The Complete Guide to iPad Cases and Protection
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On the preceding pages, we’ve discussed numerous options for protecting the iPad’s body, only some of which offer coverage for the iPad’s scratchable glass screen. As of this morning, companies have announced four different types of screen protectors for the iPad, two of which have the greatest potential interest to readers: Anti-Glare Film, which can eliminate or greatly reduce the strong reflections and smudges typically found on iPad screens, and Privacy Film, which keeps nosy neighbors from seeing what you’re looking at. We discuss top offerings in both of these categories below. Two other categories—Crystal or Glare Film, and Mirror Film—will be of less general interest for the iPad for various reasons, but we’ll add information on them in the near future.
A Few Initial Notes
Is it really worth spending $25 for a piece or two of plastic film to cover your iPad’s screen? Though we’re not thrilled with the number 25—and very much open to seeing more aggressively priced options, or bundles of anti-glare film with cases in the future—we can say with absolute certainty at this point that there is value in paying something for screen protection. Even if your iPad lives most of its life in a completely protective sleeve, it will gather fingerprints the moment it comes out, and film can reduce them dramatically.
Additionally, an unprotected iPad screen is going to show scratches. One of our iPads went without screen protection for a week before getting its first cover, while another was bare only for a couple of days, and a third was covered immediately upon arrival. The first two screens already have small but visible surface scratches, with more on the one that went unprotected longer, while the immediately protected screen has none. These scratches are similar to ones we saw on the oil-resistant iPhone 3GS screen, which is to say not deep or wide enough to impair use or enjoyment of the iPad, but if they were left uncovered for longer periods, the accumulation of scratches would probably impact resale value at some point.
There are in fact differences, and major ones, between competing brands. Prices may be similar between all of the anti-glare films we’ve tested—$25 is the typical number—but the quantity and quality of film you receive for that price does vary.
Touch responsiveness is diminished only a tiny bit with film. Expect only a very modest diminution of touch sensitivity when using these films with most cases. We can’t say this about every generic option out there, and we’ve seen little hints of further reduced responsiveness under limited circumstances when combining some of these films with Apple’s iPad Case, but for the most part, film helps a lot more than it hurts. Additionally, unlike the iPhone and iPod touch, where you need to type on a tiny keyboard or otherwise interact with small on-screen items, the larger touch points on the iPad screen lead to much smaller perceived differences between an uncovered screen and one with film on top.
Installation is always somewhat of a challenge. If you’ve never installed screen film before, you’ll need to follow a few guidelines to make sure that things work out well on the iPad. Work indoors and in a place where there’s no dust or hairs—person or animal—in the air or near the iPad. Lay the iPad in landscape orientation rather than vertical. Completely clean the iPad’s screen such that there’s not a single speck of dust on it, a task made easier by film that includes a screen cleaning microfiber cloth. Remove the film’s own protective layer and apply it using the Home button hole as one alignment guide, centering the opposing edge dead center so that the film lays solely on the iPad’s glass and not the thin rubber edge that separates the glass from the aluminum bezel. Work out the air bubbles with a plastic card. And pray that you didn’t accidentally get any dust between the film and the screen. We’ve gotten to a 99% success rate with high-quality film using these guidelines.
We’ve tested anti-glare film from five different companies at this point and are continuing to try options from others. Here are our findings to date.
Power Support Anti-Glare Film ($25): Though it’s the most expensive film in this group—the price buys you one piece of film with no application card or cleaning cloth—Power Support’s product is the best we’ve seen overall on raw protective quality and finish. Japanese-made and an extension of the company’s extremely successful and respected line of screen film products for iPods, iPhones, and Macs, the Anti-Glare film repels fingerprints, reduces glare, and cuts down dramatically on scratches. It has the best overall combination of optical clarity and fingerprint resistance we’ve seen, and can go for days without being wiped down if you choose. We also found the film to be easier to apply than we’d expected, particularly when it came time to work the air bubbles out, though we had to supply our own plastic card and self-clean the screen safely before installation. If Power Support just included a cloth with this film, it would be easier to recommend.
