iPhone 4S: OtterBox Defender Case is Ultimate Protection

| In-Depth Review

If you’re looking for an iPhone 4/4S case that can handle fairly extreme conditions, the OtterBox Defender may just fit the bill. It encapsulates the iPhone with a dual layer system and even includes a built-in, clear plastic display protector. Many of the less often used ports have flaps or silicone buttons to protect them.

This model uses an inner polycarbonate frame to completely encase the iPhone and that, in turn, is wrapped with a color coordinated outer silicone wrap. The inner shell also has a soft liner on the back as a cushion. Built into the frame is a clear plastic screen protector so you don’t have to worry about applying you own protector and, possibly, introducing small bubbles. The only apertures left open to air are the speakers, ear piece, front and rear cameras, microphone and LED Flash. Flaps or cushioned buttons cover the home button, volume controls, mute, 30-pin connector, headset jack and the power button. When inside the included belt clip, there’s even a third layer of defense. This looks to be really, really good protection.

OtterBox Defender -1

iPhone 4S inside case, ready to snap into belt clip

There is a lot of material protecting your iPhone, and the trick is to make it come apart easily and look good. OtterBox has done that too.

OtterBox Defender -3

All of the pieces make for great protection

Criteria For an Outstanding Case

Before I can evaluate a nearly perfect case, it helps to have some standards. Here are mine.

  • Two layers of protection: one for rigity & strength and one for shock absorption.
  • A built-in screen protector.
  • Intelligent port covers. Flaps for less often used ports and openings for often needed functions.
  • An accompanying belt clip that 1) rotates, 2) has a U-shaped edge on the clasp so it can’t slip off your belt when you bend over*.
  • The Apple logo is showcased, and the aperture has its own clear plastic window.
  • The packaging allows easy inspection in a retail store.
  • Great documentation in the form of videos when assembly is a tad complex.
  • The case complements and enhances the beauty of the iPhone rather than detract from it.
  • Priced competitively.

The OtterBox Defender has all these features, so earns the best possible rating.

Using This Case

Unlike the OtterBox Commuter, reviewed previously, this case reverses the layers. The clear screen is attached to the inner, polycarbonate shell. Then the whole thing is wrapped in soft silicone for impact resistance and a good grip. Even so, the texture of the outer silicone is such that it didn’t pick up much debris from tables as I did my testing.

I reviewed another OtterBox case, the Impact, that had the home button covered and protected. I didn’t like the feel of that case, but on the Defender, it works well and looks nice.

OtterBox Defender -6

The clasp is on a ratchet and can be rotated with a crisp, clicking sound

This case adds a considerable amount of bulk and protection. So much so that it’s a very tight fit in the oversized leather belt holster I bought. But you don’t have to worry about that because the Defender comes with its own hard plastic belt assembly that you clip the whole affair into. The clip on the back rotates with a good ratcheted feel, so you can carry the iPhone upright or horizontal. The iPhone in its case is symmetrical: it can be snapped into the belt clip face in or face out.

Below is a close-up of the clasp arrangement showing that it’s very secure. The U-shape on the end keeps the clasp from riding up and off the belt*.

OtterBox Defender -7

The U-shape on the end keeps the clasp from sliding off the belt.

Recently, one of our TMO editors was hiking in the Rocky Mountain National Park near a waterfall. Somehow the phone got dropped and it tumbled down into some rocks and came to a rest there, being sprayed by water. The iPhone itself came through without a scratch, working perfectly. So there’s an example of how capable this case is in actual conditions. (However, OtterBox says an iPhone in this case won’t float and hasn’t been tested for water resistance **.)

Packaging and Instructions

As with many cases like this, the packaging is a stiff paper box with a clear plastic face to show the product. This box is very well done, and there’s is no skimping. The case will protect the contents well. Yet you can open it to inspect the case in a store.

On the inside is a series of diagrams that show how to take the case apart and insert the iPhone. It works with an iPhone 4 or 4S.

Otterbox Defender -5

It’s easy to open the package in a store and check it out.

