Gadgetorama reviews the Armor 1900 PDA case by OtterBox



Can you imagine taking your PDA to the beach? Or close your eyes and picture the sight of the same PDA tumbling down a trail while you’re out hiking. At this point, you’re either cringing or screaming in horror as you realize that either scenario probably caused irreparable damage to it. Nightmares of sand, dirt, dust, and water getting into our handhelds, shattered screens, stuck buttons or an unresponsive d-pad probably keep most of us awake at night. But what do you do if you absolutely need to take it to such a hostile environment? Fortunately for us, a company called Otter Products, LLC. has the answer. Among the products they offer is the OtterBox Armor 1900 PDA case for smaller PDAs. So, if you want to use your PDA for GPS while hiking, or on a construction site, while fishing, or in the middle of a downpour, this might just be the case you have been looking for. Otter Products, LLC.’s promise is simple: The harshest environments that Mother Nature can throw at our PDAs should no longer be an obstacle to using them.

If you have any doubts as to their intent, ask yourself how many companies have an entry in their FAQ that deals with sudden pressure changes causing the case to not open. Significant changes in altitude or temperature can create a vacum and cause the OtterBox to suck shut. Yes, the FAQ does go on to explain how to remedy the situation.

The packaging

Quite frankly, you don’t need a lot of packaging when mailing the Otterbox Armor 1900. The kit I received consisted of the case, 4 screws, a hex wrench, an additional plug, an illustrated instruction sheet and a product catalog.

A close look at the case

Armor 1900
Figure 1: The Otterbox Armor 1900
Armor 1900 with iPAQ
Figure 2: Armor 1900 with h2210 in it

It is immediately evident that the Armor 1900 case is built with a different purpose than most cases out there (Figure 1). The case looks very sturdy and complicated with latches and rubber plugs everywhere. And you immediately notice the bulk; it weighs over 30 grams (0.7 lb) after all! It is intended for smaller PDAs (maximum dimensions are 141mm long, 87mm wide and 23.5mm thick, or 5.56-inches by 3.43-inches by .93-inches). Among the PDAs that will fit in are the iPAQ 1900, 2200 and 4100 families, the Dell X30 and X50v families and the PalmOne Zire and Treo families. If you have just realized that your PDA will not fit, do not despair as the Armor 1900 has a big brother called the Armor 3600.

The case has 4 compound latches: 2 on the back to open and close the case and two more on the sides that allow you to open the top of the case (called a POD) to gain access to the top of your PDA. For additional security, you can actually secure the latches with screws (included along with a hex wrench).

The case is supposed to be waterproof and dustproof. How does it achieve that? If you take a close look at the areas where the case shuts, you will see that the seal is achieved using a silicone gasket that runs within a groove. The other piece of case has a lip that presses down into the silicone, achieving the seal.

The case is also supposed to be shockproof and is made of what OtterBox claims is a nearly indestructible material. The metal used in the case (for example for the screw fittings) is marine grade 316 stainless steel. You should find it extremely resistant to corrosion and rust. The case is available in both fluorescent yellow (the one that I got) or midnight black. In actuality, the fluorescent yellow case is more of a dark grey case with yellow highlights.

My iPAQ h2210 and hx2410 both have the headphone jack and the CF and SD slots on top so the removable POD should be useful. It is made of a clear plastic. If your IR port is at the top, you should be able to beam without any issue. Embedded in the POD is a headset plug. Pull it out, slide your headset cable through and you’re all set. I know what you’re thinking: But doing that compromises the waterproof capabilities of the case. Which is why Otter Products, LLC. also included a split plug which should maintain a watertight seal even with headphones cable! Both plugs come with a rubber tail that clips into the POD so that they will not get lost.

The screen is protected by a clear polycarbonate plastic flip-up lid that can rotate a full 180 degrees (Figure 2). You will have no issues seeing the screen without having to open the lid. Imagine that you are using GPS software and just need to look at the screen: No need to open the case. The bottom of the lid has a lip that tucks into the case to keep it closed. The lid is also removable (although you then lose the screen protection it provides). Underneath the lid, the screen is further protected by a flexible plastic screen membrane that allows user interaction without compromising the waterproof and dustproof characteristics of the case.

On the bottom, a large rubber plug can be pulled open to provide access to the bottom of your PDA. To pull it open, you pull on the protruding lip. To put it back in, you simply push it back in. Like the top headphone plugs, it is secured to the case using a rubber tail. Unlike the POD, it is not see-through so that if your IR port is on the bottom, you will not be able to beam without taking off the plug.

On the back of the case you will find a wide neoprene hand strap. Velcro fasteners allow you to adjust the strap so that it is easy to ensure a snug fit around your hand.

Finally, there is a stylus holder located on the front of the case next to the flip-up lid for easy access. In Figure 1, the holder is empty; in Figure 2, you can see the stylus in it.

Using the case

Front piece
Figure 3: The front piece of the case
Back piece
Figure 4: The back piece of the case
Front piece with iPAQ strapped in
Figure 5: iPAQ strapped to the front

Getting your PDA into the Armor 1900 is worthy of being called an installation. Not because it’s hard but because it is not as simple as simply sliding your iPAQ in. You will first need to open the case. A fair (but not unreasonable) amount of force is required to open the two compound latches on the back, thereby preventing accidental openings. With the latches open, the case will slide apart into two halves (Figure 3 shows the front and Figure 4 shows the back). The case interior is not lined like many other cases are. The front half has a strap under which you slide the iPAQ. Velcro allows quick release and easy tightening of the strap around the PDA. The strap is also lined with neoprene which will not scratch your PDA and will help prevent it from sliding around (Figure 5). You may need to fiddle with your PDA a little to ensure that it is centered. Then, it’s simply a matter of putting the case back together and closing the hinges. For added security, you can then screw the hinges shut.

