Crunch, Drop, Drown: We Test "Rugged" Smartphone Cases

The Case For Rugged Cases

Phone cases have come a long way – and we’re not talking about leather holsters of yesteryear. Just in the past few years, cases have become an important side industry in mobile communication. With the advent of touchscreens and glass-encased phones, dropping them no longer means a dent in the corner, it usually means a unusable phone. To compensate, cases have gotten stronger, thinner, and more resilient to stand up to bumps and scrapes. We put some new ruggedized cases to the test: we got mean, and a little bit abusive by throwing, drowning, and smashing them without mercy.

We only have one Android case in our roundup of five cases because there are hardly any ruggedized Android cases on the market. Android phones come in so many shapes and sizes that the market for this type of case is smaller, and not as lucrative. While the iPhone market has a huge number of people using the exact same-sized device, Android case manufacturers face a trickier job.

Otterbox Defender

Basic Info: Otterbox Defender

Otter Defender Series, iPhone4


Price: $24

The Otterbox is a nice-looking three-part case with a high-impact polycarbonate outer shell. Screen protector. Impact-absorbing silicone. Port and button covers.

Clip is heavy and thick, and phone can face either in or out of it.

Ballistic HC

Ballistic HC, iPhone 4

Price: $28

General description:

Advanced four-layer protection, with optional outer layer for “ultimate protection.” Integrated screen protector and holster. Thicker than a couple of the others, but that could be because it actually has four layers – a hard inner case/screen protector, a softer silicone shell to absorb shock, and a clip-on super-tough attachment.

When clipped in, the phone face is actually towards your body, which is different from others where you have the option to face in or out.               

Griffin Survivor

Griffin Survivor, iPhone 4

Price: $26.95

General description:

The Griffin Survivor case is something to be admired in termsof toughness – it meets or exceeds US Military standard 810F. It’s a 4-layer case, with sealed ports help block against sand and dust. A rigid internal frame minimizes shock/drop damage. Silicone cladding absorbs vibration, integral display shield helps deflect wind-blown rain. Clip is just a clip and not a whole other shell – it detatches easily. The outer thick shell is harder silicone, inner shell is rigid two-part snapper with a screen protector.

Speck Toughskin, iPhone 3

Speck ToughSkin, iPhone 3

Price: $34.95

Rubberized and texturized design for maximum protection and grip. Thicker corners for added insulation from bumps and scrapes. Detachable holster so phone can face in or out. Includes removable screen protector. Case is a three-part deal, rigid inner layer surrounded by a silicone flexible layer, and then a hard plastic case. 

MyTouch 4G PowerSkin

PowerSkin Silicon Case with Built-in Rechargeable Battery for MyTouch 4G

Price: $59.99

PowerSkin is a flexible one-piece case that gives you twice the power for your smartphone, with a battery included in the case. And according to company, the silicone case, which is like a second skin, will protect from drops and bumps – they call it shockproof. When the battery level dips, the case senses the need for more juice and boosts it up. It’s made from recycled plastic and has a thin look – thinner than previous versions of charging cases.

Tests and Methodology, Drop Test Method

We put the cases through a series of tests including dropping, crushing, water, sand and style. All the review tests were conducted over the course of two days. We used a wooden dummy stand-in for the drop and crush tests (sorry but our budget doesn’t cover destruction of iPhone 4s!) and the wood allowed us to see dents and punctures without risking a real phone.

Since the PowerSkin wasn’t technically a ruggedized case (though it does say that it’s shockproof) we didn’t put it through the crunch, water and sand, but rest assured it got dropped!

Also, the speck has had no front-protection, so we held off putting it through the water and sand test, since it would have just pooled inside.

 Drop Test Method


There are lots of times that a phone would slip out of your hand. Perhaps you’re talking while wearing gloves, and it slips out. Or you don’t quite have the grip you thought and it goes flying across the parking lot. We tried to recreate those situations with our drop test.

For the droptest, we started at a height of four feet and dropped the cases, with a dummy wooden phone inside, three times – first with the front down, then the back, then the top. The cases were dropped onto concrete. Afterward, we inspected the cases, the wood inside, and the outer rubberized pieces for scuffs, dents, and scrapes. The results of the test follow!

Drop Test Results

Dropping from a height of four feet, this is what we found:

Speck: without a screen protector, there was nothing to stop scraping on the front side of the phone. But besides the front, the rubbery parts fared well with little scuffing. Pass! Score: 6

Otterbox: With a good amount of all-around protection, this test didn’t do anything to our inner phone or the outer parts. We did notice a small bit of scuffing to the inner rigid plastic – which was difficult to clip and unclip. Pass! Score: 7

Ballistic: It didn’t bounce much, but the Ballistic absorbed impact like a pro. The rubbery part protrudes in front of the screen protector, so it didn’t scratch the face of the phone at all. Pass! Score: 8

Griffin: The rubber outer shell is much heavier on this case, and we thought it felt more secure overall. After the droptests, there were no scuffs and just minor abrasions to the hard plastic inside. Pass! Score: 8


PowerSkin: It’s supposed to be shockproof, which I would assume means it can be dropped. The built-in battery pack in the back does help with the dropping, but the front got a bit battered. Pass(ish)! Score: 5

Crunch Test Method

Our second test was to determine what kind of force could be applied to the cases without them buckling, snapping of pieces, or cracking the rigid phone inside. For this, we used a five-pound dumbbell, and dropped it from a height of two feet onto each phone. Again, we used a dummy wooden phone (can’t … afford … new … phones!) and the surface we crunched on was concrete.

