Review: OtterBox for iPod 4G/photo
Pros: Completely waterproof iPod protection in a quality transparent hard plastic case, including membrane-covered Click Wheel access. Optional armband works well, looks good.
Cons: Belt clip is only okay; larger-sized version of the case uses foam sizers for 30GB iPod photos and 40GB iPods that work fine under some circumstances, but aren’t great overall.
Ten months have passed since the introduction of the fourth-generation iPod, and only now are fully usable waterproof cases beginning to appear for the device. True, Eroch Studios has been selling the LiliPod (iLounge rating: B+), which works properly as a watertight enclosure, but permits no access to the iPod’s screen or controls. And just this week, H2O Audio has started to sell the SV-iP4G (iLounge rating: B+), a highly sophisticated $150 waterproof case with screen and control access.
Now OtterBox has released its new OtterBox for 4G iPod ($49.95), a multi-purpose case that fulfills most of the promise of H2O Audio’s considerably more expensive product - and then some. Like OtterBox’s earlier oPod cases, which have recently been renamed (confusingly) with the same name as the case we review here, the new version is a hard plastic shell accurately touted as “dustproof, dirtproof, sandproof, and drop-proof,” ready for outdoor activities, and compatible with the company’s optional exercise arm band. But unlike those cases, it’s also fully waterproof, and can be submerged in water without risk to the iPod inside.
(If you need to tell the difference between the old and new cases in a pinch, the old cases have white front shells and the new ones have clear front shells. The old cases are also selling for a lower price - $29.95 - and are listed as only “water resistant” rather than “water proof.”)
There’s one additional wrinkle as well: unlike the iPod mini version of this case (iLounge rating: A), there are two different versions of the 4G/photo case - one for the 20GB iPod, and one for 30, 40, and 60GB iPods and iPod photos. They’re identical but for thickness and one difference noted below, so for the most part we review them together.
The OtterBoxes for 4G and photo iPods - which we’ll just call OtterBox and refer to in the singular from here on out - looks basically like a transparent version of its 3G and 4G predecessors, but with three immediately noticeable differences. First is the case’s top, which no longer splits into two pieces, and connects the front and back halves with a hinge. Second is its bottom, which now uses a sturdy locking clasp to hold both halves together. Together, these two changes (and the case’s less conspicuous internal rubber and plastic seal) create the waterproof environment that protects your iPod. The third change is OtterBox’s screen protector, which no longer needs to be a separate plastic or rubber component given the case’s transparent body, and is therefore just more of the hard clear plastic used for the case’s front.
Like the earlier oPods, the new OtterBox includes a detachable plastic belt clip that’s not as beefy or strong as we would have expected from an otherwise ruggedized outdoor case, but is totally adequate for most purposes. When it’s popped off, you have a more complete view of the iPod inside, and can also attach the company’s $14.95 Armband, which we found more than acceptable in our earlier 4G oPod review.
Controls and Optional Sizers
Another carryover from the old oPod design is the iPod Click Wheel protector. A medium-thickness piece of clear plastic permits full-time access to the iPod’s controls, but this is where the two versions of the new OtterBox differ a little from one another. On the 20GB-sized case, the controls feel like the 3G oPod’s, which is to say only a little less sensitive than you’d optimally like (requiring a tiny bit of pressure), but it’s still a much better control option than no access at all. While the control system in H2O’s SV-iP4G is far more technically impressive, it comes at a substantially higher price tag, and taking that big difference into consideration, we’d pick OtterBox’s solution any day.
The control system is the same on the 30/40/60GB case, which is sized to “naturally” fit thicker 40GB and 60GB iPod photos, but uses adhesive foam inserts to resize the interior for the thinner 30GB iPod photo and 40GB black and white iPod. This is a good thing in one respect - unlike the SV-iP4G, which is made to fit 20GB and 40GB iPods but none of the iPod photos, OtterBox’s cases are designed to accommodate the entire line. For the same price as the SV-iP4G, you could buy both sizes of OtterBox’s new cases and still have money left over for headphones (or a third case).
But the controls of the larger case are impacted a bit by the foam inserts, which we didn’t like for three reasons. First, once you’ve attached one of them to the rear inside of the case - which is tricky to align because of the way the case only partially opens - they can’t be removed in one piece. They peel off in little chunks and become useless.
