LifeProof FRĒ Phone Case

The most effective phone condom you can buy!

Mobile phones, GPS, sonar, lighting, action cameras, trolling motors. No doubt about it, electronics have dramatically increased the quality of our on-the-water lives. The trick though is keeping the water out of the actual electronic bits. Failure to do that turns the most amazing device into a very expensive and highly ineffective boat anchor.

I recently bought a new case for my iPhone and I wanted one that was waterproof for kayaking. On the yak, I'd been keeping my phone in a dry box. That works well for safeguarding the phone, but it makes it hard to get to the phone when you need it. I can't tell you how many text messages and calls I've missed. And it turned my CPR into CR – I've not photographed a lot of my catches because I didn't want to bother with digging my phone out of the box.

My old case was a well-used OtterBox Defender. I'd been mostly happy with it. Sure, it turned my sleek and slim iPhone into something a lot more thick, heavy, and clunky. But in exchange, I got very solid protection. My phone has been through countless falls, hits, and scrapes, but it still works like a champ. And take it out of the Defender case, and it looks brand new!

Live FRĒ or Die Hard

Built to MIL-STD specification and with the ability to withstand a drop of up to 2 meters, the LifeProof FRĒ has all of the ruggedness that makes the Defender so great. But it ups the ante considerably by being  IP-68 rated waterproof, dirt-proof, and snow-proof. Even more remarkably, it accomplishes all this in a case that is significantly slimmer and sleeker than the Defender. That's quite a trick!

The FRĒ case is made up of two parts – top and bottom shells – that snap together along the perimeter of the phone. The seam for the two shells is o-ring sealed to keep the bad stuff out. The top shell has built-in clear protectors for the screen and Touch ID button. And the bottom shell has them for the camera lens and light, as well as for the all-important Apple status symbol logo on the back of the phone.

Whatever you do, don't obscure the Apple logo!

All of the phone controls are accounted for with molded-in, rubberized covers that fit perfectly over the controls and allow full operation. The cover for the teeny-tiny Apple mute switch is a little finicky. When installing the case, you have to make sure the inside of the cover engages the mute switch properly or the switch won't work. And even if you do, the switch is still a bit fussy to use. For what it's worth, that switch is seriously tiny. OtterBox punted on this one. They didn't even try to make it externally operable and just put a rubber flap cover over it that you have to open to flip the switch.

All controls are fully weaponized

All of the phone ports – the Lightning connector and the headphone jack (on older iPhones like mine) – have water-sealed covers. In the case of the headphone jack, the cover is a screw-on cap that kind of resembles a tiny boat porthole. Cute! Thankfully the cap is permanently tethered to the case, or it would be lost within a week.

Batten down the hatches!

The covers seal the ports against dust and water. But in the case of the headphone jack cap, there is a price to pay. The threaded hole that the cap screws into will keep most headphone plugs from being fully inserted into the jack! Unless your headphones have a very long and skinny plug base, it won't go in far enough. So LifeProof includes a headphone dongle with the FRĒ. It's basically a short headphone extension cable with a screw-in plug on one end and a headphone jack on the other. From my point of view, this is just another thing to keep track of, and if you lose it, then you're dead in the water with respect to headphones! On the other hand, there is a significant benefit to using the dongle: The dongle has an o-ring seal too, so when you screw it into the headphone jack, your case is once again waterproof. This would not be possible if you plugged normal headphones directly into the jack.

"Dongle" – A word that never fails to produce jokes at the office.
If there is a more productive word in the English language, I certainly haven't found it.

The first time I used the headphone dongle, it disabled my headphones' inline controls (volume and hang-up buttons). This would have been a major (perhaps showstopper) downside for me because as a music and podcast junkie, I use those controls a lot. Fortunately, that turned out to be user error. You just have to screw the dongle into the case tightly enough and any controls on the headphone will work just fine. Whew!

I haven't actually tested LifeProof's claim that the FRĒ is waterproof down to 2 meters yet. LifeProof recommends that you test your case without a phone inside before you rely on it in the water. Good advice! I intend to do so at some point. But the design and craftsmanship definitely seem up to the task, and I have seen underwater photos taken by friends who've used their FRĒ-encased phones as a camera while snorkeling. Cool!

And as I said, for all this protection, the case is surprisingly small and light. It adds just a few millimeters to my phone. After having the Defender for several years, I'd forgotten that my phone is actually a wonderfully slim and elegant device!

Besides the nuisance of having to use a headphone dongle, I have a couple of additional minor complaints with the FRĒ. And these are somewhat nit-picky in my opinion. First, I've noticed that the Touch ID function of my iPhone is more fussy with the FRĒ. It doesn't always work as well as with the Defender (which left the Touch ID button completely uncovered and therefore unprotected). The other complaint is that the screen protector makes my phone's display slightly darker. This can be easily compensated for by turning up the screen brightness. Finally, the FRĒ reduces the touch sensitivity of my display very slightly. I have to be just a bit more deliberate with my touch gestures than I did with the Defender. But I have to point out that these are very minor issues and I no longer noticed them after a few days of getting used to the case.

And now, the bottom line. The FRĒ is pricey, no doubt. Online they go for around $50, and considerably more if you get them locally. You could buy a generic waterproof electronics case/bag for around half that price. But you'd have to take your phone out of the case in order to actually use it. With the FRĒ, all of the phones' functions, controls, and ports are readily available. Moreover, the FRĒ is MIL-STD and IP-68 rated, and it's warranted for one year. I think the level of convenience and quality are worth the additional money.