Review: MiTAC Magellan ToughCase
There's an important threshold question we ask before reviewing any new iPod, iPhone, or iPad accessory: performance aside, does this item actually make sense given its price? Although this is generally a low hurdle, some accessories actually stumble on it, and MiTAC's new Magellan ToughCase ($200) for iPhone 3G/3GS and iPod touch 2G/3G models is an example -- an extremely expensive GPS, battery, and case combination that will be of only marginal interest to iPhone owners, with greater but still questionable value to iPod touch ones, as well. The case is not designed for use with the iPhone 4, the original iPhone, or the original iPod touch.
Initially, ToughCase struck us as one of the most interesting ruggedized case designs around. Made from a mix of matte and soft touch rubber charcoal gray hard plastics, combined with gunmetal plastic and metal elements and a clear integrated screen protector, the case uses a flip-open hinge and twin side-mounted locks to hold an iPhone 3G/3GS or second/third-generation iPod touch inside, purportedly secure against drop and elemental damage. It also includes a 1840mAh battery within the shell’s rear housing, as well as a SIRFstarIII GPS chipset and antenna system, discussed further below, with rubberized battery indicator and mode toggle buttons located on the bottom. Pass-through rubber Home, volume, and Sleep/Wake button protectors are found on ToughCase’s top, left side, and front, while clear camera and sensor pass-throughs are on the back and top front of the case, permitting most of an iPhone’s or iPod touch’s features to be accessed while inside. Notably, MiTAC’s instructions suggest that its sensor pass-throughs don’t work with iPod touches, so users of those devices are instructed to turn off their automatic brightness sensors, a bit of a bummer.
It also bears mention that MiTAC bills ToughCase as “waterproof,” though the claim is qualified to guarantee safety in the event of “accidental immersion in one meter of water for up to 30 minutes” rather than full, extended submersion—not quite up to the standards of fully submersible Otterbox and H2O Audio cases that have been released in the past. This compromise is, however, by design: rather than completely sealing an iPhone in to the extent that it can’t be used as a phone, MiTAC uses interestingly designed mesh speaker and microphone covers to let iPhone owners continue to make and receive calls while the device’s inside. Callers noted a slight echo effect while our test iPhone 3GS was in use, but described the overall sound quality as good; we also noticed that the ear and bottom speaker quality were modestly diminished, but not enough to ruin the calling experience. Because of this design, ToughCase can be used while walking in the rain or adventuring around, but not while swimming or diving, which makes sense given the accessory’s GPS-focused purpose. A rear clip is included for belt-level mounting, a USB cable is packed-in for charging, and a hard plastic insert enables the iPhone 3G/3GS-sized case to be used with the thinner second- or third-generation iPod touch.
Though ToughCase’s design is conceptually sound, several specifics in its execution are either inconvenient or otherwise problematic. First, the case measures roughly 5.75” by 3.2” by 1.5” when closed—a footprint that transforms a svelte iPhone or iPod touch into a bulky silver and black plastic brick, comparable in size to a dedicated GPS unit. Second, the unit’s power switch is located inside the shell, oddly behind both the iPhone/iPod touch and the sizer insert, and if it’s not turned “on,” the unit won’t charge. Third and quite seriously, there’s a thin rubber band called an “O Ring” inside ToughCase’s hinged front lid, which is necessary to give the case a waterproof seal—virtually every waterproof case we’ve tested has a ring like this. MiTAC’s instruction manual tells you not to touch the O Ring, lest you compromise the case’s ability to seal against water intrusion, but it was literally falling out of the frame the first time we opened the case.
Within two openings and closings, the ring had completely fallen out, and we couldn’t get it back into the shell no matter how hard we tried due to the design of the ToughCase’s top frame; it just doesn’t grip the ring properly. We reached out to MiTAC to determine whether other units have experienced the same issue, but didn’t receive an answer in time for publication of this review. In any case, we found this problem to be a potential show-stopper for users who hope to rely on ToughCase’s waterproof features, which we couldn’t test under the circumstances.
