Review: Griffin Survivor + Catalyst Waterproof Case for iPhone 5
There are relatively few maxims in Apple accessory development, but here's one that should be clear to every company at this point: if your new iPhone case requires users to read a book-sized instruction manual, start over, because something's gone seriously wrong. On the surface, Griffin's new Survivor + Catalyst Waterproof Case for iPhone 5 ($70) is similar enough to previously-released options from LifeProof, Incipio, and Seidio, mixing opaque and clear plastics together to form a relatively slim and submersible enclosure. But Survivor + Catalyst's simplicity is undermined by two things: an insane 72-page Owner's Guide that you're instructed to read before (and keep consulting after) using the case, and an O-ring closure mechanism that's a bit finicky, seemingly necessitating most of the manual's size and numerous warnings.
Survivor + Catalyst bundles together four total parts: a two-piece iPhone 5 housing, plus a black fabric wrist strap and a matching black headphone port extender. Numerous black plastic and rubber parts are integrated into the front half of the otherwise clear plastic case, including everything from button protectors to a screw-open headphone port cap and a flip-open Lightning port cover. Each cover can expose its respective port when needed, while remaining physically attached to the case—a nice way to keep the small pieces from getting lost.
Like other waterproof cases we’ve tested, Survivor + Catalyst’s Lightning port hole is only capable of accommodating plugs slightly larger than Apple’s most slender housings; Apple’s own Lightning to USB Cable will work fine, but some third-party options may not fit. The headphone port hole is even smaller, but provides a screw-in mechanism to avoid compromising watertight integrity when connecting the included extender, effectively guaranteeing compatibility with any plug you may want to use. Two black hard plastic clasps on the back lid seal the case closed, adding only a handful of millimeters of additional thickness to the iPhone 5 in each dimension.
Although Survivor + Catalyst feels slippery on all sides due to the glossy plastic finish—something that may increase your chances of accidentally dropping the case—several of the design choices are otherwise pretty smart. The Home Button cover is lightly concave but responsive, the Ringer Switch is activated with an easy-to-turn dial, and bottom speaker output is uniquely redirected through the back of the case rather than through a bottom- or front-facing waveguide, reducing space. Griffin and co-developer Catalyst’s industrial design is also attractive, showing off the iPhone 5 nicely and generally matching the slate/black version. While the top button cover is a little stiff, it’s responsive enough, and the side volume buttons are uncompromised in their tactility. Screen access is only slightly diminished relative to an uncovered iPhone 5 display, and the protector is reasonably clear; camera performance is also unaffected by the covering. Waterproof performance was as expected—submersible without water intrusion—during our testing; Griffin says that the case can be taken safely to 9.8-foot depths.
Survivor + Catalyst’s cellular performance was okay. We noted no signal disruption during data or phone calling, but callers reported some audio clipping—dropping or muffling of words—at some points when the iPhone 5 was being used as a handset and in speakerphone mode. There were no issues hearing callers through either the front or bottom speakers; audio clarity was only slightly reduced when the iPhone was inside.
Our biggest practical issue with Survivor + Catalyst was the design of the main O-ring—the black rubber seal that goes between the top and bottom sections of the case, keeping water from getting in. During testing, the O-ring kept popping out of the rear lid groove it’s supposed to rest within, specifically when the case was opened and not being used. When this first happened, we didn’t know where to re-seat the pre-installed ring, and the extensive Owner’s Guide amazingly wasn’t any help on this point. After some trial and error, we located the groove within the rear lid’s edge and reinstalled it. Then it popped out again the next time we opened the case.
Tempted though we were to give Survivor + Catalyst’s Owner’s Guide a book report of its own, the 72-page manual merely demonstrates how companies can caveat a simple product to the point of neurosis. Mixing English with all-but-illegibly tiny multilingual translations, the Guide repeatedly notes that the case has to be inspected, tested, re-inspected, and cared for. If you drop the case—it’s supposed to be 6.6-foot drop-proof—you’ll need to re-check the waterproof seal and consider buying replacement parts. “Do not, under any circumstances, touch, manipulate, or poke the thin membranes on the ear-piece, top microphone, or bottom microphones,” the manual warns—just in case you were going to touch these parts of the case. “Be aware of your surroundings,” says another section. “You’ll be tempted to shoot video, FaceTime, to do everything with your iPhone that you would normally do. Be careful when you do.” That’s seriously in the manual, right before warning you about falls and bodies of water.
By the time you receive instructions on pursing your lips to remove dust from the case and an illustrated guide to applying lubricating petroleum jelly to the O-ring, you’ll wonder if Griffin was serious—but it clearly was. The cumulative effect is the exact opposite of LifeProof’s “ready for everything” case marketing: after spending 20 minutes reading the manual, you’ll probably be in fairly constant fear of water intrusion and damage, plus aware from numerous disclaimers that Griffin won’t cover any actual harm that comes to your iPhone 5, unlike the device-protecting warranties now offered with Incipio and LifeProof iPhone cases. Worse yet, you’ll have to dig around in the Guide to get answers to simple questions such as iPhone installation (pages 34-42) and removal (page 44), which aren’t completely obvious when first using the case.
Five years ago, Survivor + Catalyst would have been a breakthrough iPhone case, but today, it feels somewhat behind the curve of its top competitors in design and elegance. Its biggest selling points are its aggressive $70 price point—$20 lower than Incipio’s Atlas, and $10 below LifeProof’s Frē or Seidio’s Obex—and its substantially clear design, which nicely shows off the iPhone 5 while uniquely including a usable hand strap. These benefits are offset by its truly annoying O-ring design and all but crazy required instructions, pain points which could have been eliminated with just a little extra time in Griffin’s labs. Hopefully, Griffin will tweak this case in a subsequent revision to improve these issues, as they’re fairly easy to remedy given the numerous things that are right with this design. But as reviewed, this version of Survivor + Catalyst is worthy of only our limited recommendation.