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OtterBox's Universe Case System is set to shake up the iPhone accessories market, one snap at a time

OtterBox has partnered with a number of accessory makers to create a new platform for iPhone accessories. CNET goes hands-on with it.

Sarah Tew/CNET
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On the surface, OtterBox's new Universe Case System looks a lot like some of its other iPhone cases. But Universe is special.

Designed to work with a host of new accessories from partner companies -- everything from credit card readers to camera lenses to memory expansion modules and battery packs -- OtterBox is calling it a mobile accessories platform.

At a glance, if it sounds similar to Google's Project Ara -- the search giant's attempt to create a smartphone with mix and match snap-in modules -- that's because it is, to a point. But OtterBox's Universe is limited to the case, not the phone itself.And it's iPhone-only for now, but the list of supported smartphones and tablets could expand in the future.

Available in black or white, Universe is based on the company's well-liked Symmetry Series case. But there's one big difference: An "accent plate" on the back slides out to reveal a rail system. When you want to attach a module, you slide it up onto the rail and the module clips securely to the case. Removing the module is just as easy.

The new case is somewhat pricey, considering you can pick up a Symmetry case for around $20 on Amazon: Universe costs $50 for the iPhone 6/6S version and $60 for iPhone 6 Plus/6S Plus version. (As of now, there's no version for the iPhone 5/5S/SE.)

Eventually, the case may get bundled with certain modules. But at launch, the case and modules are sold separately. Best Buy is a launch partner and will have a full array of Universe accessories on sale in stores. It's also worth noting that certain accessory makers, such as Olloclip, will continue selling non-Universe versions of their products.

Pricing aside, the concept makes a lot of sense. A lot of people want a case on their phone at all times and in the past accessory companies found themselves having to create custom phone cases to bundle with their accessories.

"One of the most commonly asked questions we get here at Olloclip is, 'Will the lens fit over my OtterBox?'" says Tim DeBrincat, director of marketing for Olloclip, which makes lens attachments for smartphones. "So it's fantastic to partner with them as a category leader."

The question is: Will customers resist shelling out $50 or $60 to buy a new case to embrace the new platform? Not surprisingly, the accessory makers we talked to didn't seem too concerned about that. Instead, they were highly optimistic about the new partnership and thought it would help expand their businesses.

"We aren't worried that customers will be discouraged by the price of the Universe Case System," says Rick Case, CEO of Nite Ize, which makes a line of Steelie smartphone car mount systems and other accessories. "We believe there is value in the versatility the system provides and expect users to be inclined to purchase more add-ons than they would with a traditional case that limits their usability with only one integrated feature. This concept allows freedom to affordably expand the functions of a mobile device. When the user is ready to upgrade, they can keep all their modules and simply replace the OtterBox Universe case."

A SanDisk 128GB module attached to an iPhone 6S.

Sarah Tew/CNET


Tom Smith, OtterBox's VP of Innovation, says the company put a lot of thought into forward compatibility. "Unless Apple decides to do something extreme like cylindrical phones -- the engagement mechanism would be forward compatible," says Smith. "Many of the modules will be forward compatible."

Smith added that the decorative plate that fills the engagement space opens up some options for color variations and customizable content. An even more rugged version of the Universe case -- based on the Defender Series -- currently isn't on the road map, but Smith says it's under consideration.

Here are the modules available now or coming soon, according to OtterBox. Some of them look a little strange attached to your phone and aren't exactly aesthetically pleasing, but they all are very easy to slide on and off and fit securely.

  • Square Contactless & Chip Reader ($49.99) - Accept credit cards and contactless payments on the go.
  • Olloclip 4-in-1 lens ($79.99) - Switch quickly between fisheye, wide-angle, 10x and 15x lens attachments to enhance your iPhone photos.
  • SanDisk iXpand Flash Drive ($59.99 to $119.99) - Free up space on iPhone 6, iPhone 6S, iPhone 6 Plus and iPhone 6S Plus with 32GB, 64GB or 128GB of additional capacity. (See the CNET review of this similar model.)
  • Nite Ize Steelie Vent Mount Kit ($39.99): Mount the iPhone 6/6S and iPhone 6 Plus/6S Plus to a vehicle vent for hands-free use.
  • Goal Zero Slide Battery (starting at $59.99): Double the battery life of an iPhone 6/6S and iPhone 6/6S Plus.
  • Manatee Works StingRay Barcode Scanner ($95): Bar code scanner for inventory tracking.
  • Seek Thermal Compact Camera and Seek Case ($249): Advanced thermal imaging camera designed for smartphones.
  • Influx WiFi Booster ($39.99): Wi-Fi signal booster.
  • PolarPro Trippler Tripod ($49.99): This tripod transforms into grip and extension pole.
  • PolarPro Stance Compact Tripod ($29.99): More compact version of the Trippler.
  • PolarPro PowerPack Removable Battery Pack ($49.99): Another external battery pack module.
  • PolarPro Beat Pulsar Wireless Mobile Speaker ($59.99): Speaker attachment.
  • PolarPro Fisheye Wide-Angle Lens ($29.99): Super wide-angle lens module.
  • PolarPro Trail Blazer Armband ($34.99): Armband for iPhone 6/6S and iPhone 6 Plus/6S Plus.
  • PolarPro Stash Slim Mobile Wallet ($19.99): Wallet module.

The Universe Case System is available now for iPhone 6/6S and iPhone 6 Plus/6S Plus at otterbox.com and will be available May 29 in Best Buy retail stores and online, and on Amazon.


This article also appears in Spanish. Read: Universe Case System: OtterBox busca sacudir el mercado de fundas para iPhone