A couple of points on ToughCase’s rubber-sealed audio and charging ports are also worth mentioning. First, MiTAC has created an alternative headphone port on the device’s right side, bypassing the actual headphone ports of iPod touches and iPhones in a manner that works—assuming that the case has power—to pass through outgoing audio but not incoming microphone input, which for whatever it’s worth rules out Skype and similarly mic-dependent apps on the iPod touch. Apple’s integrated speakers continue to work inside the case for both iPods and iPhones, and the iPhone’s integrated mic does, too. Second, the USB charging port on the left side of the case is capable of recharging both the case’s internal battery and the device inside, albeit slowly. iTunes synchronization is also supported.
Battery performance was as expected. As owners of the iPhone 3G and 3GS are no doubt already aware, use of the devices’ GPS features consumes a lot of battery power—enough to effectively cut the iPhone’s run time in half or a third depending on the app you’re using with the GPS. So MiTAC’s inclusion of the aforementioned 1840mAh power pack can be viewed as either a way to completely recharge a connected iPod touch or iPhone with some extra juice to spare, or a way to use a completely charged device for roughly its standard, unassisted run time even while ToughCase’s GPS hardware is running. Our test of the unit’s battery yielded no surprises, apart from the fact that its integrated four LED lights don’t provide a sense of the current charge level while the case is recharging—you need to unplug the case from its charging source in order to see how much of the battery has been refilled.
MiTAC’s inclusion of a SIRFstarIII GPS system is arguably ToughCase’s key feature, though its value is something of a question mark. iPhone 3G and 3GS users will notice only a modest improvement in GPS tracking performance with ToughCase on, with a promised accuracy of 10-15 feet versus the iPhones’ integrated 21-plus feet—enough to provide better tracking of walks and somewhat smoother guidance during drives. By comparison, there’s no actual GPS hardware in the iPod touch models, so ToughCase can transform these devices into iPhone-rivaling alternatives for turn-by-turn navigation purposes. That assumes, of course, that you’re willing to pay for an iPod touch-compatible GPS application such as Magellan’s RoadMate 2010 at an additional cost of $50, perhaps less if you’re willing to buy a competing and ToughCase-compatible app.
This also assumes that ToughCase is able to get a GPS signal for the iPod touch. In our initial testing, we were surprised to see Magellan’s own RoadMate software take several minutes to acquire an initial GPS signal with a third-generation iPod touch—for some reason, the “Looking for GPS signal” message took much longer to disappear than even the accessory-unassisted GPS hardware built in to the iPhone 3G and 3GS. Subsequently, after restarting the iPod touch, reconnecting it to the ToughCase, and restarting the application, we were able to get a signal lock within less than 10 seconds, and faster lock-ons were typical thereafter. It was unclear whether the problems we experienced were issues with iOS 4, the Magellan software, or the accessory, but they happened repeatedly, and the lack of a clear “GPS accessory connected” indicator within the software made things worse.
We’ve said it before for other iPod/iPhone GPS products, but it needs to be said again here: when you consider the total expense and convenience of the $200 Magellan ToughCase and $50 GPS navigation software solution, there’s very little practical reason to purchase this iPhone/iPod accessory and app bundle rather than a dedicated GPS device. The same $250 can buy a very nice standalone portable GPS unit with its own battery, an equally strong GPS antenna, and mounting hardware, plus a Ziploc bag that will likely offer comparable or better weather sealing than the O Ring-compromised ToughCase we received. Should ToughCase drop significantly in price and see its O Ring redesigned for proper water sealing, we could conceivably see it as a fine way to repurpose an old iPod touch for GPS purposes, but as-is, we can’t in good faith recommend it as a worthwhile purchase to most of our readers. Our D+ rating is primarily due to the O Ring failure and pricing, which drag an otherwise okay accessory into “bad” territory.