As I mentioned in my review of a couple of wood cases, I’m not normally a case kind of guy. I’ve never quite seen the point of paying a premium for something beautifully designed and then hiding it away inside a case.

However, a cycling holiday from the Netherlands to Denmark in which my iPhone would be used for both photos and video suggested that at least a temporary change of policy might be in order. Videoing while cycling always carries the risk of an unintended phone-road interface, and using it with the screen on a lot during some long days might also be pushing the battery-life …

The Otterbox Defender iON case seemed tailor-made for the job. Otterbox Defender cases are rigid plastic cases housed in a silicone skin, designed to offer a reasonably high level of impact protection. The Defender iON goes one better, housing a 1450mAH battery inside the plastic back to roughly double the battery-life of the phone.

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Construction

First impressions are confidence-inspiring: this thing looks tough. There are three separate elements to the case:

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The silicone outer is springy, and feels like it would cushion impacts pretty well on its own. Inside that sits a two-part plastic case: a rigid (and very solid-feeling) back and partial surround, and a smoked-plastic front section with a hard, transparent screen-protector.

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At the rear, the camera lens is left uncovered, but it’s pretty deeply recessed inside the plastic and silicone, so you’d have to be very unlucky to drop it on something pointy in order to risk damaging the lens. Personally, I’d far rather this approach than put a piece of plastic in front of the lens with the inevitable effect on image quality.

The biggest compliment I can pay to the construction of the case is how relaxed I felt using the phone while cycling. Most of the photos and video were shot one-handed while cycling. At other times, I used a Gorrilapod to attach it to sign-posts, fences and tree branches. At no point did I ever worry about the safety of the phone: I felt that the case was going to protect it no matter what.

I wasn’t going to conduct drop tests using my own phone, but I did wrap some coins in a piece of material to approximate the weight of the phone, place this inside the case and then drop it from head height. I could see no sign of impact on either the silicone outer or the plastic case inside.

Inserting & removing the phone

Inserting the phone is extremely quick and easy, as you can see in the video at the top. It slides very easily into the powered back, and engages positively. The front piece just snaps on.

The only fiddly bit is getting the silicone case neatly seated all around, but that’s really just an aesthetic thing. I’m pretty OCD when it comes to my toys, but even I didn’t feel the need to get every last kink out of the edging.

Removing it is slightly more awkward when it comes to getting the screen-protector off, but you quickly get used to it.

App

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There’s a free accompanying app you need to download to manage the intelligent charging.

The app monitors the power levels of both phone and case, and aims to keep the phone power at 60% plus. It monitors power drain in order to predict the combined battery-life remaining, displaying this as both hours & minutes left, and the estimated time of day at which you’ll run out of power.

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The app learns from your phone usage patterns, so both charging bursts and remaining time estimates are refined over time. I found it choosing to charge the phone at a whole bunch of power levels, from an indicated 89% right down to 49%, but am told this becomes more consistent the more you use it.

If you just want a quick indication of the remaining power in the case without opening the app, you simply press the bottom of the case and the ten LEDs light up – in this case showing 50% power remaining:

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Charging phone & case

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Charging couldn’t be easier: you simply leave the phone in the case, and charge both case and phone simultaneously using the supplied micro-USB cable. My review unit was a pre-production one without cable or packaging, but a standard micro-USB did the job perfectly.

I took my MacBook Air on the holiday and used this to charge the case & phone. Charging rates via a USB port are often lower than plugging into mains power, but in all cases both phone and case were fully-charged by the morning, even when a night’s sleep was four or five hours. Impressive stuff.

Battery-life

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The story here can really be stated in a sentence: I never came close to running out of power.

The iPhone battery is not the best when it comes to having the screen on for long periods, and I have exhausted it within a day before now. While this isn’t a frequent occurrence, it does mean that I’m conscious of how I use the phone on long days.

With the phone in the case, I didn’t ever have to think about it. Battery-life simply wasn’t a consideration. It coped with the most demanding use on long days, and both phone and case were always fully-charged each morning.

Conclusions

The case isn’t pretty. I wouldn’t want to hide my phone inside it on a daily basis. It’s also not cheap. But for days when you need extra power, and/or are at greater risk of dropping it (like holding it by a bicycle wheel while cycling fast downhill on a bumpy road, to pick a completely random example …), it does the job it was designed for perfectly.

The Otterbox Defender iON is currently available for the iPhone 4/4S. An iPhone 5 version is expected soon. The case retails for $129.95, but is available from Amazon for $100.93 with free shipping from Amazon. If you’re buying several Otterbox products, the promo code AM2012 gets you 5-15% off, depending on your spend, at www.otterbox.com.

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