United SGP Steinheil Anti-Fingerprint Film ($23): Also made in Japan despite its Germanic name, the Steinheil Anti-Fingerprint Film is nearly equivalent to Power Support’s film, only with extra pack-ins in the form of an applicator card, cleaning cloth, and screen cleaning spray, and perhaps a small reduction in anti-scratch quality. While this film wasn’t impervious to scratching, it showed far fewer marks after extended use than Speck’s and Incipio’s films, and didn’t show as many smudges, either. SGP accomplishes this by using a coating that is noticeably milkier than Power Support’s, which gives text and other on-screen content a softer, blurrier look. Those seeking maximum anti-glare and anti-fingerprint protection may find it here, but at the cost of screen clarity. We’d call it second to Power Support’s Anti-Glare Film in quality, but superior in value for the dollar.
Incipio’s Anti-Glare Screen Protector ($25): Incipio includes two sheets of film, a cloth, and an applicator for the same price as Power Support offers one piece of film. This solution was the first on the market, fit the iPad properly—though it was tailored so close to the screen’s edges that we found it a little challenging to install—and we were extremely thankful to have something protective for the iPad so early in its life. But over a week of use, we found that this film was not as optically clear as the others above, picked up fingerprints at a much higher rate, and also showed oil smudges, both of which needed to be wiped off with frequency. At half the price per sheet, you wind up with a lower quality experience, but you still get most of the protection.
Speck’s ShieldView Anti-Glare Screen Protector ($25): Just like Incipio, Speck bundles two anti-glare screen protectors in one package for the same price as Power Support offers only one, and includes a screen-cleaning cloth for installation, but again, there are quality differences that explain the lower per-sheet pricing. On a positive note, ShieldView is as protective and well-cut as Incipio’s film, with a little less blurring of the screen, and it does cut down substantially on glare. But the coating was unusually weak at resisting scratches, showing lots of them over a week of testing. We’d call the Incipio and Speck options roughly equivalent to one another—not the best we’ve seen on quality, but enough to do in a pinch.
NLU Products’ ScreenGuardz HD ($20): As much as we have liked NLU’s iPod and iPhone body protectors in the past, we’ve never been huge fans of its screen protectors, and though it’s different from past designs, ScreenGuardz HD isn’t much better. This anti-glare solution is aggressively priced and comes with a cleaning cloth, but it’s very thin and offers the weakest glare protection—you can still see lights shining on the semi-glossy surface. It also begins to show smudges much more quickly than the others above, and doesn’t really stick perfectly to the iPad’s screen—all of the edges have air trapped underneath, perhaps from something in the manufacturing process. It’s the only clear pass in the group.
Though it had little to no value for Click Wheel iPods, privacy film began to appear soon after the release of touchscreen iPhones and iPods, as companies began to market screen protectors towards those fearful of having their e-mail, web, and other personal screen-viewing habits monitored by people nearby. As hands and discretion do a pretty good job of protecting iPhones and iPods against nosy neighbors—and privacy film has a tendency to dim the screen—the products struck us as largely unnecessary, but with the much larger screen of the iPad, there might be more of a reason to consider these solutions. On the other hand, they’re considerably more expensive here, running from $40 to $70, in each case for a single piece of film.
Newer Technology’s NuVue Privacy Protector ($40): Virtually all of the privacy film we’ve seen over the years has been either matte-finished or lenticular, with grooves cut into the top surface of the plastic. NuVue isn’t. It’s glossy and surprisingly thin—once applied, it looks like a series of diagonal stripes is running down the face of the black iPad screen.
Installation was very tricky on NuVue relative to other films here, and previously tested. First, the film was tricky to align properly because it’s cut a couple of millimeters short of the top of the iPad screen, so getting the film’s single hole installed dead-center with the Home button leaves some of the iPad’s glass unexposed. We also found that air bubbles were much harder to remove from NuVue than its rivals due in part to the glossy coating, and in part because no applicator card was included with the film. We tried three different cards and found the bubbles very difficult to remove with all of them.
