Decoding OtterBox and LifeProof cases for iPhone 11, 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max

If you look at the two leading brands of protective enclosure for Apple's flagship smartphone, it's easy to be confused by all the models. Here's the distilled version to help you choose the right case.

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I am a freak when it comes to cases for smartphones.

If I see a family member or a friend running around with an unprotected device, my first instinct, after recovering from a panic attack, is to fit that person's device with a case.

I usually have a few models sitting in my "case box," and if the case fits, it's going on the phone if you show up at my house without one.

I used to say that any case on a smartphone is better than no case at all. The main thing you need to be concerned with is bezel elevation to prevent the phone from falling flat on the screen and taking a direct impact.

Secondary to that concern, you want edge rigidity and shock absorption to buffer against hits on the side and corners.

Before the introduction of edge screen designs -- first seen in devices like the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, followed by 2017's iPhone X and 2018's iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max -- I would have maintained that, yes, put on a case, any case.

But given how fragile the design is of this particular phone, and how much this thing dents your wallet when you buy it, and god forbid have to repair it after drop damage, I'm going to have to change my mind on that one.

You want the most protective design money can buy.

Protective cases

There are a few companies that specialize in extreme device protection. One is UAG, and it is an excellent company with great case products. The Pathfinder, as well as the Monarch, are excellent choices for protecting your new $1,000+ device.


UAG Pathfinder for iPhone 11 Pro Max

(Image: ZDNet)

Otter Products is the other major player in this market, and I am a massive fan of its offerings. When I am asked by friends and family which case to get, an Otter case is always my first answer.

Otter traditionally had one ultra-protective design, which is the Defender. And, for years, I only used Defenders no matter which device I had. I still only use Defender on the iPad Pro, because it's the only case I trust on that device right now.

You could get a Defender Series Pro (or the original Defender) for your iPhone 11, iPhone Pro, or iPhone Pro Max. You would be very safe with that decision, and my work would be done. It's a rugged, proven design, so it's practically a no-brainer.


OtterBox Defender Series for iPhone 11 Pro Max

(Image: ZDNet)

But over the past few years, Otter has expanded its line of case designs not just in its own branded offerings but also with its acquisition of LifeProof, which was once a fierce competitor.

LifeProof cases once distinguished themselves from OtterBox cases in that it was targeting sporty lifestyle customers, with an emphasis on waterproofing. So, its cases were always a little bit more expensive than the OtterBox designs. The Fre, in particular, is the LifeProof flagship.

Let's go through the LifeProof lineup since it is a relatively easy decision matrix.

In 2018, For iPhone X, iPhone XS, and iPhone XS Max, LifeProof introduced two new case designs: the Slam and Next Based on closer examination, they appeared to be very similar two-piece clamshell designs. From the samples I received at the time, I noticed that the Next had considerably more bumper material on it.


LifeProof case lineup for iPhone 11 Pro Max.

Image: ZDNet

Both are very tight fitting designs and provide ample bezel elevation and side/corner impact protection. However, neither are waterproof or provide additional screen protection for scratches or frontal impacts. I have not yet received a sample of Next or Slam for an iPhone 11 Pro Max again, but my wife is using a Next on her iPhone 11, and I would say the design is identical to last year's models except the camera cutout.


LifeProof Next for iPhone 11.

(Image: ZDNet)

I used both cases for about a day, and I would say that the Next felt thicker, but it's not enough of a difference for me to sacrifice shock absorption with the Slam -- although both the Next and the Slam can accommodate Amplify glass like the OtterBox Defender, which we will get to momentarily.

Personally, if I were inclined to get one of these two cases, I would get Next.

For 2019, LifeProof has also introduced Flip, which is a rather exciting design; it incorporates heavy shock protection along with an integrated credit card wallet and billfold pocket.


LifeProof Flip for iPhone 11 Pro Max (Bottom view, wallet closed)

(Image: ZDNet)

Unlike the regular shock-proof cases from LifeProof, this is a single piece rather than a clamshell design -- the phone slides into it, snugly. The bottom part of the case has a flip-open wallet that has room for a few credit cards as well as a bunch of bills.


