Review: Otterbox Universe Case System for iPhone 7
Otterbox has expanded its Universe Case system to the Apple iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, as well as added to its roster of swappable modules. The system includes a rugged case to protect the iPhone day in and day out, and optional accessories, such as a tripod, Flash drive, Bluetooth speakers, multi-tool, and much more. Here is Phonescoop's in-depth review.
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Otterbox debuted its Universe Case System for the iPhone 6/6s back in 2016, and has now revamped its lineup for the iPhone 7. The Universe system includes a rugged case and a series of accessories (tripod mount, Bluetooth speakers, multi-tool, USB storage) that clip in to expand your iPhone's functionality. This set of products is for people who want a rugged case to protect their precious device, with the option for extra functionality.
The Otterbox Universe Case System is for iPhone owners who have a serious case of Moto Mod envy.
Last year, I reviewed the Otterbox Universe Case System for the iPhone 6 Plus along with a dedicated set of lenses from Olloclip. Olloclip was one of the first of several partners to produce Universe-compatible accessories for Otterbox. Now, a year later, the Universe has expanded quite a bit.
Otterbox has long made rugged and waterproof enclosures for smartphones and other mobile devices. In order to deliver that protection, Otterbox cases are often hella bulky. Moreover, cases typically negate the compatibility of most accessories, which means people have to chose between the case or the accessory. The phone owner loses either way.
The Otterbox Universe hopes to offer the best of both worlds. The Universe is a more traditional case that wraps around the back and sides of the iPhone. It doesn't fully enclose the iPhone to protect it against liquids, but it can certainly handle some rough usage. The trick is the modular nature of the rear panel.
Otterbox Universe Case
This year's Otterbox Universe Case is largely a carryover from last year's with the appropriate changes made in order to accommodate the slight differences between the chassis of the iPhone 6s Plus and iPhone 7 Plus. This mostly means the opening around the camera module is larger, particularly for the 7 Plus.
The case provides a good deal of protection. The Universe is formed by a stiff, durable plastic that covers the rear, and a slightly flexible, rubberized plastic that wraps around the sides and front edges. It's not as heavy-duty as Otterbox's Commuter or Defender series, but it still does a fine job preventing breakage, scuffs, and scrapes when the phone is dropped, even on concrete.
Like all cases, the Otterbox Universe adds bulk (0.25 inches in each dimension) and weight (2.2oz.) That said, the Universe isn't nearly as bulky as Otterbox's other offerings, and it is much easier to slip on and pull off. The case holds the iPhone 7 Plus in place snugly. The Universe is close in size and fit to options from Incipio, Moshi, and Speck, and yet it's far more rugged and protective. It's a nice balance between size and security. It's only available in black for now.
The case doesn't impact usability of the iPhone much. A large, raised button fits over the screen lock button on the right edge and it is easy to find. You have to press it pretty hard to turn the screen on and off. The same is true of the volume buttons on the left edge. The separate keys are a cinch to find, but require effort to depress. The ringer switch is pretty hard to use, as it is buried deeply in a pocket formed by the case. You have to dig your nail in there to reach it. Most of the iPhone's bottom edge is exposed. This means you'll have no problem using the Lightning port. The Touch ID button is entirely uncovered.
The bit that makes this Otterbox "universal" is located on the bottom portion of the rear panel. A thin segment of the hard plastic slides out, allowing owners to slide modules in. Otterbox calls it a rail system. Each of the accessories has its own rail that fits into the back side of the case.
If you want nothing more than a semi-rugged case, the Otterbox Universe is pretty decent by itself. It combines a high level of protection without going overboard with respect to size and weight.
PolarPro Beat Pulsar Speaker
The Beat Pulsar Speaker from PolarPro is a lot like the JBL speaker mod for the Moto Z. PolarPro says the Beat Pulsar is ideal for music and, thanks to a microphone, conference calls.
The speaker itself is a fairly bulky add on. It's 4.5 inches long, 2.25 inches wide, and about 0.75 inches thick. It's basically impossible to put the phone in your pocket with the speaker attached. The speaker's chassis is made from hardened nylon. The drivers are protected by large, raised aluminum grilles. The speaker feels tough and strong. It's not that heavy, which I appreciate.