If you’re still in doubt, OtterBox has a page on its Web site with video instructions to help with assembly. The trick to start at the top, by the headphone jack, open the flap, and then peel the edge back from the face, towards the rear. Then work your way around the edges, peeling the outer layer off. Then pull the inner shell out. See the diagram below.

OtterBox Defender -4Here’s where to start peeling back the outer casing to disassemble.

Color Options

The Defender for iPhone 4S is available in the following color combos: (Inner Polycarbonate/Silicone Cover)

  • Black/Black
  • Gunmetal Grey/Envy Green
  • Sun Yellow/Gunmetal Grey
  • Ocean/Night Blue
  • Light Teal/Deep Teal
  • Peony Pink/Deep Plum

The case reviewed here was the Ocean/Night Blue combo.

In Defense

This case has more protection than any case I’ve reviewed so far. I think that my current case of choice, the OtterBox Commuter, inside a leather belt holster is really well protected when stowed, but I haven’t applied a screen protector. I always end up with a bubble or two that drive me crazy. The Defender, on the other hand, is equally well protected when deployed: is has the built-in screen protector. So it’s especially well defended when you’re talking in a precarious position, say, on a trolly car or out hiking in the rocks.

I liked the workmanship, fit and finish. The pieces fit together well, and the polycarbonate feels well crafted. It’s gooey enough to provide a good grip, but doesn’t have that soft, fuzzy feel of some cases that pick up the smallest of lint.

OtterBox Defender -2

Despite the bulk, it still fits nicely in my Keynamics iPhone stand.

I highly recommend this case for people who face harsh conditions every day: laboratory workers, repairmen, airline personnel, even, perhaps, those in the military. Awhile back, I was watching USA Network’s Covert Affairs. An operative threw Annie Walker’s iPhone out of a fast moving Mercedes, and there was a close-up of the face as it lay on the concrete, smashed into tiny glass shards. I can’t vouch for that kind of protection, but maybe if she’d had a Defender….

Another consideration is not just cosmetic protection but availability. One may ponder whether US$50 is a suitable price to pay when the iPhone 4/4S itself may have cost as little as $99 or $199. But one must also consider the consequences of being out and about and having your only line of communication severed by, say, an unfortunate drop on a hard surface. So the protection of critical functionality may come into play for people who work in remote locations (that nevertheless have cell coverage) — and that may be well worth $50 of insurance.

Because this case does everything I think it should, is well crafted, well designed, looks great and provides solid protection with no downside, it earns a TMO “Outstanding” 5/5 rating.

Note: The article summarizing the iPhone 4/4S case reviews has been updated.


* One year at WWDC, long before the iPhone, my Motorola cell phone, in a poorly designed belt clip, slid off my belt when I sat down for lunch and quietly tumbled to the carpet under the table cloth. Twice. And twice I recovered the phone from WWDC lost and found.

** If you need water immersion protection, see the OtterBox 2000.

Product: OtterBox Defender for iPhone 4/4S

Company: OtterBox

List Price: US49.95



Two layers of protection, built-in screen protector, smart design of port coverings and openings, accompanying belt clip with secure, rotating clasp, protected aperture for Apple logo, online video documentation.


None noted.

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Great review John.  I was a die hard Otterbox Defender guy for 3 years.  However, I would love for you to do a review of the LIFEPROOF IPHONE case.  It is head and shoulders above the Defender, because it’s completely waterproof, dust proof, shock proof, etc.  I am sure once you try it, you’ll be converted, I know I was.  Give it a try, I truly believe this is a much better case, especially for anyone in the trades/construction (such as myself).




Concur with your criteria for outstanding cases. Having just received my Defender case, I think it is up to the challenges of the torrential Monsoons, flash floods, civil unrest, communal disorder/violence, extreme filth, occasional falls, and general heat and humidity to which it will, most certainly, be exposed.

s4ndm4n: Vern Seward reviewed the LifeProof case back on 28 October, and gave it a very strong recommendation. The only reason I did not go for it was that the Otterbox Defender allows easier access to some ports (headphone jack), provided much of the same protection, and came with the belt clip (have to purchase separately for LifeProof) and a lower price. For my everyday field use, I suspect that the Defender will be more than adequate, whereas I will not require the additional features of the LifeProof.