LifeProof Flip for iPhone 11 Pro Max (Wallet Open)

(Image: ZDNet)

As you can see, there is a rather large indentation at the bottom of the case to accommodate the flip-out wallet. This makes the case considerably thicker than the Defender, although it adds a bit of rigidity and shock protection. I tried using this case for a day, and it felt bulky. If I wanted to do away with a wallet, this might not be a bad option if I only carried two or three credit cards. I am guessing that LifeProof was targeting Apple Card users with this product.

Waterproof cases

  • See it now: LifeProof at Amazon
  • The iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro/iPhone 11 Max are already IP68 water-resistant and can survive 30 minutes of immersion at depths of two meters, so if the primary concern is being dropped with occasionally being rained on, Next is what I would go with.

    However, nothing is so simple when it comes to making case recommendations for iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro/iPhone 11Max.

    I have not yet received the iPhone 11 Pro Max version of Fre, as the company didn't have a production sample ready yet, but I do have Fre installed on my Pixel 3, and I had one on my iPhone XS Max and my Samsung Galaxy S8. So, we can infer that the overall design is going to be similar.

    Fre is LifeProof's tried and true waterproof case design, which also incorporates a permanent scratch protector that is a flexible film. This is the case that traditionally provided brand differentiation from OtterBox and the Defender.


    LifeProof Fre for Samsung Galaxy S8

    (Image: ZDNet)

    Now, with iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro/iPhone 11 Max already being somewhat water-resistant, to begin with, it would seem that Fre is overkill.

    Perhaps, I would tend to agree with this -- if we weren't talking about a $1,000+ device that costs $275 to $400 to replace the screen regardless of whether you bought the thing outright or you are making lease payments on the Upgrade Program.

    On iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro/iPhone 11 Max, Fre has a watertight lightning charge connector door latch in addition to a permanent screen/scratch protector. I'm not sure how necessary this is, but if you spend time near the water or on the beach, it might be a good idea to have this feature.

    Additionally, given the fact that you are now constantly rubbing your finger with nails on the screen itself instead of pushing a physical home button, I am inclined to say that a screen protector on an iPhone 11 or iPhone 11 Pro/iPhone 11 Max is a requirement.

    Scratch-resistant cases

  • See it now: OtterBox at Amazon
  • See it now: LifeProof at Amazon
  • All the new OtterBox cases (and the LifeProof Slam and Flip) for iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro/iPhone 11 Max can accommodate the Amplify glass accessory, which provides additional scratch and impact protection for $49 more ($39 if you use last year's glass, the Alpha).

    Can you buy a third-party scratch resistant film to put on a Defender or a Flip? Sure. But then you should get a Fre. It's cheaper.

    Would you rather have an additional glass protector instead? In terms of aesthetic, it looks better and is easier to clean, and I think the few extra microns of glass gives me more peace of mind.

    I see no point in using either Defender, Next, Slam or Flip without Amplify glass. So, really, in terms of overall decision matrix of which case to buy, in my opinion, it comes down to:

    1. You want a holster and full rubberization and the tried and true Otter design (Defender/Pro + Amplify glass)
    2. You want it to be highly protective but transparent (Slam + Amplify glass, or Next + Amplify glass )
    3. You want it to be more waterproof than what the device provides out of the box, and you want scratch protection but not additional screen impact protection (Fre)
    4. You want it to be highly protective but have a wallet built-in (Flip + Amplify glass)

    By the way, did you notice anything different about this year's version of the Otter/LifeProof roundup? The OtterBox Pursuit case is missing. Otter chose not to produce it for the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro/iPhone 11 Max. I guess it didn't sell very well. That's a shame because I liked it, but I understand the business decision.

    I think the company could have easily made a Fre that can use Amplify glass as opposed to the integrated film, and then it could just put different branding on it for the OtterBox version along with a holster and an optional rubber shell. This is what I would have done, personally.

    I have to assume Otter has done its market research and determined that not everyone wants a true glass protector and that a certain amount of customers, particularly in the vertical market space (construction, military, etc.), want the additional psychological protection of full rubberization with the traditional Defender design.

    With any of these four case designs, you're in good hands. Which one are you planning to use? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

    Disclosure: ZDNet may earn a commission from some of the products featured on this page. Neither the author nor ZDNet were compensated for this independent review.