Pairing is easy. There's a single button. Press it once and the Beat Pulsar turns on and automatically goes into pairing mode. I had no trouble connecting it to my iPhone 7 Plus (you can pair it to other phones if you want). A long press turns the speaker off. Easy peasy. Once paired, it automatically connects to the phone any time it is turned on. It has its own battery and charges via microUSB.
The Beat Pulsar relies on two 40mm drivers and it packs a pretty good punch. I was pleased with the quality of music played via the Bluetooth connection. Highs were nice and clear, and lows offered a balanced amount of depth. There's no question the Pulsar is superior to the iPhone 7's stereo speakers in terms of clarity and volume. The Pulsar won't necessarily provide enough oomph for an outdoor party, but it suffices if you're looking to add turn up the tunes in a single room. If you often make conference calls, the speakerphone is also highly capable. It pushes enough air so you can use the Pulsar in a decent-sized space and everyone will be able to hear it. I was particularly impressed with call clarity. The 500mAh battery provides for up to 8 hours of music playback, and the Beat Pulsar lived up to that claim. That's as much battery life as many larger, stand-alone Bluetooth speakers.
My only really complaint about the Beat Pulsar is its lack of a kickstand. It works really well when you hold it to watch video, but if you're listening to music or using the speakerphone you have to place your phone face down to get the best sound. This means you'll have to pick the phone up to change tracks, end calls, and so on.
The PolarPro Beat Pulsar costs $50.
Wagner Toolcard Wallet
The Wagner Toolcard Wallet combines a credit card-shaped multi-tool with a money clip. If you don't like wallets and prefer the smaller form of a money clip, the Toolcard Wallet adds some functionality to your clip and attaches to the back of your iPhone for easy carrying.
The Toolcard Wallet comes in two pieces: the clip itself and the multi-tool. The Universe rail is affixed to the rear of a rectangular metal plate and has a clip on front (facing outward). You can use the clip all by itself to hold your cash and cards, or with the multi-tool and your cards. Without the multi-tool, the clip can accommodate up to three credit cards and some cash. With the multi-tool (which is about the thickness of 2.5 credit cards), the clip can accommodate one additional card and some cash.
The clip is reasonably strong, but I wish it were stronger. It holds the multi-tool in place well enough thanks to a raised lip along the outer edges of the metal plate. Credit cards tend to slip around a bit, but if you put some cash on the outside everything seems to stay in place. As slim as the Toolcard Wallet is, it's not entirely comfortable to store in your pocket. The edges of the metal plate sometimes catch your pocket lining and/or press against your skin.
As for the multi-tool itself, it offers limited functionality. Such credit card-shaped tools have been around for a long time and this one is fairly typical. It includes a can opener, bottle opener, several flathead screwdrivers, a protractor, metric/imperial rulers, a saw, a box cutter, and an array of metric/imperial hexagonal wrench sizes. The biggest limitation is the flat shape of the ensemble, which will work only on bolts and other items that are fairly exposed and/or have lots of open space around them. The Toolcard will certainly help with some things in a pinch (gotta be able to open beer bottles when tailgating!), but it's no substitute for an honest-to-goodness Swiss Army Knife or Leatherman.
The Wagner Toolcard Wallet costs $40.
PolarPro Stance Tripod
Need a table-top tripod to help with your eBay photography or small video projects? The Stance tripod from PolarPro is a neat little accessory that might be of assistance.
By itself, the Stance is rather cool. It has three fixed-length legs that fold in and out easily. The tripod rests firmly on level surfaces and feels strong. It works okay on some uneven surfaces, but you'll have to be careful about balance. The legs connect to a sturdy ballhead that I really like. The ballhead itself is metal and it is surrounded by thick plastic. A button on one side controls the ballhead's action. Press it in to loosen the ball enough to move it around. The head can swivel in all directions and can reach a 90-degree angle when needed. The button is strong, as is the ballhead itself; it's not weak or wobbly at all. A standard tripod threaded screw is atop the ballhead to accept any small camera or mount. The Stance is about 5.5 inches high.
How does the Stance work with the Universe Case? PolarPro installed two camera mounts on a rail for the Universe. Slide the rail into the case and you'll have one camera mount on the bottom of the iPhone and another on the left side. The PolarPro rail is among the tightest I've used with the Universe Case, which means it is affixed to your pricey iPhone firmly. Moreover, the camera mounts (screws) are made of metal and housed in strong plastic. This means you don't have to worry about stressing and/or accidentally cracking the mounts.
