Review: Apple iPad Air Smart Case + iPad mini Smart Case
Apple has a long history of making cases for its devices, and generally, those cases haven't been great. Each of Apple's designs has been trumped by multiple third-party cases in coverage, pricing, materials, or all three. Consider the iPad Smart Cover, a fairly expensive lid that added unique stand functionality and screen protection to the iPad 2, but didn't bother to cover the tablet’s body. It was then followed by the iPad Smart Case, which kept the same lid, but added full body protection -- a better option, but unfortunately laden with some serious design issues.
Now, alongside its newest tablets, Apple has introduced the completely redesigned iPad Air Smart Case ($79) and iPad mini Smart Case ($69). The latter of the two is designed to work with the first-generation iPad mini, as well as the Retina display-equipped version, which has yet to be released at the time of this review. These cases are big upgrades over the original Smart Case in every way — including price. Built with better materials than before, they’re made from leather with a superior fit, feel, and look than their plasticy predecessors. This all comes at a cost though, as the iPad mini version sells for a $20 premium over the original, and the iPad Air edition costs $30 more. Except for size, the two cases are identical to one another, a testament to just how close the 7.9” and 9.7” tablets are in design.
The first iPad Smart Case was built entirely out of polyurethane, a material that’s not bad, but feels somewhat cheap, especially against the solid metal and glass design of the iPad. Apple has ditched that for aniline-dyed leather now, and it’s a big improvement. Coming in brown, beige, black, yellow, blue, or a special edition PRODUCT (RED) color, the cases truly feel like premium accessories. It’s the same material used for the iPhone 5s Case, and will likely show the same natural wear. Inside is a microfiber lining that helps prevent scratches on the device’s body. Notably, the top 3/4” or so on both units is smooth, flat material, and matches the size and shape of the cellular antenna found on so-equipped iPads. This presumably enhances radio transparency, and while it’s a curiosity, it definitely isn’t a problem.
Our biggest objection to the original Smart Case was its tray-like rear holder. Extra material extended past the edges of the tablet, adding bulk and looking pretty strange. Apart from those edges, the case was somewhat floppy. With these new versions, Apple has dramatically enhanced the design. Now the leather has enough support that there’s no need for extra edges. The iPad Air or iPad mini easily snaps into place, and fits securely. There’s still a border, but it’s much less pronounced, and strikes us as a far more acceptable design.
The shells are designed to provide easy access to the iPads’ controls, without blocking their ports. Each has dedicated openings for the headphone port, rear camera, side switch, and Lightning port; they’re cut cleanly, and well-centered. You’ll also find two microphone holes on each, with one along the top, and another on the back to support the iPad Air’s and iPad mini with Retina display’s second mic. With the first-generation mini, it’s superfluous, but small enough that we’re not worried about damage to the exposed metal. The stereo speakers are matched by dots on the bottom edges of the cases, again adding protection without blocking functionality. In terms of button coverage, the cases almost totally hit the mark. Raised volume and Sleep/Wake protectors are easy to find by touch, and only the volume up button on the iPad mini case we tested was a little mushier than we’d like. In the center of each case, there’s an embossed Apple logo, a subtle but nice touch.
The Smart Cover-like lid is permanently attached to both versions of the case. They’re designed much like the simultaneously-released iPad Air and iPad mini Smart Covers, respectively, although the cases are fully leather instead of the Covers’ polyurethane. Each is segmented into three columns, a departure from the earlier Smart Case’s four. By folding in on themselves, and using embedded magnets to hold the triangular shape, they each create a stand suitable for viewing in one iPad orientation, and typing in another. Both are just as strong as we’ve come to expect from the prior four-column design. Additionally, magnets also automatically lock and unlock the tablets’ displays as the lid is lifted off and on. It’s a very nice front cover.
Apple finally seems to have hit its stride with cases this year, for the most part: after the pretty good iPhone 5s Case, we have the iPad Air and iPad mini Smart Cases, both of which are quite impressive, and worthy of our strong general recommendation. They offer pretty much everything we look for in a case: attractive design, thorough protection, and extra functionality. The leather is a great material choice, but it does lead to the one big disadvantage: price. Because they’re so expensive, many people will pass on the cases as unaffordable, especially by comparison with similarly functional $40 alternatives. As premium cases go, though, we’re quite impressed.