iPhone 4S: OtterBox Defender Case is Ultimate Protection

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.

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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.

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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.

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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*.

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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.

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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.

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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.