Many iPhone cases start with the same concepts: simpler, thinner, and lighter are better. Of course the fact is that there is a negative correlation between those qualities and just how protective the case is. iPhones break in the right — or wrong — circumstances, even if encased. OtterBox was one of the first companies to take the opposite approach of over engineering for enhanced protection. Their iPhone 4 model in the Defender Series ($50) is the latest offering. Griffin has recently stepped up the plate as well, offering Survivor ($50) as a direct competitor. The two are undeniably protective, as both companies demonstrate with videos on their respective websites. Practicality in everyday use may be questionable, but for those who are involved in high impact activities — or are just really clumsy — both provide a good way to keep the iPhone 4 safe and avoid a trip to the Genius Bar.
Both offerings have a similar multi-layer construction: a polycarbonate shell with built in passthrough screen protector and a thick silicone skin that fits over it, with a removable belt clip for each. The first layer is rather similar on both, with a two piece snap-shut design. On the inside of each back piece is a thin padding to cushion the iPhone 4, and each has extruded portions which serve to hold the silicone layer in place. Between the two, the biggest difference is that OtterBox’s case has a circular opening around the Apple logo, covered by a clear plastic window. We are not big fans of this design decision from an aesthetic stand, although it does not considerably lessen the protectiveness of this case.
Where the two cases differ most is the outer silicone shell. Of the two, Survivor feels more substantial and more rugged. It covers every bit of the phone; all of the switches, openings, and even the camera are protected but can be accessed by flipping out the portion of silicone over them, and the volume, Sleep/Wake, and Home Buttons are covered but remain fully usable. For the most part, this is a thoughtful design as there is practically no way any harmful elements could reach the iPhone. In practice, however, it does make using certain features of the device more difficult. For example the extra step of exposing the camera is added to the photo taking process, which is something that could result in lost shots. The noise canceling mic on the top of the phone is also covered during normal use which could certainly lead to degraded call quality. In addition, docking is not possible due to the overall size of the case.
Defender, on the other hand, seems a little bit less protective. The silicone is thinner at points, although it still feels strong. While most of the iPhone 4 is covered, there are significant exceptions. On the bottom, both the speaker and the mic are fully exposed, as is the mic on the top. Even though they are recessed rather deeply, the camera and flash are also open. Similar to the Survivor, the headphone port, silent switch, and Dock Connector are accessible by flipping out the portion of rubber covering them.
Included with both cases is a belt clip. With Survivor, it is situated on a long piece of plastic that fits into the shape of the silicone body, attaching at the top and bottom. It can be rotated in 90 degrees in either direction. On Defender, the clip is on a much larger attachment; it is a a little bit wider than the unit itself, almost serving as a case for the case. The clip itself is much wider than Griffin’s, and can rotate all the way around. On either model, attaching the clip to a belt or bag is probably going to be the easiest way to carry the device, as the cases are quite thick and don’t slide in and out of a pocket too easily.
We did find that using the touchscreen on both models required just a little bit of pressure as the screen protector did not lay perfectly flat, resulting in occasional missed letters and other unrecognized input. It was also somewhat more difficult to type on the Griffin model because the hard plastic base sits right at the edge of the screen, making it harder to access the letters along the outer edge of the keyboard. On Defender this is not an issue as the opening goes a bit wider than the screen.
OtterBox and Griffin have both put forth incredibly protective cases, quite similar in most regards. The biggest distinguishing factors are not really that big at all, but it is certainly a benefit to have the extra coverage around the ports and openings that Survivor provides. By the same token, the lack of quick access to the camera and cramped space around the screen do make it a bit more difficult to use. While we would ultimately recommend Survivor over Defender in direct competition, both are very good options in their category. For this reason, both are deserving of a B+ rating, with their biggest downfalls being lack of universal necessity and unfortunate but necessary bulkiness.
Updated November 2, 2011: OtterBox has released an updated version of Defender for the iPhone 4S. Still retailing at $50, this newer version has two main differences from the original: one large opening for the proximity sensor, front camera, and earpiece as opposed to three separate ones, and a larger integrated hole for the rear camera and flash. Otherwise, Defender looks the same and ships with the same pieces.
Company and Price
Compatible: iPhone 4