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Otterbox Defender and Commuter cases reviewed

Article by: Mike Barrett
Date: 1 Sep 2010

pocketgpsworld.comOver the past few weeks I have been out and about with my iPad a lot. The size of the iPad makes it somewhat susceptible to knocks and scratches. Bearing this in mind I got in touch with Otterbox to have a look at their new Commuter and Defender cases for the iPad. Priced at $65 and $90 respectively they offer a lot of protection for your iPad.

We have known and liked the Otterbox products from way back in the good old days of 2003 when we did our original review of the Heavy Armor and Otterbox 1000. Things have come a long way since then, but the concepts and precepts of Otterbox protection have not changed.

Coming back to the current day Otterbox product have moved with the times and have changed from being simply functional to being stylish and functional. The two cases we are looking at here both afford a high level of protection to your device, and have some excellent design features as well.

The first thing I did when I bought my iPad was to buy a keyboard to go with it. Big mistake! None of the protective cases on the market at the time allowed the iPad to dock with the keyboard whilst in the case. Otterbox have overcome this problem by providing removable panels exposing the dock mount and allowing the iPad to be mounted on both the Apple power dock and the keyboard dock. This is a good thing as getting the iPad in and out of the cases is not the easiest thing in the World to do.

Which takes us to back to the beginning… Both cases provide screen protection, high impact polycarbonate shells, and silicone skins, but the Defender has more of them.

The Otterbox Defender iPad Case
Otterbox Defender case for iPad
Otterbox Defender case for iPad on Apple iPad Keyboard.

The Defender is effectively a hard shell surrounded by soft silicone. There are cutouts and plugs to allow access to all the connectors with a removable panel allowing the iPad to be docked to either the normal dock cable, a power dock, or the iPad keyboard.

Otterbox Defender case for iPad
Otterbox Defender case for iPad plug detail.

For the pushbutton controls of the iPad are accessed via raised sections on the silicone casing. These work well, but you may need to dig your finger in harder than you expect to activate the power button.

Otterbox Defender case for iPad
Otterbox Defender case for iPad dock panel with cover as a stand.

The Defender also included a polycarbonate cover for the screen that doubles as a stand, or can just be attached to the back of the case when the iPad is in use. There is a protective clear membrane covering the Apple logo on the back of the iPad.

Installing the case for the first time is a little tricky, and indeed I tried to follow the pictorial instructions and still had a few problems. Fortunately Otterbox have realised this and have made some videos which show the installation in more detail (and it is easier to understand what to do). Click here to view the video.

Otterbox Defender case for iPad
Otterbox Defender case installation: sliding iPad in.

Before installing the case you should apply the screen protector film. I always have problems applying these and despite the fact that Otterbox provide a tool to help you apply it I prefer to have my screen naked!

The main problem when installing the case is to remove the dock panel before you put the iPad in. When the case is shipped the dock panel is secured in place by 2 circular adhesive retainers. If you do not remove these then you will have serious problems trying to remove the dock panel with the case fully installed. Trust me I have experience of this…

The other less serious issue is that it is a little tricky trying to get all the silicone lugs in place, but once in place the case is good to go.

The Otterbox Defender for iPad in use
Otterbox Defender case for iPad
Otterbox Defender case with cover protecting the iPad.

In use the Defender is really robust. With the screen cover on the screen is protected well and Otterbox claim it is drop proof (not something I am willing to test on a £700 bit of kit). I have had confidence in the toughness of the case and have used it strapped to the front pannier of my bike whilst cycling around London. I also felt confident to take it out and about around Cape Canaveral in the dark swamp areas whilst filming the GPS rocket launch. The case is not waterproof, but does offer protection from inadvertent knocks.

The main downside of the Defender is that it weighs about 567g which is not much less then the 680g of the ipad itself. This could be something to take into consideration if you want to carry it round all day. This is of course the price of the protection you get from the case, heavy duty armour is not light.

As mentioned above the power button can be a bit tricky to operate and needs a fingernail pushing the silicone to activate it. Not a big problem, but a little irritating at times.

The screen cover doubling up as a stand is a real bonus. I have used it on planes and trains and it means that I no longer have to hold the iPad whilst watching a film or browsing the web.

Otterbox Defender case for iPad
Otterbox Defender case for iPad dock panel detail.

Even better is the removable dock panel which lets me put the iPad on the power dock or keyboard without having to remove the case. It is a little inconvenient having to remove the panel to connect the power cable. As the panel is completely removable I do have a tendency to leave it off and transport the iPad without it. I am sure that I will lose it one of these days.

The Otterbox Commuter iPad case
Otterbox Commuter case for iPad
Otterbox Commuter case for iPad on Apple power dock.

The Commuter iPad case is the opposite of the Defender. The Commuter has a hard polycarbonate outer shell covering a protective silicon skin. This offers an altogether different different type of protection. Where the Defender is the "heavy duty Tank" the Commuter is the less protected "light weight armoured car". I use the commuter more for running around at shows and expositions. It is a lot lighter, but has no cover for the screen so I need to be a little careful when stowing it in my bag.

Weighing in at 204g it is about a third of the weight of the iPad, a much better proposition if you have to cart your iPad around all day. However with the lightness you lose the solid cover protection for the screen (though you still get a screen protector film). Once again the silicon skin has cutouts, silicon plugs and raised sections for the buttons.

Otterbox Commuter case for iPad
Otterbox Commuter case install pulling plug cover through.

Installation was still a little tricky you still need to remove the dock panel circular stickers or you will have trouble getting the panel off. I had trouble inserting the silicon skin in the top part of the polycarbonate shell, but this was overcome by using a blunt knife. I had to do this to poke the headphone cover through the opening. I have since discovered that I should have rolled the silicone back and threaded the cover through the hole and then rolling the silicone back at the same time as pushing into the shell. Sounds complicated? Check out the Otterbox Commuter installation video to see how easy it actually is.

The Commuter in use
Otterbox Commuter case for iPad
Otterbox Commuter case for iPad dock panel detail.

The power button for the commuter was much easier to operate, one tap and it operated without fiddling around. The silicone absorbs energy from knocks and bumps, but does not provide any protection for the screen. The dock cover works in the same way as the Defender providing access for the dock connector, power dock, or keyboard.

Otterbox Commuter case for iPad
Otterbox Commuter case for iPad polycarbonate protective shell.

The big advantage of the Commuter is the low weight, but the disadvantage is the lack of screen protection.

The old saying: "you pays your money and makes your choice" is very appropriate here. Although the Commuter case is nice and light it does lack protection for the screen. This alone would make me consider the official Apple case which priced at £30 is somewhat cheaper than the Commuter. What the commuter does have going for it though is the accessibility of the dock connector for the power dock and the keyboard.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Defender, which as its name suggests provides full protection for the iPad. With the dual functionality of the screen cover working as a stand this really ticks all the boxes for me. The downside is the weight, but if you want full protection for your iPad than the weight is not a big consideration. I would rather carry a few extra grams and have the sure knowledge that my iPad will be safe.

The Defender and Commuter are available from your normal Otterbox stockists at $90 (£65 UK) for the Defender and $65 (£47 UK) for the Commuter.
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