iPhone Accessory Review: Magellan ToughCase for iPhone 3G/3GS and iPod Touch

I’ll admit it. I’m tough on my electronic devices – especially my phones. After a couple of years with me the cases are usually scuffed and marked. Amazingly, I’ve been lucky and not had major problems with screen scratches (even though I do NOT use screen protectors).  I think my phones survive, however, because I always make sure I use some kind of protective case as a daily driver.

When Magellan offered us the opportunity to review their ToughCase, it seemed right up my smartphone-abuse-laden alley. Not only did it offer a strong rigid case, but also GPS signal improvement, and an extended battery! So let’s take a closer look…

The Magellan ToughCase is really solidly built. It definitely feels substantial.   According to the product press release it also meets IPX-7 waterproof standards and can survive at 1 meter underwater for 30 minutes.  I have no doubt that it does, but the documentation in the package does warn that touching the inner gasket too much will reduce its effectiveness in keeping water out of the case.

The case includes an integrated 1840 mAh battery to double your overall battery life. Keep in mind, of course that you may choose to power both the built-in GPS receiver as well as you iPhone/iPod Touch so you might get slightly lower battery life.  And since I just mentioned it, the case also has a built-in GPS (A SiRFStar III chipset with WAAS/EGNOS/MSAS) that works with your iPhone / iPod Touch to provide an improved GPS signal (it will provide an accuracy of 3-5 meters).  The ToughCase makes use of a standard mini-USB connector for charging, but it doesn’t come with any kind of charger of its own.  The package also includes a plastic belt clip.

The Magellan GPS website indicates that both glossy and anti-glare screen are included, but that isn’t what the package says or what’s really included – minor point – but the website does need updating to reflect the actual package contents.  That minor point aside, the screen cover included appears to be glossy rather than anti-glare.

When you want to use the case, you must first turn the on/off switch, located inside the case, to the “on” position.  Next, you connect your iPhone by sliding it onto the connector on the bottom (just like putting it into a dock) and then snapping the top into place.  You have to sort of tilt the whole thing up a little to do it and you need to make sure you get it onto the connector – it’s easy to accidentally slide underneath it!  Once it’s on the connector and snapped into place, you close the lid and snap the two side latches into place.  For an iPod touch, which is slightly smaller than the iPhone, you must put the iPod Touch into a sleeve (included) first, then put it into the case the same as you would for the iPhone.

Once it’s in the case, you can then look on the bottom of the unit to see the battery status and toggle the battery use between off, serving the GPS only, or serving both the iPhone/iPod Touch and GPS.  I generally ran in the GPS only or GPS/iPhone modes.  Battery life was pretty good with the pack in place, but the recharge time seemed a little on the slow side.  Not really unusual for USB-based charging though.

Also of note on the bottom are openings to carry the sound through to the outside of the case.  These are actually sealed so sound comes out a little buzzy and distorted.

On the top of the unit are two different power buttons.  One is for the iPhone and one for an iPod Touch.  Obviously, only one of them will be functional.

On the left side are the volume up/down controls as well as a port (and cover) for the mini-USB connection while on the right side is the port cover for an earphones (or a mic/earphone combo device).

Overall, my iPhone ran pretty well inside the case and my GPS signal seemed definitely improved in accuracy and reliability, but the experience was not flawless.  As I mentioned earlier, my audio came out sounding distorted so that it was almost impossible to understand the audio instructions from my navigation software.  Also – putting my iPhone in to the case seemed to cause a slight phone signal degradation.  I ran the field test built into the phone and I generally lost a few db of signal whenever I put the iPhone into the case.  It wasn’t a dramatic signal loss, but if your signal was already weak it might give you problems.  That said, I didn’t see any increased rate of dropped calls or anything like that, but I definitely had more trouble in situations where the phone needed to switch from 3G to EDGE  (or back).  iPod Touch users won’t have this problem, of course.  I also didn’t experience any difficulty with the WiFi service when the phone was in the case.

The glossy screen was okay, but like many screen protectors, it made it so that you needed to press a little long/firmer in order to operate.  I  also didn’t like the fact that it didn’t always contact the iPhone screen evenly which made the display sometimes look smudged or odd  – something that you may or may not notice, but it’s something that I notice easily and it tends to annoy me.   You wouldn’t probably not notice it as much when you make use of the device outdoors, but in the car or indoors it was very noticeable to me.

The last thing that bothered me a little was the nature of the way the screen is recessed from the edges of the case.  This is probably great for the protection of the iPhone, and it may even help keep the screen from looking quite as washed out in the sun, but it also makes it very difficult to touch points near the edge of the screen.  You kind of have to make a point of reaching kind of sideways to touch those points cleanly.  Again, the trade-off is probably worth it, especially since its designed for outdoor use, but it annoyed me nonetheless.

Overall, however, my complaints are minor.  The case worked and performed well.  I do wish they had gone with an antiglare screen and that the plastic they used for the screen laid on my iPhone screen more evenly – perhaps if they had used a material more like the old “Colorforms” were made of, the visual result would be better, but I don’t know how that would have affected the use of the capacitive iPhone screen.  But again, overall, Magellan seems to have done a pretty good job with this case, given the primary design consideration of protecting the iPhone/iPod touch.

Overall, I like the case a lot. It is too big and bulky to make it a good choice as a daily driver, but that isn’t its primary audience.   For the trip to go hiking or camping, it’s a reasonable set of compromises to get the improved GPS signal and the protection from the elements, not to mention the extended battery life.  Now if only they had an iPhone 4 version/option we’d be all set!

The Magellan ToughCase for iPhone 3G/3GS and iPod touch is available directly from the manufacturer.

MSRP: $179.99

What I Like: The sturdy, solid feel.  The extended battery, and the improved GPS performance are all nice touches to this package.

What Needs Improvement: I’d like to see a different covering for the screen area.  I’d also like to see some improvement in how the audio is handled.  The current mechanism is clever, but doesn’t leave the resulting audio as clear as I’d like.  Lastly, they really need to release a version (or sleeve) for the iPhone 4.  It’s really odd to still omit that nearly 4 months after the iPhone 4 has been on the market.

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About the Author

Christopher Gavula
Chris has been a COBOL programmer, a desktop support technician, network engineer, telecommunications manager, and even a professional musician. Currently, he is focused on deploying Voice over IP technologies in a large, corporate setting. He started working full-time at the tender age of 14, even before there were PCs, and will probably be working and trying to finish “just one more project” as he’s lowered into the grave.