as improvements to materials, construction, and manufacturing processes have allowed cases to be more protective while weighing less and adding less bulk. Sure, you can buy a bulky black box, but take a moment to consider if you want a case with bumped-out corners or slimmer, shock-gelled sides. Do you prefer a case that's extra chiseled and brawny, or is a plain design fine so long as you get enough grip and shock absorption?

While military-grade cases looking like military surplus makes sense, the i-Blason Cosmo Series and its mosaic of marbled colors and shiny metallic sheens have been a lifeline for years for those who don't want the Rambo look, packing 10-foot drop protection and a built-in screen protector.

Casetify's Impact Series might only be rated to 8 feet, but that'll cover the vast majority of tumbles out of your hand, pocket, or purse — or off the ledge you propped it on for a selfie. And in return, you'll get seemingly infinite designs to choose from, as well as a MagSafe option.

Made by Incipio, this surprisingly grippy case doesn't mention MIL-STD or military strength at all, only claiming 12-foot drop protection and a scratch-resistant coating. So it's just as defensive as most OtterBox cases while looking three times as cute.

Heavy-duty cases can also look quite fetching, such as the i-Blason Cosmo Series' diverse styles, the Kate Spade Protective Shell's shiny leopard print, or the Casetify Impact Series' myriad licensed and graphic designs. It's 2023, and there's no reason to buy ugly heavy-duty cases anymore.

And if you really need help finding a high-quality, ruggedly handsome case, we've got you covered with heavy-duty case guides for Samsung Galaxy and Google phones like the Pixel 7a.

Ara Wagoner is Commerce Editor for Android Police and a lover of all things cases, Chromebooks, accessories, and Disney. Overseeing our buyer's guides and product selection, Ara has spent 7 years honing her product-picking instincts and reviews while previously at Android Central, bringing a unique flair to her writing (and a lot of TV/anime references). She works full-time on a Chromebook, whether it's at home or while waiting for fireworks at Walt Disney World. Ara loves Android phones so much that she wears a shoulder holster to ensure they're never out of reach, and if you see her without headphones, RUN.