A cellphone is no longer just a phone. Over the years the lowly cellphone has morphed into the enormously powerful computing device we call the smartphone, and they’re everywhere. Hunters use them for GPS navigation, range finding, and even as an electronic game call. Competitive shooters use shot clock apps. Police use them to run biometrics and background checks. There are even specialized military roles for both iOS and Android based devices.
The environments in which we use them are rough and unforgiving. Smartphones themselves are rather delicate by comparison. When exposed to the elements they quickly succumb. As they became more popular people naturally began seeking out ways to protect their investment.
Two of the largest and most popular manufacturers of cases for smartphones and tablets are LifeProof and OtterBox. Based out of Fort Collins, OtterBox has been manufacturing protective cases for smartphones since founder Curt Richardson launched the company in 1998. Founded in 2009 by Australian Gary Rayner and based out of San Diego, LifeProof is a more recent entry into the smartpone case race than OtterBox. They first released their product to market in 2011 to great fanfare, and amid protests from OtterBox.
LifeProof’s entry into the market prompted OtterBox to file a lawsuit against them that alleged that many of the design aspects infringed on their patents. That lawsuit came to an end in May of 2013 when LifeProof was aquired as a sister-company to OtterBox. The terms of the acquisition have not been made public, but each company’s products remain separate and distinct from the other.
For the purposes of our ‘shootout’ we acquired comparable cases from each company: The LifeProof fre, and the OtterBox Preserver. Testing consisted of daily use by my wife and myself for a week, after which we switched cases and continued the test for another week. This switching back and forth would hopefully eliminate any differences in our personal treatment in our phones. Following these two weeks, we subjected the phones to a drop test, a 10-minute immersion in water, and a dust test, followed by a trip to the range to see how both functioned when using our iPhones as shot timers.
Each case is rated for use up to 6.6 feet (2 meters) underwater, offers drop protection (MIL STD 810F-516) of the same distance, boasts an IP-6x rating against dust, and has a scratch-resistant screen cover.
The similarities between the two cases ends there. Close examination is not required to see that the two companies took different approaches in their case design and intended role. The OtterBox is significantly heavier and bulkier than the LifeProof case. It also provides additional protection in the form of a memory foam pad that provides a cushion behind the phone. The LifeProof has superior water resistance and functionality in a case that is both thinner and lighter than the OtterBox.
The LifeProof fre came with a water and dust-proof audio jack that allows headphones to be used while the phone remains protected from dirt and moisture. Waterproof earbuds are even available so that you can listen to your workout mix while swimming. By contrast the OtterBox requires that the o-ring sealed hatch covering the audio port remain open when using headphones.
Both cases provided adequate protection in the three tests we conducted. A 2 meter drop onto concrete can create forces in excess of 10-Gs, but we noted no visible damage to the phones and no perceptible changes in performance. The water immersion was a bit exciting, as the phones initially gave off a stream of bubbles when they were dunked. This turned out to be nothing more than various nooks and crannies in the case yielding to the water pressure: the insides of the cases were kept bone dry throughout the test.
For the dust test, not having a talcum chamber, we took the phones offroading in a Jeep TJ with the top down through the high deserts of New Mexico. Both cases performed well here also, though the OtterBox was more difficult to clean. We settled on rinsing it off with water, which did an adequate job.
LifeProof also claims their case provides protection against snow. Now, to be honest, I’m not sure how much of a difference snow would make when the phone case is already waterproof to 2-meters, but I do like to ski. In the interest of science we took the phones on a trip to Ski Apache near Ruidoso, New Mexico, and dropped them in some deep powder a couple of times. I also made some runs down the mountain using LifeProof’s waterproof audio jack and my regular iPhone earbuds. We did not see that the phones were affected in any way.
Finally, we hit the range for the shot timer test. One of the drawbacks of having a case for your smartphone is that the audio quality is affected. This means that it can be harder to hear a person on the phone, and make it harder for them to hear you, because of the membranes that are used to keep the interior of the case dry and dust-free. We didn’t have much information on the OtterBox’s membranes, but LifeProof touts their Sound Enhancement System which is supposed to allow for full transmission of sound through the case.
The Shot Timer iOS app from Innovative Applications served as our test bed, and I shot a Para Ordnance P14.45 using Federal’s American Eagle brand of 230 grain FMJ ammunition. For each test I shot an El Presidente drill. My wife and assistant for these tests stood behind me to record each string. I’m not disclosing my times, because frankly they sucked and we’re testing the phone cases and not myself. In both cases, the timer worked well and was able to pick up each shot without fail.
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