Tech21 Special Ops Submariner review: Tech21 Special Ops Submariner

The design could use a few tweaks, but as a waterproof iPhone case, the Tech 21 Submariner will serve you well.

Kent German

Kent German

Senior Managing Editor / Features

Kent is a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and has worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog, or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).

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In a world where iPhone cases are a dime a dozen, it has to be difficult for companies to make their products stand out. I suspect, though, that Tech21 has an easier time than others.

Tech21 Special Ops Submariner (black)

Tech21 Special Ops Submariner

The Good

The <b>Tech21 Submariner case</b> has an extremely durable and completely waterproof design that will protect your iPhone from the elements while letting you use the touch screen at the same time.

The Bad

The Submariner case won't let you access your handset's volume control or ringer switch. You're required to use a second accessory, and the touch screen cover attracts hair and dirt

The Bottom Line

The design could use a few tweaks, but as a waterproof iPhone case, the Tech 21 Submariner will serve you well.

Based outside London, Tech21 produces a series of rugged iPhone cases that come in a wide variety of designs. I first met with the company last May at CTIA where an exec demoed D30, the unique substance that forms the protective backbone of the company's products (check out my CTIA slideshow for D30's wacky properties). Then, a few weeks later I was able to take its Impact Band case for a test-drive. As Tech21's base accessory, the Impact Band is similar to the Apple-supplied iPhone bumpers, but it steps up the durability without sacrificing aesthetics. Yet, as good as it was, the Impact Band was just a stepping stone to a bigger and more entertaining challenge with the Special Ops Submariner. More than just a simple case, the Submariner is really a tool for using your precious iPhone 4 or 4S in the rain, the pool, or even underwater. As the Submariner has yet to go on sale, Tech 21 would not release a price at the time of this writing.

Tech21 Submariner case (pictures)

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Now I'm sure that some of you might be asking why we really need to use our phones when we've gone for a swim. Absolutely, the way smartphones suck our attention is pretty ridiculous at times, but the Submariner isn't just for people who can't go 5 minutes without checking Facebook. Besides a day at the pool (or if you want to be really decadent, a hot tub), it's great for the beach, boating trip, or anywhere else water could invade your handset. Like with most submersible cases, you can't make a call with the phone inside (you can dial, though no one on the other end will hear you), but you can do just about everything else.

At the top of Tech21's product line, the bright yellow Submariner stands apart in its space. While some competing cases are essentially Ziploc bags with an iPhone thrown in, the Submariner has a polycarbonate shell that completely encloses your phone. As a result you get double-duty protection with the skin securing your cargo from drops on a hard surface and the strong rubber seal keeping out sand, dust, and other fine particles. Beneath the main compartment is a second deeper well that can hold your credit cards, some cash, and a couple of keys. Around front is a silicon membrane that lets you continue to use the touch screen when your phone is inside (more on that later). Take note that you can't access the volume controls, ringer switch, or power control when using the case.

Go ahead, give the Submariner a dunking. Josh Miller/CNET

Of course, I have to mention that the Submariner is the opposite of the Lifeproof case. While that product is slim and lets you use headphones and access controls, the Submariner is about as bulky as you can get. It won't fit in your pocket or even a smaller bag. It's not that one design is "correct," but rather it depends on which design is right for you. While the Lifeproof case is more for everyday use, the Submariner is meant more for recreational and outdoor activities when portability isn't a concern. Also, while I trust Lifeproof's CEO when he says that his product is completely waterproof, the Submariner's extra bulk gives me more peace of mind.

Opening the Submariner is a simple three-step process. After releasing the small flap on the top right side, rotate the main lock away from you 180 degrees to unlock the hatch. Then, flip down the front of the case on its sturdy hinge and insert your phone. Note, however, that you'll need to have an Impact Band already on your phone for it to fit properly. Without it, your handset will be too small for the Submariner and will drop down into the second well below. You can use a thinner Apple bumper if needed, but even then the display won't rest completely flat against the membrane. So while a bumper is a workable substitute, it's a pretty poor one.

Though I get why Tech21 requires you to use the Impact Band -- it adds another layer of protection, it's great as an everyday case, and it prevents the phone's antenna from rubbing against the Submariner's hard shell -- you'll have to keep track of two parts if you want to use the Submariner as intended. If you forget it for a day, the Submariner is essentially useless. And if you lose the Impact Band completely (like I did), you'll have to shell out $39 for a replacement.

A day at the pool
I used the Submariner during a long pool day at the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas. Admittedly, I was a little nervous at first -- intentionally dunking a cell phone would make any cell phone geek cringe -- but I loaded my iPhone and jumped in. As Tech 21 promised, the Submariner will float with a phone inside, though it does so vertically with only the very bottom of the case poking above the water. I tried pushing the Submariner below the surface several times and it promptly bobbed back up a few seconds later. The detectable lanyard is plastered with Tech21's logo, but it's made of sturdy fabric and handy for wearing around your neck.

The Submariner has an extra compartment for money and keys. Josh Miller/CNET

I spent most of the afternoon floating around the Mandalay Bay's lazy river with the Submariner in tow. Using the phone presented no issues whether I was texting or tweeting, playing a game, making dinner reservations on OpenTable, or browsing the Web. Just remember that the touch screen won't work when completelty submerged. The membrane had a spongy feel, which was weird at first, but I got used to it quickly. And at the end of the day, I was able to use the touch screen and the Home button just as I normally would.

Yet, I have one complaint with the membrane. While water rolls off the membrane easily, it attracts more than its share of dust, hair, and pocket lint. The extra particles didn't interfere with my use of the touch screen, but I could feel them beneath my finger. More than feeling a tad icky, it also made the membrane look dirtier than it probably was. I wasn't sure how to clean it so I let it go, but germaphobes should take note.

You can play music with the phone in the case, but you'll need to turn up the volume high to hear your tunes properly. Audio quality is diminished, as well, and the Submariner lacks the Lifeproof case's headphone adapter. Just remember that you can't access your iPhone's volume controls while using the case. Hopefully the company will make a produce with more control accessibility in the future.

The Submariner case lets you take underwater photos. Kent German/CNET

Thanks to the clear skin of the Submariner, you even can take pictures underwater as long as the touch screen will register your command. I had a lot of fun with this feature even if it's one area where I noticed a design flaw. Because of the off-center placement of the deeper well, you should taking photos only when your iPhone is placed upright in the case. Unfortunately, though, it's more comfortable to insert your handset upside down when you're wearing the Submariner around your neck because the phone will be facing the right way when you raise it up to your face. But if you do that, the lens catches the side of the case and your photo subjects look like they're standing in front of a fun house mirror.

Make sure you insert the phone the correct way or your photos will come out like this. Josh Miller/CNET

Tech21 says that you can submerge the Submariner up to 6 meters (about 20 feet). I could only manage about 4 feet in the shallow lazy river, but I kept it in the drink for almost an hour. After I was done, I opened the case and found no traces of liquid inside the case or on my iPhone. Indeed, that was a big relief for someone who had a pile of work-related e-mails to answer. I also dropped the Submariner on the concrete pool desk a few times. The case didn't show any scratches or nicks, and my phone kept on ticking thanks to the Impact Band that's designed to absorb shocks and deflect them away from the phone.

The Tech21 Submariner isn't for everyone, and it's certainly not compact or stylish, but it's the most durable and most versatile waterproof iPhone case that's I've seen. I'd take again if I were headed to the pool, a beach weekend, or even if I was just spending a lot of time outside in the snow or rain. Sure, I'd tweak the design a bit, and making a call someday is a pipe dream. For maximum iPhone protection, though, it does its job well.

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