Review: Matias iPod Armor mini
Pros: Looks great, protects the iPod mini superbly against virtually any type of impact-related physical damage.
Cons: So-so rubber Dock Connector protector, no top protection. Some users may prefer full-time Click Wheel access, though we liked the case as-is.
Only three months after the introduction of the iPod mini, the market for protective cases was officially mature: by late May, third-party accessory makers had released a wide variety of alternatives, including rubber and leather products worthy of iLounge’s top rating. The only missing case type was metal, a format dominated in the larger iPod market by Matias with its popular iPod Armor.
Until now. After we spent roughly two weeks testing an advance prototype of Matias’ new iPod Armor mini case for the iPod mini, the company has readied an improved final production model. Already great as a prototype, the finished iPod Armor mini case is an almost perfect product for people who want attractive but resilient iPod mini protection.
Matias’ original iPod Armor case defined metal protection for the iPod, encasing each of the iPod’s first three generations in a form-fitting aluminum shell. Both old and mini Armor cases consist of two hinge-connected front and rear pieces that snap together to lock an iPod inside. In each case, holes for users to access the hold switch and headphone port are left permanently exposed, but the Dock Connector port is covered by a small removable protective rubber piece.
Wisely, Matias went further than its competitors in embellishing the exterior of their original case, stylishly embossing the iPod Armor with the shapes of the iPod’s screen, buttons, and Scroll Wheel. While none of the iPod’s features was actually visible, the embossing served to distinguish both the contents of the case, and the case itself; by comparison, Proporta’s competing metal iPod case left the iPod looking like an indistinct silver brick. Thankfully, the iPod Armor mini case mostly follows Matias tradition, featuring an elevated metal circle where the controls should be.
The consequence of this design is obvious: you can’t access the iPod’s controls while it’s inside the Armor unless you flip it open. Users who choose metal cases typically accept (and even expect) this, given that their intent is to keep as much of the iPod as possible protected against damage. But the uninitiated should be aware that in the absence of excellent advance playlist programming, an Apple remote control cable accessory becomes almost a required purchase to keep songs going without repeatedly opening and closing the case.
Thankfully, the iPod Armor mini case does the old Armor formula two steps better. The first is attributable to the iPod mini’s rounded edges: unlike the older iPod Armor, the iPod Armor mini wraps around the iPod’s sides, holding the player in place even when the front panel is opened. Second, Matias has included a hard transparent plastic screen guard instead of an embossed metal screen shape, thereby enabling users to better use the iPod mini while it’s encased. This solution works well - the screen is entirely visible but remains protected - and comes closer to addressing the single biggest complaint about the prior iPod Armor case, namely that once the iPod was safe inside, it was difficult to actually use.
Matias’ hybrid plastic and metal combination is actually more than skin deep, however: the iPod Armor mini’s aluminum is used more decoratively than functionally. Careful inspection of the iPod Armor mini reveals that while the exterior of the case includes thin sheets of hard aluminum, the interior is comprised of two pieces of hard plastic. iPod Armor mini’s first piece, for the front of the case, is clear plastic like the transparent screen, while the rear case piece is white, and shows through on the case’s bottom.
The metal on plastic design yields one benefit and one consequence - unlike the older iPod Armor, the iPod Armor mini’s plastic clips now fit together and come apart perfectly. But it also raises issues about the iPod Armor mini’s durability - part plastic, part metal cases can’t possibly be as resilient as full metal ones, can they?
Practically speaking, the metal/plastic distinction is next to irrelevant: in almost any situation, the iPod Armor mini will shield an iPod against scratches, shocks, and drops better than any of the other iPod mini cases we’ve tested, particularly given that it fully covers the mini’s Click Wheel and screen. The only unshielded surface, of course, is the iPod mini’s top, a design decision that consequently allows users to attach accessories such as the iTrip and NaviPod while the Armor’s on.
Despite the fact that the top of the iPod mini is exposed, the Matias case holds the mini quite securely during normal use. Soft velvety material on all interior plastic surfaces shields the iPod against scratching and holds it in place. Our prototype was snug enough to hold the mini inside even when we turned the closed case upside down and shook it repeatedly - hard shakes only moved it slightly. We could move the iPod inside only intentionally, or when we tried to insert something into its Dock Connector port. Even if nothing had changed, we would have been happy with the original design, but Matias improved the padding on the final version, further reducing the possibility of iPod movement inside.
The one and only part of the iPod Armor mini case we didn’t like was the rubber Dock Connector protector - designed to attach to the case with an overly simplistic rubber hinge, the flip-open protector sometimes fell off when ‘open’ and ultimately proved better to remove entirely. Given that the bottom of the case was already designed to be a bit bulkier than the rest of the design, with small prongs that jut out to help the iPod mini stand straight up, we wish the plastic bottom had been designed to integrate a little better with the rubber protector. It’s a small issue, but an issue nonetheless.
While it would have been nice to have some protection for the top of the iPod mini, we understand why Matias didn’t choose to include it in the iPod Armor mini case. Given that the mini needs to be inserted through the top of the case, and that the mini’s small size restricts the resilience of the plastic pieces that would hang off of the case’s front piece, it was a reasonable choice to omit them in this product. That said, a perfect hard case would be one that offers some top protection - perhaps detachable - as well.
It’s tough to ask for perfection from any iPod case maker, though our standards go up a bit when their prices go up. The $49.99 Matias is asking for the iPod Armor mini case - the same price as the full-sized iPod Armor case - had us riding the fine edge of an Excited rating. Several companies have similarly made the choice to price their smaller iPod mini products just like the larger iPod ones, but we’re not so sure that this is a great idea. Ultimately, consumers will determine the wisdom of such pricing, and we’ll be watching for your comments to see whether to consider this a more important factor in the future.
We were ultimately tipped over the edge to award our Excited rating for a number of reasons: for the price, Matias is including an “optional” adhesive belt clip and free shipping, which slightly mitigates the pricetag. More importantly, we really are excited about the iPod Armor mini; it offers tremendous protection, looks great, and improves in most ways upon its well-respected predecessor.
While there will soon be competitors in the iPod mini hard case category, Matias has certainly raised the design bar from the prior generation of Armor. The iPod Armor mini case offers complete hard protection for the iPod mini’s five most important surfaces, including integrated transparent screen protection. At least for the time being, and perhaps substantially longer, Matias has without question the best hard carrying case for the iPod mini - and the best looking.
Jeremy Horwitz is Senior Editor of iLounge and practices intellectual property law in his spare time. His recent book, Law School Insider, has been called the “best book about law school - ever,” and he continues to contribute to Ziff-Davis electronic entertainment magazines.