Review: OtterBox Defender Series Case for iPad Air + iPad mini with Retina display
Compatible: iPad Air
Ever since OtterBox acquired rival case maker LifeProof earlier this year, we've been wondering how the companies would integrate or keep separate their conceptually similar ultra-protective cases. OtterBox's Defender Series Cases have been amongst its most mainstream offerings, falling just a step short of LifeProof's waterproof Frē designs despite covering Apple devices in enough rubber and hard plastic to resist virtually everything else. Just in time for the holidays, OtterBox has released new versions of Defender for the iPad Air ($90) and Retina iPad mini ($70), each maintaining the same price points and general features as prior models for and first-generation iPad minis.
While the two new cases aren’t as identical to one another as the iPads they’re based upon, they’re not too different — we see them as slightly tweaked evolutions of the first-gen mini Defender, which was streamlined from the full-sized iPad version. The iPad Air version drops the diamond-styled side ribbing in favor of a fancier central rear texture that could pass for leather at a distance, but unfortunately preserves the ugly circular Apple logo hole of the prior full-sized iPad case, still covered with clear plastic. Thankfully that hole is missing from the Retina iPad mini version, which looks identical to the first mini case but with a second microphone hole in the right place on the back. They’re otherwise functionally the same.
Each package includes a total of four pieces: a two-piece hard plastic iPad frame with an integrated clear plastic screen protector, a rubber case that fits around the plastic frame on all sides, and a slightly X-shaped fold-up stand that attaches to the encased iPad’s front or back for travel. If you carry the tray-like stand around, you add quite a bit of weight and thickness to the tablet, but add the ability to place your iPad on well-supported typing and nearly 45-degree video viewing angles. This stand is arguably the single biggest positive differentiator between the Defender cases and LifeProof Frē cases, so while we really would prefer something slimmer and integrated directly into the case’s back, it’s a relatively rare feature in playthrough-style iPad cases, and appreciated as a pack-in for what it is. Otter’s decision to give each version of Defender hard plastic corners enables the stand to firmly attach for travel, only introducing slight additional challenges when installing the external rubber layer on the case. No magnets are found in the stands for automatic screen unlocking, a feature that was included in the earlier full-sized iPad Defender.
Defender’s approach to iPad protection can be understood as a different set of compromises relative to Frē and Griffin’s rival Survivor series: you get way more rubber drop protection than a LifeProof case, but a bit less input feature protection than a typical Survivor. While OtterBox covers most of each iPad with one or two layers of material, these two Defenders both leave the two cameras, twin microphones, and twin speakers completely exposed, albeit recessed millimeters under the case’s front, rear and bottom surfaces. As a result, the cases are effectively safe enough that your iPad Air or Retina mini won’t get water-logged if held the right way during an accidental splash, and plenty of material is there to absorb accidental drops, but submersion would be deadly, with similar opportunities for sand or dust intrusion.
The overall user experience with each Defender case is substantially positive. What you trade off in device lightness and thinness is made up for by the added protection, which is reassuringly sturdy at all points across the iPad’s body. Flip-open headphone port, side switch, and Lightning port covers feel solid in either position, and provide enough access for typical fingers and cables to fit as needed. Screen protection is only very mildly prismatic, with fine touchscreen responsiveness, and button coverage is quite responsive, even if you’ll need a little extra pressure to register presses. Apart from the rear hole on the iPad Air version of Defender, these are also very handsome cases, and OtterBox will offer them each in multiple colors.
Our single biggest functional issue with both Defender cases isn’t in how they work, but rather in how they’re assembled and disassembled. LifeProof’s cases have effectively redefined ease of installation and removal for ultra-protective cases, and the Defender designs are comparatively more complicated, requiring finger-pinching clasping of hard plastic pieces and then a seam-sealing process to get the rubber skin aligned with the finished plastic frame. Once everything’s done — sometimes a several-minute process if you just can’t get the hard plastic clips open or closed — the cases are a joy to use, but the transitions aren’t pleasant. OtterBox could strip Defender of a protective layer to improve this part of the user experience, but then, it wouldn’t really be a Defender any more. Still, there are likely some lessons to be learned from LifeProof here, and perhaps we’ll see them implemented in OtterBox’s 2014 cases.
Just as we’ve said in years past, the Defender Series Cases are good rather than great options for heavy-duty iPad coverage. While OtterBox continues to price Defender below the truly waterproof LifeProof Frē, its primary rival is really Griffin’s Survivor series, which the latter company sells for $10 less per model while matching it in features and offering additional water, dirt, and dust protection. We’d generally be inclined to pick a Survivor case over a Defender, but users looking for a slightly more slender solution with a more versatile packed-in stand — at a higher price — will find the latest Defenders to be very satisfying. The iPad Air and Retina iPad mini versions of Defender both merit our general recommendation and flat B rating.