Whether you want to mount the phone in portrait or landscape orientation, the PolarPro holds on tight. I was worried the entire assembly would be loose and lacking in strength; I was wrong. Together, the rail, mounts, and Stance tripod do a fine job of holding your iPhone steadily on a table, desk, or other flat surface.
Bonus: With the legs folded in, the Stance doubles as a pistol-style grip for holding your iPhone. It's not the best video rig ever, but it's good enough to get the job done.
As far as small tripods go, I found the Stance very useful. The small size and Universe compatibility make it easy to carry around. My stance? The Stance is cool. The PolarPro Stance costs $30.
SanDisk iXpand Flash Drive
I looked at SanDisk's iXpand Flash Drive for the iPhone last year, but this variant includes a rail and protective sleeve to attach the drive firmly to your iPhone. This external Flash drive is meant to help easily offload or backup photos, videos, and music from your iPhone to free up space.
On its own, the iXpand Flash Drive could not be simpler to use from a hardware perspective. It resembles most Flash drives in that it has a USB connector at one end and a Lightning plug at the other. It has a wrap-around design that leaves no question about how the device should be used: USB port goes into computer, Lightning port goes into iPhone.
The Universe Case sleeve fully encapsulates the USB portion of the iXpand Flash Drive and holds it tight against the rear surface. In the non-Universe version of the iXpand, the USB plug is left loose to flap around. Adding the Otterbox sleeve lends me far more confidence to leave the drive attached to the phone for long periods of time. It's totally secure and protected from drop damage. It does, however stick out a bit from the bottom edge. The size and shape make it uncomfortable when you drop the phone into your pocket.
Some interesting things: I like that you can install the iXpand Flash Drive on your phone in the Universe sleeve, but leave it unplugged from the lightning port. That's helpful if you want to plug in headphones or your charger. The sleeve also includes a hinge so you can rotate the USB port out of the protective sleeve so it is free for use with a computer. The USB port locks into place within the sleeve. The hinge is needed to support the curved form of the iXpand. You can also fully remove the iXpand from the Otterbox sleeve, but that sort of negates the point.
Like the non-Universe model, the iXpand Flash Drive for Otterbox is compatible with all Lightning port-equipped iPhones, (from the 5 to the 7 Plus,) as long as they are running iOS 8.2 and up. The USB port on the other end supports the USB 3.0 spec for the fastest-possible data transfers when plugged into PCs.
SanDisk updated its app for the iPhone since I lasted tested the iXpand and it's now much more stable. The app associated with the drive can be set to automatically or manually backup everything on your iPhone including photos, music, videos, contacts, and more. The initial backup (when you first use the drive) takes a while, but after that all backups are relatively quick to complete.
The iXpand Flash Drive for Otterbox Universe comes in 32 GB ($60), 64 GB ($80), and 128 GB ($120) capacities.
The Otterbox Universe Case system for the Apple iPhone is a bit of an investment. The case for the iPhone 7 costs $50 and the case for the iPhone 7 Plus costs $60. Those prices don't include any of the accessories, all of which have their own cost.
The Universe Case is a fine and protective covering for Apple's iPhones. It's sturdier than many alternatives, without adding too much bulk. The Universe accessories vary in value. I like the PolarPro Beat Pulsar speaker. You can't do much better for $50. The Wagner Toolcard Wallet is interesting, but I don't think the execution is quite there. The PolarPro Stance is a fine little tripod that offers plenty of flexibility. I'm pleased to see the improvements to SanDisk's iXpand Flash Drive, and the Universe sleeve definitely adds a layer of protection to the drive.
Is this system for you? That depends a lot on what you want from your iPhone. I think the Otterbox Universe fulfills its promise: it gives you a good case that also happens to be usable with other accessories. Essentially, picking the Universe over similar protective cases from competitors gives you an edge thanks to the rail accessory system.
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Apple iPhone 7
4.7" display 750 x 1334 pixels
Apple A10 processor 2 GB RAM
1,960 mAh battery
Water-Resistant, NFC, Fingerprint Reader