Both my iPAQ h2210 and hx2400 fit in without issue. But positioning the hx2400 is much more inportant than with the h2200. The first time I put my hx2410 in, I could not get to the power button. I had to move the iPAQ further down the case, which then resulted in the d-pad down button getting pushed down under the lip of the case. In the end, I was able to get it positioned so that the d-pad is unaffected and that enough of the power button is still reachable so that I could turn it on or off.

As soon as I had closed the case the first time, I shook it as hard as I could to see if my iPAQ h2210 would shift inside the case. It did not. I then dropped the case (with iPAQ still inside) on carpet from about 50 centimeters (less than 2 feet) high. I’m glad to report that there were no issues.

For the next few days, I took my OtterBox-clad iPAQ everywhere. It definitely elicited questions and comments. But it also reinforced the fact that this case is really not designed for office use. The case’s bulk does make it less handy than the more traditional aluminum or leather cases. A lot of people asked why I would choose to use such a big case when much smaller or more stylish ones are available. Explaining to them that I could now take my iPAQ to the beach either got me labelled as a geek or got them asking where they could find out more information about the case.

Figure 6: POD

On the first day, I forgot to pull my stylus out and attach it to the case stylus holder. No problem, I said to myself. I removed the POD and went fishing for my stylus. I’m going to need much slimmer fingers if I’m ever going to succeed. I decided to try the storage cards to see if I would have the same issue. I had no issues removing or adding my SD cards in but ran into issues with the CF card slot (again, my fingers are too big). There is very little space between the iPAQ and the back of the case where you need to slide your finger down to hook the CF card or the stylus. I had the same issue with my iPAQ hx2410 and suspect that other PDAs could be similarly affected.

Of bigger concern is the fact that if your PDA has any buttons or ports on the sides, you will not be able to access them without opening the case. That’s not an issue on my h2210 but prevents me from getting to the Notes button on my hx2410. For me, this is not a show stopper but it is something to keep in mind with your own handheld.

These small issues illustrate a problem that you will have with this case and other cases that work with more than one PDA model. Because different PDAs have subtle (and not so subtle) differences, you will sometimes run into quirky design issues. OtterBox offers a compatibility matrix that allows you to see which PDAs will fit in the case but I wish that they also indicated limitations such as the ones described above.

I had no issues using IR through the clear POD. I was able to send a couple contact files back and forth from my laptop over as if the POD was not there.

The handstrap works very well. The neoprene offers a comfortable grip that is devoid of any slip, even if your hand or the case get wet. The velcro straps make it really easy to adjust it. It is also possible to remove the handstrap. You can simply remove the strap itself by itself. I undid one of the straps to see how the handstrap would work as a belt clip. Let’s just say that it’s a good thing that Otterbox offers a beltclip accessory that you can purchase separately. You can also remove the mounts by undoing the screws that hold them (You will need a different sized hex key than the one provided to do that). Putting the strap back on is pretty easy (just be patient when slotting the strap through the mounts).

With my h2210, there is a small space between the membrane and the screen of the iPAQ because the screen is slightly recessed from the front bezel. So, to use the iPAQ, I have to press down on the membrane to get to the screen. Reaching into the corners is more difficult (the plastic cannot give as much as it can in the center of the screen). I anticipate that the membrane will get stretched out and therefore less of an issue). But it could also rip (although I had no such issues during the review period). Fortunately, should that happen to you, OtterBox does offer a screen replacement kit.

It feels like the gap between the membrane and the screen is smaller on the hx2410. Either that or by then, I had gotten used to having to push down on the membrane just enough to be able to work with the screen.

One thing I noticed about the inner membrane is that it is not as easy to use as the screen – the stylus does not glide across the plastic as well as it does on the glass screen. I found that I only noticed it the first few times I used the case but then got used to it.

It should come as no surprise that I could not dock either iPAQ while they were in the case. The large bottom plug does provide easy access to the synchronization port and soft reset button though so that I did not have to take my iPAQ out of the case. Yes, it can be inconvenient if you’re used to using your docking base but it’s no different than with most other other cases out there.

Beneath the hand strap, in the middle of the case, is a set of holes sealed by a Gore membrane. The Gore membrane provides heat and pressure dissipation but is still strong and durable enough to withstand water submersion. At first, I thought that this might be a speaker hole (the documentation corrected me). When listening to music on my h2210, the sound is more muffled than on my hx2410. On the former, the speaker is located on the back but off centre. On the latter, the speaker is placed on the front. Other sounds (like alarms) are similarly affected.

The stylus holder does a pretty good job of holding the stylus. But in one case, the stylus got hooked on a coat and popped out. I can see how in certain circumstances, you could lose your stylus. As well, if you use a custom-shaped stylus, it might not sit well or at all in the holder. Maybe the case should come with its own stylus attached by a tail to the case like the rubber plugs are.

Next page – Time for some tests