The one advantage NuVue has over rivals is pixel clarity: unlike the other two discussed here, it doesn’t blur the screen when viewed straight on. But on virtually any slightly off angle with the screen held vertically and tilted left to right, black diagonal stripes appear on the screen like pencil lines—its privacy effect. NuVue offers no privacy advantage when used in landscape mode and tilted or viewed from the left or right, which is the same as the two-way Incipio film but not the Capdase four-way film. We would call its privacy benefits the most mild of the bunch—only a little behind Incipio’s, with a less attractive appearance.
Incipio Privacy Screen Protector ($70): As the most expensive screen protector in the group—arguably crazy expensive—Incipio’s protector was at the middle of the pack in overall quality and privacy performance, though closer to NuVue than the price difference would suggest. Unlike NuVue, it has a matte finish once installed, and as it’s viewed from off angles, its dimming effect is smooth and gentle rather than off-puttingly sketch-like, fading from clear to black.
Installation wasn’t easy, but it turned out to be the least difficult in this group of challenging films. As with the other options, you need to peel off two layers of disposable plastic before installing it; the first layer, protecting its static cling rear surface, was easy to pull off—moreover, the film is cut pretty well to match the iPad’s screen size and Home button, only a hint more protective on the screen than it should be for easier installation. But peeling off its waxy second layer—the one you remove after the film’s on the iPad and the air bubbles are gone—was a challenge, initially removing one of the corners of the protector itself and forcing us to reapply that part of the film.
Like NuVue, Incipio’s film provides only two-way protection: if you’re holding the iPad vertically, it prevents people on the left and right from seeing what’s on the screen, and has no left-right impact on the iPad in horizontal orientation. In both cases, the screen can be seen on the other axis with no darkening effects. The bigger issue with Incipio’s design is that it clouds the screen with a uniform blur that makes text and images look soft rather than sharp. This is common of privacy films, and helped here by the fact that Incipio’s matte finish is smooth rather than lenticular, but the effect is noticeable—not fatal, but noticeable.
Capdase Privacy Guard Roamer ($52): In the middle of the group price-wise, Capdase’s privacy film offers the most aggressive dimming capabilities for those who are really concerned about having their screens viewed from off-axis. Unlike the other two films discussed here, it’s a true four-way film, which means that its dimming effects work for viewers to your left and right regardless of whether the iPad is being held vertically or horizontally. Viewed directly on center, the screen looks just about the same as with Incipio’s film—a little hazy, ever so slightly dimmed relative to an uncovered iPad screen—but off angle, it rapidly darkens in each direction.
There are a couple of catches, however. The first is that the four-way film introduces a light X-shaped pattern on top of the screen, despite the fact that the finish of the film is as matte-like as Incipio’s. This pattern is moire-like and noticeable during normal use, adding just one more layer of less than ideal distortion to the screen, but it—or something like it—is likely to be the consequence of most four-way protection. While the iPad remains usable with the film installed, the look of the screen is compromised enough that we’d only recommend this film for people who are willing to accept a noticeable full-time visual compromise for the occasional benefits of greater privacy.
The other issue is the installation challenge. Capdase’s film is cut so precisely for iPad’s Home button and screen size that you’ll need master-level installation skills to get it right—even being off by a little creates air bubble issues at edges. This is compounded by poor tabs for removing both sides of the film’s own pre-installation protection, the first one labelled a little unusually, and the others all small and too hard to use.
For the time being, there’s no sweet spot recommendation for iPad privacy film protectors: the most affordable one looks very cheap, the mid-priced one has screen distortion and installation issues, and best compromise on performance and installation is extremely expensive. But reducing it down to those factors doesn’t really tell the whole story, as Capdase’s film offers considerably more privacy protection than options above and below its price points. The option that’s right for your needs will depend as much upon your pocketbook as your needs for four-way privacy and willingness to accept visual compromises in the name of privacy.
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