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ATPM 16.04
April 2010




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Accessory Review

by Chris Lawson,



Function: Rugged case for iPhone 3G/3GS.

Developer: OtterBox

Price: $50

Requirements: iPhone 3G/3GS. (An iPhone 2G version is also available, but there are no iPod touch–compatible models.)

Trial: None

I was sitting in our break room recently, listening to co-workers discuss the relative merits of their iPhone cases. Judging from some of the complaints I heard from them about how easy it is to drop, damage, abuse, and otherwise maltreat a cell phone—at one point, the phrase “I drop mine every day” passed someone’s lips—a lot more people ought to be buying cases like the OtterBox Defender.


The Defender in black-on-black, the most attractive color combination to my eye. You can see one of the “blobs” just above the Calendar and Calculator application icons in the top row.

About the only thing the Defender won’t, er, defend against is a direct fall into standing water. It’s basically impossible to engineer a watertight case for a telephone in which you can still use the phone, and to ask a $50 consumer-grade device to do that is completely unfair. So don’t expect the Defender or any other case to save your iPhone from a thorough dunking in a pool, a lake, your favorite trout stream, the ocean, etc.

With that caveat out of the way, how well does the Defender work as a case, and how well does it protect against other assorted traumas of the non-liquid variety?

The Defender is a big, rugged case, with emphasis on “big” and “rugged.” The iPhone is already a reasonably large phone, as mobile phones go, but the Defender is simply huge. It feels like it nearly doubles the size and weight of the iPhone. With overall dimensions of 123.70 mm × 70.36 mm × 20.32 mm, according to OtterBox, versus 115.5 mm × 62.1 mm × 12.3 mm for an iPhone 3GS, the Defender actually does roughly double the thickness of a bare iPhone and adds nearly a centimeter in the other two dimensions. And at just over 62 grams, it adds nearly 50 percent to the weight of an iPhone. This is not a case you install and then forget that it’s there.


This is the Defender in its holster without an iPhone installed. OtterBox—and common sense—suggests facing the screen inward when using the belt holster, the opposite of this photo.


Here, you can see the Defender clipping into the belt holster in the “proper” (screen-inward) configuration. The holster’s belt clip rotates to a variety of positions.

Perhaps that’s why OtterBox thoughtfully includes a rugged plastic belt holster with the Defender. Though using it makes you look like a construction worker—an image helped even more by the available high-visibility bumblebee-yellow version of the case, if that’s your thing—the holster is an easier way to carry a Defender-encased iPhone than trying to cram that monstrosity into a pocket. I usually carry my phone in the breast pocket of a shirt or a fleece jacket, and most of my shirt pockets just barely accommodate the Defender’s bulk.


The OtterBox Defender consists of three layers of protection: a screen protector integrated into a polycarbonate case (right) and a silicone skin for the polycarbonate case (left). It’s very rugged but also very bulky.

The Defender’s construction is excellent protection against shock, impact, and scratches. It consists of a black polycarbonate “skeleton” case that by itself is more protective than most cases. The skeleton includes a clear, and reasonably thick, screen protector. The whole thing is then wrapped in an impact-absorbing silicone skin, available in black, white, pink, or the aforementioned yellow. The skin provides flaps or protected windows over all of the iPhone’s external openings, including the headphone port, the dock connector, the camera lens, and the silence switch.


The Defender scoffs at dropping an iPhone on its corner. Note the thick silicone plugs covering the headphone jack and silence switch as well.

That silicone skin is great for impact protection, but it’s a little sticky. Combined with the Defender’s bulk, that makes removing the case from a jeans pocket—or even smaller shirt pockets—a real trick. It does cover up most of the seams in the polycarbonate case, and while OtterBox makes no claims that it’s watertight, and in fact disclaims any protection against water, I’d put money on the Defender in a dunk or spill test against any other iPhone case I’ve seen.


The holster’s belt clip rotates 360 degrees so you’re sure to find a position that fits on the Batbelt.

A drop or two might make it to the surface of the phone, but unless the phone is immersed for several seconds, there seems to be a reasonable level of protection against the “Oh crap!” variety of accidents that seem to befall lots of people. You know, like spilling a Coke on the desk and phone, or dropping your iPhone into a cup of coffee. This actually happened to a co-worker recently, resulting in the death of his un-cased iPhone (consider this a public service announcement not to telecommunicate near an open container of liquid). Cheap insurance and all that, especially since AT&T, at least, won’t sell you insurance on an iPhone.


A thick silicone plug protects the dock connector, although the speaker and microphone are (logically, since otherwise it would get awfully quiet) still exposed.

The screen protector can be somewhat distracting in daily use. It does a fairly good job of getting out of the way, though touchscreen accuracy is noticeably reduced (especially in the corners), but the biggest drawback I found was its tendency to stick to the screen of my iPhone 3G in random areas. This creates blob-like darker spots on the screen that are very distracting, especially when viewing photos or video, though they don’t seem to affect the touchscreen at all.


The polycarbonate inner case fits together like a clamshell over the iPhone.

Perhaps someday, someone will be able to explain to me why OtterBox and other case manufacturers think that people willing to spend $50 on a case whose primary raison d’être is protection are willing to compromise that protection to show off the Apple logo on the back of the phone. Until then, I’ll continue to criticize this silly practice. At least the Defender, unlike OtterBox’s slimmer Commuter, has clear plastic over the gaping hole in the back of the case, so your precious Apple logo won’t get all scratched up while you’re showing off the logo (that’s sarcasm) to the inside of your index finger (that’s not—hold your iPhone in your hand like you’re talking on the phone and look at where the Apple logo is).


Why on earth is there a nickel-sized hole cut out of the back of this otherwise extraordinarily protective case? Anyone?

Fifty bucks is kind of a lot of money to be spending on an iPhone case, even for one as protective as the Defender. While I commend OtterBox for developing such a protective case that manages to retain the functionality of the phone, their insistence on compromising that protection with a big hole in the back is puzzling. The extreme bulk of the Defender makes it somewhat unwieldy, at least for my use, and OtterBox makes cases that are very nearly as protective without being so awkward. If you’re one of the few who really needs a case like this, it’s a fantastic thing to have, but for everyone else, better solutions are out there.

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