Review: Otter Products Armor and Defender Cases for iPod nano (3rd Gen)
For years, Otter Products has been selling "OtterBoxes" for iPods -- a single hard plastic case design with the relatively novel ability to keep your iPod safe underwater, as well as the more common abilities to resist drops, shocks, dirt and dust. This year, Otter has taken another step into the iPod case market, renaming its past OtterBoxes to "OtterBox Armor Series," and introducing brand new cases in the "OtterBox Defender Series." The Defender cases are a little less resilient -- they can't be submerged in water -- but they're also less expensive, more handsome, and far more practical for everyday use. Otter now makes both Armor and Defender cases for the iPod nano ($30-40), iPod classic ($30-50), and iPod touch ($30-50).
The results of our testing of these cases were bittersweet. Otter’s Defender cases are some of the best we’ve seen for their various iPod models—strong values at $30, with generally very smart designs and incredible protectiveness. Unfortunately, the Armor series cases had some issues, each proving waterproof but more problematic in controls than past versions when submerged, and leaving us underwhelmed for their $40-50 asking prices.
To start with the good news, the Defender cases for iPod nano, classic, and touch are almost beyond reproach. Though they’re roughly the same size as other iPod cases, they are designed to be substantially more shock and drop-resistant, each using two interlocking pieces of hard plastic as a primary shell, and a partial rubber body suit that covers part of the plastic outside. Each case provides complete, full-time screen and control access for its respective iPod model, while using pop-out, connected port covers to shield the headphone and Dock Connector ports from whatever you might send their way. You can choose from clear or black rubber outer covers for the nano or classic at the time of purchase; the touch version comes only in an all-black version.
At a point in time where we’ve been inundated with new iPod cases, most of them generic and boring, we actually really enjoyed using the Defenders for each of the iPod models. We found them to be surprisingly compatible with various types of headphone plugs, and limited only in the types of accessories that could be connected: Apple-made and similarly thin USB cables work, but larger add-ons won’t, nor will Universal Docks. These are cases for people who carry their iPods for portable music and video, rather than those who like to use them with stereos and other add-ons; from an accessories standpoint, this is a step up from the classical Armor design, and a step down from the best-designed competing hard cases we’ve seen—though the competitors are rarely if ever this protective.
The Defender cases have only a few limitations relative to the Armors. They do not include belt clips or necklaces, and instead have somewhat odd-looking circular rear windows for the iPods’ Apple logos; we’d sooner see them covered. And again, you shouldn’t even think of putting them underwater: the holes in their top and bottom surfaces just haven’t been sealed against water intrusion. Otter says they’re splash-proof, which they are, assuming you’ve either covered or filled the iPod’s ports, and you can attach them to specially designed armbands that the company sells separately for $15—a solid option if you’re looking to keep your iPod free of sweat at the gym.
By comparison with the Defender cases, the Armor cases feel a little outdated and surprisingly under-tested. All three use the same general design we’ve been seeing in OtterBox cases for the past several years—two extremely hard and thick pieces of plastic joined together with a single hinge, and sealed against water intrusion using a rubber inner ring and a highly secure clasp. There’s a headphone plug inside and a matching port outside, which enable you to plug the iPod in, seal the case, and feel secure in the knowledge that your nano, classic, or touch is being kept millimeters away from water or anything else that might be outside—the headphone and Dock Connector ports are totally covered.
What’s great about the Armor design is that you get a truly waterproof case—albeit guaranteed only to three-foot depths—without paying the considerably higher prices charged for H2O Audio’s most recent cases. Our water submersion tests found zero water intrusion in any of the cases, though it is possible for condensation to build up at unusually low water temperatures, namely those that you wouldn’t be in unless you fell into a lake while ice skating. This waterproof design is also safe for sweat, dust, and dirt, making the Armor case a good choice if you’re planning to run in the rain or jump into a pool with your iPod—assuming you have equally waterproof headphones.
Unfortunately, the Armor cases aren’t as usable as they should be when they’re taken underwater. The Click Wheel covers in the nano and classic versions continue to protect the iPods, but were barely and sometimes not usable for touch-sensitive controls once submerged—a problem we noticed in the earlier, first-generation iPod nano case, but found to be a bit worse here; drops of water can also interfere with the touch controls. By comparison, the iPod touch’s screen protector did work, but radically reduced sensitivity to the point where either overly deliberate or multiple button presses were required to access any of the device’s features, and even unlocking touch’s screen underwater was a real challenge. A problem with the case’s internal design also turned off the touch’s screen every time we pressed hard near the top of the display, an annoying flaw.
One way to view all of this would be to praise Armor for offering protection under circumstances that Defender and other cases would not, even if it doesn’t fully let you use the iPod when under water. Another would be to expect that each version of Armor would do at least as well, if not better underwater than its predecessors—unfortunately, these new ones don’t. Combined with the fact that you give up Dock Connector access, pay more, and get a case that’s not as good-looking as the Defender—the iPod touch version is shockingly large, too—Armor just isn’t as easy a sell for us this year as it was before.
There are offsets. Otter includes detachable belt clips with all three of the Armor cases, and also includes fabric necklaces with the iPod nano and touch versions. Its armbands for the Armor cases cost the same $15 price, but are a little simpler in design because they lock into plastic clip plates on the Armor cases’ backs. And though the Armor cases aren’t as attractive, they are easier to put on and take off of the iPods; the Defender cases require a little primping.
That said, the primping is worth it. For their $30 asking prices, the Defender cases have the looks, protectiveness, and novelty we expect these days from top, highly recommendable cases, and we’d only pass on them if you’re a regular accessory user. The Armor cases fell short of our expectations this year, with the iPod nano and classic versions rating our general recommendations, and the unusually large and more problematic iPod touch version meriting only our limited recommendation.