Most Android units these days are standard cellphones, and while I wouldn’t call them “fragile”, they’re mostly not designed for the kind of abuse they can get when used outdoors for mapping and recording the world. The Motorola Defy was the first “rugged” Android unit, billed as water/scratch resistant and dustproof, which promptly developed hardware problems. The Casio G’zOne Android cellphone is supposedly a rugged, outdoor-capable unit, and should be available on Verizon soon. And MITAC, parent company of GPS maker Magellan, has shown a prototype rugged Android tablet designed for outdoor use. But these choices are limited, and for now most Android units are standard cellphones. So you’ll need to find some kind of add-on case that will protect them in more extreme environments from dust, water, impact and scratches.
The simplest (and cheapest) protection is a simple molded silicone rubber shell that you insert your phone into, like this one for the Droid X:
You can pay about $10 (plus shipping) for a brand-name version of these, but if you enter your phone’s name and “silicone case” into eBay’s search engine, you can find ones of comparable quality for as little as $3 shipped. These aren’t exactly high-tech, so it’s unlikely you’ll get a lot more quality by buying the brand name. These offer some impact protection, less water and dust protection, and only protect the cellphone body from scratching; the screen will still be vulnerable. Don’t believe for a second that “Gorilla Glass” or comparable high-tech glass surfaces will protect your screen from all scratches; if you don’t believe me, take a handful of sand and rub it over your phone’s screen (please don’t do this!).
I’ve used Zagg’s screen protectors in the past to keep the screens of my GPS units (Garmin 60Cx and Garmin 62s) from scratching, and they’ve worked very well for those units. The 60Cx has had its original Zagg screen protector for over 4 years now, and not only is the original glass screen intact, the screen protector is unscratched as well despite substantial abuse. So I tried a Zagg screen protector for my Droid X, and was somewhat disappointed with the results. First off, application requires liberal application of a wet spray-on solution, fine for a waterproof GPS, nerve-wracking with a non-waterproof cellphone. Secondly, it makes the screen surface feel a bit “tacky”, so that your fingers don’t slide smoothly over it; this is a real drawback for using the Android’s touchscreen interface. Finally, you can’t remove it without ruining the screen protector, although Zagg will replace any protector that is damaged for any reason, or removed because you needed to send the unit in for warranty service. I had to return my first Droid X under warranty, so I got a free replacement, but was so dissatisfied with its performance that I didn’t bother to put it back on again.
So, I moved on to the more substantial, and more expensive, option: a rugged case designed for the Droid X. There are two companies known for their rugged cellphone cases:
- Seidio, which makes the Innocase Rugged Case and Holster Combo for the Droid X
- OtterBox, which makes the Defender Case for the Droid X
Both Seidio and OtterBox make similar models for many other popular Android cellphones (and the iPhone, if you’re so inclined). The most rugged cases are Seidio’s Innocase line and the OtterBox’s Defender line; less rugged case are also available. Expect to pay $30-40 for one of these models at Amazon.com, which seems a bit overpriced to me, even if you are protecting a $500 cellphone. Both Droid X cases have good reviews at Amazon; I chose the OtterBox because I’ve had good experiences with their products in the past.
The OtterBox Defender case comes in four pieces:
- A polycarbonate case that the phone slips into
- A polycarbonate frame with a hard plastic screen protector that snaps on to the above case to completely surround the phone
- A silicone rubber shell that wraps around the bottom part of the case, fitting securely around the edges
- A holster that the entire case assembly above snaps into
Having had this case for a few months now, I can make some observations:
- Putting the case together take some practice; it’s sometimes tough to get the frame to snap on securely to the case. Taking the frame off is even more of a pain; you eventually learn that you need to squeeze the sides of the case together, and then the frame pops off fairly easily. This whole process does complicate replacing the battery in the field if you run out of power.
- I was worried that the hard plastic screen protector would interfere with touchscreen usability, but that’s not the case – it works really well, and doesn’t affect screen visibility at all. There is no protector for the camera lens, though – it’s naked (albeit recessed a bit into the case).
- The case offers excellent impact protection to your phone, and the hard plastic screen protector keeps the glass screen from being scratched. I’ve dropped the phone several times in the field on unforgiving surfaces, and not only was the phone not hurt, the case didn’t show any effects at all.
- The case offers some protection from dust, but I wouldn’t call it dustproof. And it’s definitely not waterproof, or even water-resistant; the best I would call it is “splash-resistant”. It will protect your phone from a few drops of rain, but won’t help if your phone gets immersed in water.
- The silicone rubber shell covers the four buttons at the bottom of the phone, and makes them substantially harder to push.
- The holster holds the phone very securely; any impact that would cause it to fall out would cause you bigger problems than a lost phone.
- The case substantially increases the size of the phone, and the Droid X was already a big phone. Still fit in my pants pocket, but I could tell it was bigger. I tried keeping the case on all the time, even when not using it in hostile environments, but went back to the cheap silicone shell for regular use, and only put this case on when I’m out in the field.
Bottom line: While I wish it were a bit less bulky, and a bit less expensive, I appreciate the extra protection it gives my phone in the great outdoors. If you take your phone into hostile environments, it’s highly recommended.