In a world where iPhone cases are a dime a dozen, it has to be difficult for companies to make their products stand out. I suspect, though, that Tech21 has an easier time than others.
Based outside London, Tech21 produces a series of rugged iPhone cases that come in a wide variety of designs. I first met with the company last May at CTIA where an exec demoed D30, the unique substance that forms the protective backbone of the company's products (check out my CTIA slideshow for D30's wacky properties). Then, a few weeks later I was able to take its Impact Band case for a test-drive. As Tech21's base accessory, the Impact Band is similar to the Apple-supplied iPhone bumpers, but it steps up the durability without sacrificing aesthetics. Yet, as good as it was, the Impact Band was just a stepping stone to a bigger and more entertaining challenge with the Special Ops Submariner. More than just a simple case, the Submariner is really a tool for using your precious iPhone 4 or 4S in the rain, the pool, or even underwater. As the Submariner has yet to go on sale, Tech 21 would not release a price at the time of this writing.
Now I'm sure that some of you might be asking why we really need to use our phones when we've gone for a swim. Absolutely, the way smartphones suck our attention is pretty ridiculous at times, but the Submariner isn't just for people who can't go 5 minutes without checking Facebook. Besides a day at the pool (or if you want to be really decadent, a hot tub), it's great for the beach, boating trip, or anywhere else water could invade your handset. Like with most submersible cases, you can't make a call with the phone inside (you can dial, though no one on the other end will hear you), but you can do just about everything else.
At the top of Tech21's product line, the bright yellow Submariner stands apart in its space. While some competing cases are essentially Ziploc bags with an iPhone thrown in, the Submariner has a polycarbonate shell that completely encloses your phone. As a result you get double-duty protection with the skin securing your cargo from drops on a hard surface and the strong rubber seal keeping out sand, dust, and other fine particles. Beneath the main compartment is a second deeper well that can hold your credit cards, some cash, and a couple of keys. Around front is a silicon membrane that lets you continue to use the touch screen when your phone is inside (more on that later). Take note that you can't access the volume controls, ringer switch, or power control when using the case.
Of course, I have to mention that the Submariner is the opposite of the Lifeproof case. While that product is slim and lets you use headphones and access controls, the Submariner is about as bulky as you can get. It won't fit in your pocket or even a smaller bag. It's not that one design is "correct," but rather it depends on which design is right for you. While the Lifeproof case is more for everyday use, the Submariner is meant more for recreational and outdoor activities when portability isn't a concern. Also, while I trust Lifeproof's CEO when he says that his product is completely waterproof, the Submariner's extra bulk gives me more peace of mind.
Opening the Submariner is a simple three-step process. After releasing the small flap on the top right side, rotate the main lock away from you 180 degrees to unlock the hatch. Then, flip down the front of the case on its sturdy hinge and insert your phone. Note, however, that you'll need to have an Impact Band already on your phone for it to fit properly. Without it, your handset will be too small for the Submariner and will drop down into the second well below. You can use a thinner Apple bumper if needed, but even then the display won't rest completely flat against the membrane. So while a bumper is a workable substitute, it's a pretty poor one.
Though I get why Tech21 requires you to use the Impact Band -- it adds another layer of protection, it's great as an everyday case, and it prevents the phone's antenna from rubbing against the Submariner's hard shell -- you'll have to keep track of two parts if you want to use the Submariner as intended. If you forget it for a day, the Submariner is essentially useless. And if you lose the Impact Band completely (like I did), you'll have to shell out $39 for a replacement.