On the other hand, if it looks as if I’ll be fully submerging my phone in water (a distinct possibility), then I might revisit that LifeProof purchase.

Wilo Castillo

The case looks cool and it seems like it would provide protection for your phone, but don’t be fooled.  It does not.  I dropped my phone from 2.5 ft and the glass shattered on the phone however the case remained intact?  You have my email address, I will be more than happy to provide you visual proof of the this.  I contacted OB and they indicated that they do not guarantee the protection of the items their cases cover; however when you go to the website you will see that they indicate via a quote on their video that their cases are “indestructible” and they show the case falling out of a persons pocket at a much higher height than 2.5 ft and it still works.  Plain and clear false advertisement.

John Martellaro

Mr. Castillo & all: I don’t do drop tests on purpose.  However, I have dropped my iPhone 4 accidentally several times in severe circumstances.  I documented that in the Incase Snap Case review. So if that case can protect my phone, I surmise that the Defender is better.

This is like the unfortunate situation of airliner crashes. Sometimes, in some less than catastrophic crashes, some passengers survive without a scratch and some die tragically.

Similarly, how you drop an iPhone and how it lands dictates the physics of the impact.  No case can guarantee 100% protection.  You pick the case that looks like it will afford the protection you think you’ll need in your circumstances. The purpose of the review is to give you information to make that self-determination.


I have a Defender and like it very much sans the built in screen protector. Its not flush against the screen and therefore there is space and you feel it when you put your fingers on it.  I would also think that fine particles of dust could get in there.  Anyhow, I solved the problem by pulling it off and applying my own.

Jonathan D.

I bought my Defender case before a week ago, ha and i already drop my iPhone 4s a several times.My wife sad that the case is to huge but ..... womans This is the best investment that i ever made.Love My OtterBox. Ou i bought it from http://www.otterboxonline.com , they had a good deal , 10 % off and free shipping .. h

Teddy Knapp

I got my Otter Box about 4 days ago. I was really curious to see if all the videos online of people throwing them off buildings with no harm to the phone were true. I started out with small drops and worked my way to throwing it across the floor (its a wood floor so im sure that took some of the impact away). To my surprise, the phone was fine, and the case didnt have a scratch on it. I dont think I would ever throw it down the street, but for everyday abuse, I would say its pretty good. Also, the new fit of the silicone is nice. My neighbor has an older style Defender for his iPhone 4S and the silicone seems to slip off alot.


I bought this case back in november, when the 4S came out. There’s a couple things to be said here after a few months of usage. First, the good remarks:

It definitely protects your phone. I’ve dropped my phone about a dozen times on concrete or similarly hard surfaces, and I was pleased to find that there were no scratches on the phone. Even though the plastic shell is on the inside, with an rubber shell on the outside(seems counter-intuitive), the case manages to avoid scratching your phone. The built in screen protector is definitely solid, and allows you to avoid putting a screen protector on yourself.

It is not without faults, which become apparent with time. One of the most egregious problems is the transparent plastic shield that covers the front camera, proximity sensor, and and earpiece. the plastic shield confuses the proximity sensor into thinking you’re holding the phone up to your ear, when you’re not. This causes the screen to flash on and off spontaneously when you’re holding it normally in your palm. This is “fixed” by prying off the small, clear plastic. Also, there is a huge tendency for dust to collect in these holes.

Second, as you can see in the pictures above, parts of the rubber shell are quite thin. And, like an old rubber band, cracks start showing after time, especially since you are constantly opening and closing the rubber ports around the headphone jack, charging plug-in, hold button, etc. i have several of these cracks, and they will propagate over time, eventually breaking the case.

Third, its heavy and very bulky. Try it, see it, hold it before you buy. Its worth it for me, since I’m clumsy with expensive gadgets.

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