Sunday, September 23, 2012

Hands-On iPhone 5 OtterBox Defender Case Review: First 24 Hours

IMPORTANT UPDATE (Sept. 28, 2012)

Ha! The OtterBox I bought at the AT&T Store must have been defective, a one-off, a manufacturing variant, or a prototype version. I got a second case in the mail today from MacMall and it's PERFECT compared to the one I bought last week. The revised review is below.

Caveat: As an iPhone developer, on-the-go consultant, and person who frequently lets tech-savvy rugrats use his iOS devices, I am a heavy duty OtterBox user. I've tried lots of cases from many brands, but the combination of heavy-duty durability, splash-resistant design, and ability to withstand lots and lots of abuse made me one of the early adopters of OtterBox. 

So yes, I'm a fan, but I'm not afraid to speak out when OtterBox makes mistakes (don't get me started again on the first-gen iPad 2 Defender case). Of course, it's all relative: An average OtterBox case in my view is a great case compared to competitors. But I expect nothing but the best from OtterBox when it comes to their products.

I should also point out that I've never received anything from OtterBox other than the products I paid for myself out of my own wallet. So when you read this review, it's my product, my experience, my opinion. I'm writing this review because I use this stuff every day, and I'm intimately familiar with all of OtterBox's Defender offerings as a point of comparison: iPod touch, iPad and iPhone.

So let's get on with it.

I picked up my Defender on launch day plus one at the AT&T Store.  Got a second Defender from MacMall today. I know this comes in different colors but all my cases have been black.

My first impression was that it's NOT all black. The plastic is actually tinted a dark gunmetal gray that seems to try and match the gray texture of the back of the iPhone 5. This is a departure from every other black Defender case I had in which the plastic and rubber shell were matching black colors.

The different color was enough to make me ask AT&T to make sure I grabbed the right color, but the back tag said black.

Weird, the AT&T "black" Defender is almost gray. But I couldn't find that variant on OtterBox's web site. So I'm not sure what's going on with the case colors, but I suspect that AT&T messed up the label on its custom packaging because my second one is perfectly black. Very happy now.

Assuming my case wasn't defective, I don't care about the color too much. As I write this, looking at it next to the iPhone 4 case (pure black), it's different. Not good, not bad, just different.

My only complaint, I suppose, is that based on the official product picture above from OtterBox, the black colors look a lot closer on screen than they do in person.

The big change from the iPhone 4 Defender case used on my previous phone is the rubber case. The iPhone 4 rubber was flexible and squishy. The iPhone 5 rubber is more textured and much stiffer. Once you lock it into place, it's locked in tight. I like this rubber much more, although my concern long-term is whether the port covers will be prone to cracking since the rubber's so stiff (which happened to my old 2G iPod touch case). But the iPhone 5 rubber feels really nice for gripping. It also seems like it'll stay cleaner compared to the iPhone 4 version (that rubber seemed to attract dust easily).

Fit and finish is really great, once again OtterBox does not disappoint. If I had to nitpick at two things, it's that the back camera plastic border ever so slightly distorts the fit of the rubber around it. It creates a tiny wavy gap in the bottom left and a slight bulge on the top.  Also, on the bottom face, there's a noticeable gap between the port cover and the top, to allow easy opening ... but it looks odd visually because the plastic and rubber don't line up exactly.

But this is nitpicking to the nth degree. I've been so spoiled by the PERFECT fit of the Defender Case on my new iPad that set the bar absurdly high. You'd only notice these nitpicking things if you stared at the case all day. (And if it really did bother me I could call OtterBox and they'd replace it without hesitation.) But it doesn't worry me enough to even bother.

Guess what, the second case I got fits PERFECTLY. NO imperfections. I was so jazzed to see this.

The case feels great in your hand. Yes, I know, using a case defeats the purpose of owning a super-slim phone, but I've been using Defender cases for so long, that it's hard for me to type on an iPhone without having the edges to help grip it. The original Defender Cases were pretty bulky, but ever since the iPhone 4 version they're really slimmed down without sacrificing protection. The iPhone 5 case also continues that trend.

One side benefit of this case: The bottom plastic creates a small speaker "tunnel" that amplifies the sound when you point the bottom speakers at you. I don't know if it's the case design, the larger speaker port, or the combination of both, but the net effect is a much louder sound that comes out compared to my other phones.

Of course, the big selling point to OtterBox is its durability: Drop it, spill on it, splash it, and yes, dunk it (in a bathtub, it happened once), once it dries out, it's still as good as new. I'm eternally shocked that every time I remove an iPad or iPhone from its Defender Case that it looks brand new (except for the dusty areas which are easily wiped off with a microfiber cloth). If you think of your phone as an investment and want to protect it, if you're outdoors a lot with your phone, or if you have little kids who use your phone, you must have this case for peace of mind.

I know these cases are pricy, but do the math: Drop an unprotected phone once, and a repair replacement with Apple may set you back $50 or more. I've dropped my phone so many times that it's paid for itself in preventing damage or a trip to the Genius Bar for repair.

As for the belt clip ... honestly I've never ever used the belt clip. It looks pretty big and durable, but the whole point of a heavy-duty case is so I can slip it into a pocket.

Frankly, I'd be happy if they sold the clip separately and charged less for the case.

Another thing I love about OtterBox is their customer service. They stand behind their warranty, and if something isn't up to my standards, they've offered to fix it with no hesitation.

Well, if you haven't guessed, overall I'm giving two VERY big thumbs up to the iPhone 5 Defender case. Not as Just as perfect as the new iPad case (which I believe is their best-ever designed Defender case for any device I've used), but built solidly with everything I've grown to expect from an OtterBox product. And I like it enough to recommend it to my fellow developers and clients who use apps out in the field under adverse conditions.

P.S. I'd love to hear your comments, especially if you disagree or recommend another case you think is better. I battle-test all sorts of cases as an iPhone developer. If you're a company who'd like me to review your case, I'm open to suggestions -- but only if you think your heavy-duty case is awesome enough to pull me away from using OtterBox exclusively.

P.S.S. If you're from OtterBox and happen to read this ... where the heck are those Armor Cases? I'm eager and impatient to see the iPhone 5 case that just might replace this one.

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