Crunch Test Results

When we dropped a five-pound weight on a phone inside each case, this is what we found:

Speck: Without a front protector, the crunch test worked when the dumbbell was dropped on the back of the case, but when dropped on the front, it made a big dent – which would have meant a cracked screen.

Score: 4

Otterbox: The screen protector popped out of the case due to some weak glue that unstuck when compressed, but the case fared well as it was crunched. Score: 7

Ballistic: The plastic got scuffed, but the dummy phone wasn’t dented. Even a direct crush against the front face of the case didn’t cause much damage, due to the protruding plastic ridges which caught the brunt of the force before it could touch the weak screen protector.

Score: 8

Griffin: No scuffing at all and no dents. It also features an expanded rubber face to keep direct impact away from the screen protector, but the rubber is a higher grade than both the Otterbox and Ballistic cases. Crunch more, this case seems to ask.  Score: 10


PowerSkin: There’s a battery pack inside, which didn’t seem to enjoy a five-pound weight barrelling down on it. Some parts cracked with the stress, so I wouldn’t exactly recommend you to try this with a phone inside. Score: 3

Style Test Method and Results

Our third test was to determine one based solely on aesthetics: which phone would you want clippped to your waist? And how would you feel making a phone call in public on the phone, with a ruggedized case?

When we considered all the beauty-queen factors of the phone, we found: 

Speck: Speck’s case is black rubber, and it has a nice feel and heft to it. I like the pattern and the way you get the phone in and out of the case – through hinges in the plastic coating. Overall, it’s got a nice look to it, but I still think it needs a screen protector to give a full impression of ruggedness and usability. Score: 7

Otterbox: Okay. So I’m not a huge fan of belt-clips but I understand the need for them with rugged cases. The clip-on attachment for this case, though, is heavy-duty thick plastic. I suppose it would go well at a hipster gathering – maybe the phone equivalent of plastic-rimmed glasses?

Out of the clip, though, the case is more attractive. White plastic with black silicone covering has that smooth apple-like glam to it. I can easily slip this in a purse or pocket without it feeling ruggedized. Kind of a softer-side-of-Sears thing, really. Score: 7


This case embraces its military heritage. With the camo-green covering and the rounded corners, it kind of wants to be lobbed like a grenade. I like the removable clip. The thick rubbery coating feels good in the hands, and it’s easier than the other cases to hold on to. Score: 8



Like the Griffin case, this one embraces its rough side. The smooth plastic exterior and inner-only-facing clip gives the impression that you’re either a spy or someone with really, really important things going on. It’s a nice clean look, but for me I’d like to have a little pattern to the back of the outer case – since that’s what you’re primarily going to be looking at while the phone rides on your hip. Score: 7


PowerSkin: The PowerSkin has nice, clean lines and even though it boosts big battery power, it doesn’t have the bulk that the first generation of powering cases had. The plastic is recycled, which is cool, and the built-in battery senses when you’re running low to boost your juice. Nice in the hand, but could benefit from some pizzazz. Score: 7

Sand Test Method

We took the ruggedized cases to the beach, where we first dipped them into the sand, and then buried them all the way under the beach. Then we brought them out and peeked inside each case to see how much of the sandy stuff had accumulated inside. We only tested the phones with complete coverings, because clearly sand gets all up into the phones that have open fronts!

Sand Test Results

When we buried the three ruggedized cases in the sand, this is what we found:

Ballistic: There was a small beach of sand inside the ballistic – it seemed to enter mostly through the top small hole where the speaker was.  

Score: 6


Otterbox: There was a moderate amount of sand inside the Otterbox case, enough to cause some problems with the phone but not enough to shut the whole thing down. Score: 7


Griffin: Almost no sand got inside the case. We were impressed by the way the case kept sand at bay.   Score: 9



Water Test Method

Our fifth and final test simulated what would happen if you were caught in a sudden downpour but wanted to keep using your phone in the wetness. All of the cases have openings around the speaker ports on the bottom, so full submersion isn’t a good idea. We turned on the hose on the mist setting and let it pour down on the three complete cases.

Water Test Results

Otterbox: There was a rivulet inside the Otterbox case after our simulated shower, and the screen began almost immediately to cloud up with condensation, which would make operation of the phone rather difficult. Score: 5

Ballistic: Inside the Ballistic case, there were a few drops of water – which could possibly mess up the phone’s inner workings. I dry it out quickly after a soak. Score: 7

Griffin: While there was just a little water inside the Griffin case, condensation did form. Still, we were impressed with the case’s ability to repel H2O from the sky.  Score: 9

We Choose Griffin Survivor

As you can see from the data from our quasi-rigorous testing, all the cases had their benefits, from extra charging time, to the ability to be tromped on with no problems. When we added up all the numbers, the Griffin Survivor was tops for this round of testing. Rugged cases are getting better – and cuter – all the time, and it really does make a difference to have a case built for the elements. You never know when you’re going to need a little extra cushion or bang-proofing. Go forth and enjoy your phones, but protect them well!