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Otterbox’s new case offers a battery, speakers, Square reader and other swappable functionality

TechCrunch TechCrunch 24/05/2016 Brian Heater

I spotted an Otterbox case on the train ride in this morning that more or less confirmed my feelings about the company’s products: big, bulky and protective. Swaddling one’s phone in an Otterbox case for a New York City subway ride is the smartphone equivalent to wearing a bulletproof vest in public. It’s kind of uncomfortable and slightly awkward, but hey, you never know, right?

But while there will always be a place for hyper-protective cases (I know what I want my phone in the next time I go crab fishing), the company has clearly been looking for a way to offer up protection without effectively encasing the thing in Lucite.

Otterbox took steps toward shedding that image with the launch of its commuter series and the 2013 acquisition of LifeProof, a San Diego-based company that has largely done a good job designing protective cases that do a fine job offering protection without adding too much bulk.

In its undressed form, the uniVERSE more closely resembles LifeProof’s output than the sort of thing most of us have come to associate with Otterbox, and the rep I met with ahead of the product’s announcement was quick to point that out. This isn’t the standard water, dust, and drop-proof fare we’ve come to expect from the case-maker. It’s much slimmer and, if I do say so, better looking than many of Otterbox’s other offerings.

There’s still some solid bumper protection in the corners – enough to protect the phone from a standard bumbling drop on the side. With the screen and bottom fully exposed, however, it’s not going to be much protection from water, dust and the like. But for once, that’s not really the point. The point, as a matter of fact, is on the back of the case, that little piece of plastic that slides out that I’ll probably end up losing within the first five days of owning the phone.

Or more precisely, the point is what slots into that spot: a battery pack, a selfie stick, a storage-extending dongle, Bluetooth speakers. The sky’s the limit, really, and Otterbox is coming out of the gate with an impressive set of accessories for the iPhone/iPhone Plus case helped along by some high-profile partnerships. Polar has created the lion’s share of the plug-ins here, but other partners include a card reader from Square, Olloclip’s four in one lens Influx’s WiFi booster and Seek Thermal’s thermal imaging camera.

The case starts at $50 and the accessories really run the gamut, from a $20 mobile wallet to the 128GB version of SanDisk’s iXpand Flash Drive, which runs $120 (the same MSRP as the standalone version).

The uniVERSE isn’t the first modular smartphone case we’ve seen. In fact, Olloclip introduced its own take on the space, last year. But Otterbox’s case-making know-how and its willingness to work directly with a number of other companies has resulted in a fairly compelling product. It’s not perfect – the battery pack is awkwardly shaped and the speakers don’t sound great, but the whole system slots together nicely, and there’s something to be said for not having to settle for a one-trick case. Of course, as with any phone case, there’s still a little mental arithmetic to be done with regards to whether the system is worth your while.

For starters, how many of the different function do you plan on using regularly? I could certainly see myself using the battery and, occasionally the speaker, though I prefer a standalone Bluetooth sound system. And in the case of a number of the products like the iXpand Flash Drive, being built into the case doesn’t offer a huge advantage over getting the product as a standalone.

Still, it’s a compelling product – and one that will only become more so as more partners and products are announced.

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