Second, the residue they leave on the inside of the case creates problems if you’re going to use the case with more than one iPod - say, trying to use a 40GB iPod, and then a 60GB iPod photo. Even with most of the residue removed, they create just enough extra thickness to make the thicker iPod photo’s controls more difficult to use underwater, and entirely unusable for volume or scrolling if you’re also using a Click Wheel protector like Power Support’s 3D Wheel Film. This is an unusual situation - hence our only minor deduction in the product’s rating - but suffice to say that you should never attach one of the adhesive pads unless you’re prepared to keep it on forever.
Third, even when the inserts are used correctly, they bring the iPod’s controls just a little too close to the protector - enough to make the case less ideal than the SV-iP4G when used in the shower. Drops of water from a showerhead can trigger the iPod’s volume and scrolling controls almost as easily as your fingers, a problem that’s easy enough to avoid but still a sign that the inserts as currently made aren’t providing a perfect resizing solution. This modest inconvenience doesn’t occur in the SV-iP4G, but is it worth the difference in price? You can make the call on that one.
As expected, the most significant feature of the new OtterBox is its truly waterproof body, which with the exception of the foam issue above worked without issues in our testing. The manufacturer promises that the OtterBox is waterproof to a depth of 10 feet, like the SV-iP4G and Lilipod, and we sprayed, dunked, and splashed both cases without incident. Unfortunately, none of the competing cases is rated to a 100-foot depth, like OtterBox’s and H2O Audio’s non-iPod products, so swimming pools, non-scuba ocean applications, and bathtubs are your most likely places to enjoy these cases.
In order to maintain tight control over the case’s potential leak points, OtterBox has limited the flexibility of its opening hinge, making insertion of the iPod a very slight challenge. You pop the iPod in and slide it on to an integrated headphone plug, then push a little bit more, and lock the OtterBox’s bottom.
The lock feels strong and durable, like the rest of the case, which other than the thinner Click Wheel control circle feels essentially impenetrable. While none of the company’s iPod cases is touted as crush-proof, they’re all strong, and the OtterBox feels at least as durable as the others. However, unlike the 3G and 4G oPod cases, it doesn’t have rubberized corners - most likely for waterproofing reasons - and while it did just fine in our light drop testing, it’s just that fractional bit more scuff-attractive than the earlier oPods. In any case, it’s a brawnier design than the SV-iP4G.
All of the waterproof cases we’ve seen have one major weakness: headphones. Lilipods don’t include them, and neither does the OtterBox, but H2O’s SV-iP4G does. One vendor of waterproof headphones is located here, but we can’t vouch for the quality of its products.
Apparently there are some issues related to quality control (and disappointed customers) on waterproof headphones, so many vendors don’t want to take responsibility for selling and then handling returns for them. We’ve tested one pair with problems, ourselves; the iPod had to be turned up to maximum volume just to hear them at a normal listening level, and they couldn’t be heard against significant background noise, which wasn’t good. But our working pairs have connected without an incident to the OtterBox, and permitted listening over the iPod’s full volume range. They’re far from the most comfortable headphones we’ve ever used, but they work generally.
Thankfully, standard headphones also work perfectly with the OtterBox case, so if you’re looking to use it for above-water applications, you’ll have no problems. Unlike the oPods, its headphone port is at the top of a rubberized nub that sits above the case’s top surface, and works with any 3.5mm headphones you might want to connect.
The OtterBox cases for 4G and photo iPods are very strong entries - the 20GB version moreso than the 30/40/60GB version because of the foam insert and resulting control issues we noted under certain circumstances. We’ve modestly qualified our high recommendation for the larger case because of the foam, which we really feel should have been a better part, though it does what it’s supposed to do if you’re only using a single iPod.
True, both of the new OtterBox cases are modestly more expensive than LiliPods, but under the worst cirumstances we found that they provided a considerably better overall experience. They’re also less expensive than the SV-iP4G, yet perform almost identically, and certainly are superior for use with iPod photos that won’t fit in H2O Audio’s cases. The OtterBox cases also deserve a bit of extra attention because they’re useful outside of water as exercise or everyday hard plastic cases, and don’t require you to buy optional accessories in order to wear them around. While not as small and light as the iPod mini version we’ve previously reviewed, they’re not heavy, and provide a much better overall protective solution for extreme athletes and people in challenging climates.
In sum, we wouldn’t hesitate to highly recommend the 20GB case to any iPod owner, and have only a single real issue with the larger-sized case. It’s one that can and should be remedied, but given the so-so sales of photo (and other high-capacity) iPods won’t impact many people, and doesn’t significantly reduce the case’s overall attractiveness and value for the price by comparison with its current alternatives.
Jeremy Horwitz is Editor-in-Chief of iLounge.