The iPhone 4 (and the soon to be seen by all the cool kids iPhone 4S) is a lovely phone. I don’t mean it is good at being a phone, I mean it is quite literally lovely to look at. I love Apple kit as much as the next Mac-head but I don’t think I’m speaking solely from bias here. I’m willing to state there are other non-Apple phones which are quite nice to look at, too, for example. But for all the attractiveness of the iPhone 4 and it’s newer sibling, it feels fragile. With essentially a glass shell with only a metal band around the edge, it seems ripe for the breaking.. a sad notion. Of course, that is where cases come in and while there are many cases to choose from, I don’t think they come much better than the OtterBox Defender.

The first thing you’re probably wondering is why I’m reviewing a case which has been out for quite some time. Put simply, because I want to. But if you absolutely must have a proper answer, given the iPhone 4S is coming out and everyone and their grandmother has already pre-ordered the things, there are likely more than a few people out there who are going to be looking for a good protective case for their work of art¬†phone. And while it may be that new reviews will crop up for cases, even new reviews of old versions, I wanted to put my own review forward to let others know the pros and cons.

A few tidbits of info first. The case itself is a nearly full enclosure meaning there are some contact spots which are left uncovered. For example, the Apple logo on back is exposed for artistic reasons. The speaker and microphone areas are revealed and while there are flaps to cover the charge port, headphone port and mute switch, they can easily be flipped open and so I wouldn’t count that as a proper enclosure. The point is, unlike some other OtterBox products, you will not want to test this one by submerging the encased phone in water. It will get wet. Quickly. You will not be happy. You have been warned.

The case itself consists of two plastic frames which clip together to provide a mount point for the rubber skin. The front frame provides the cover for the screen while the rear frame provides the cover for the camera. The rubber skin provides the rest of the covering. There is also a belt clip which provides a convenient method for carrying the encased iPhone 4/4S. Note that while I refer to the iPhone 4S, and while the dimensions of the iPhone 4 and 4S are identical, looking at the Apple site to compare the two phones it seems that some external bits (the mute switch for example) are slightly out of place on the 4S and so the iPhone 4 Defender case might not work for the 4S. OtterBox has created an iPhone 4S specific case so you would be advised to use that one if you purchase a new iPhone 4S.

The Pros

It works. If I say nothing else about the OtterBox Defender series, let it be known I said this much. I do not consider myself a clumsy person but in my attempts to hold my iPhone 4 correctly, I have dropped the thing many times, typically when I was in a parking lot full of loose gravel or around demolitions or toddlers and other destructive materials. In all such situations the phone has come away unscathed. Even the case’s front screen covering has been resistant to damage, a big plus given the abuse mine has received as it has meant I have not had to replace the case. When you are looking at protective cases, the single most important attribute you should consider. Here, we give full marks.

The rest of the pros lie in what the case does not do. It does not seem to interfere with the signal strength, not that I saw anyway. I also found that whether using it in speaker phone mode or as a regular phone, I could not only hear the other party just as clearly but they found no difference when listening to me speak.

My protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, I am apparently not as dexterous as I would have you believe. Taking that into account, the OtterBox Defender makes the flaps pretty easy to manipulate in order to plug a jack in, plug power in or hit mute. I don’t know that these flaps are strictly necessary given the bits they protect are still in recesses and thus protected as well as anything else on the device but that they are there does not seem to represent a major difficulty in getting to the protected parts.

The Cons

So what’s the yin to the aforementioned yang? As a friend of mine put it “You’ve turned one of the smallest phones in the world into one of the largest.” While not strictly true, the overall effect of enshrouding your iPhone 4 in a Defender is to give it additional substance. Whereas an uncovered iPhone 4 seems to slip elegantly into a pocket, attach a Defender case and you feel as though you have weaponized your pants… which in this case isn’t nearly as fun as you might think. They do provide a belt clip, which I use, but … well… it’s a belt clip. I have absolutely no fashion sense and even I recognize the faux pas involved in using a belt clip to hold your phone. It feels something akin to carting your Prius around in the bed of your Ford F450.

Also, the screen and camera covers collect … dirtiness. You might have heard about the iPhone 4’s oleophobic glass treatment, designed to resist the oily smudges left by human digits. You haven’t? Neither has OtterBox. Perhaps they can’t add it to the protective film they use, but regardless, it isn’t there. As for the camera cover, it took awhile before I realized that in fact I was not going blind, nor was there a mysterious fog in my apartment… no, the odd look to my iPhone photos was immediately replaced by crystal clarity when I removed the phone from the case. I’ve used a Qtip to clean the camera cover and that has helped somewhat but for whatever reason that cover seems to be a dust magnet.

The Conclusion

Overall, I’m pleased with my purchase. It does just precisely what it says on the box. I don’t have a landline, so my iPhone is my sole means of communicating with those outside my cave. Thus, I have a more pragmatic view of my iPhone than as a fashion accessory. But then I also don’t think of much of anything in terms of fashion accessories, so my view may be somewhat skewed. I will say that if you have somewhere to put it (like, say, a purse) where it is out of sight and not likely to rip a hole in your pocket, the added bulk isn’t so bad once you are handling it. And the screen can be kept relatively clean with the occasional wipe down from your shirt or other available clothing. For guys who don’t have man-purses (or whatever the hell they are called), you’re going to have to either go with the belt clip or man up and put that sucker in your pocket. I don’t know if it would necessarily stop a bullet but I imagine there would be some intense negotiation before it got through.