Review: Apple iPad Smart Case
Released alongside the iPad 2, Apple's iPad Smart Cover followed a pattern the company had established with its earlier iPod and iPhone cases: the functionality was appealing, but the price was much too high, and the coverage wasn't impressive. Since then, numerous manufacturers have released Smart Cover alternatives that couple a similar folding cover with superior protection for the iPad's aluminum back. Some of these cases have been very good, but none has gotten the lid structure exactly right. We've been waiting for someone -- anyone, really -- to combine Apple's great front solution with an equally great rear solution.
So when we learned in March that Apple was working on a Smart Cover-influenced case, we were excited. And today, three months after the debut of the third-generation iPad, the new iPad Smart Case ($49) has arrived, finally offering iPad 2 and new iPad users an Apple-developed protective solution for either tablet’s entire body. Thankfully, the iPad Smart Case turns out to be a better value than the iPad Smart Cover, but once again, the execution is somewhat disappointing.
iPad Smart Case comes in six colors: light gray, dark gray, blue, green, and pink all match the current polyurethane Smart Cover options, while a bright red PRODUCT (RED) edition has been added to the mix as an Apple Store exclusive. Apple chose to use the same material as the less expensive Smart Covers rather than higher priced leather, and consequently, it has the same rubbery feel. Just as was the case with the first-generation iPad’s official iPad Case, the polyurethane feels somewhat cheap, but your fingers will quickly get used to it, even if you’re not thrilled by the texture.
Not surprisingly, iPad Smart Case’s segmented lid is almost identical to Smart Cover’s. It’s broken down into four reinforced columns with embedded magnets that automatically lock and unlock the tablet when the cover is laid down or lifted away. As before, this feature works instantaneously and without any trouble on both supported iPads. The setup also allows the lid to transform into triangular typing and viewing stands, both at similar angles to the Smart Cover’s, although the former rests at a slightly lower elevation and the latter is more wobbly than we’d prefer.
While some users might have preferred a case with a separable shell and lid, Smart Case’s halves are permanently fused together. Gone are the magnetic spine and metal nubs of the Smart Cover; the front and rear are formed from a continuous piece of polyurethane material. Both are lined with a fuzzy, color-matched microfiber to help protect the iPad’s body.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in iPad Smart Case is how Apple designed the iPad holder. A very substantial bezel frame is the only rigid piece of the case’s right side; the rear polyurethane has no structural support otherwise. Unfortunately, the frame has some serious issues. First, it makes iPad Smart Case taller and wider than almost every iPad folio we’ve tested, and we’ve tested lots of iPad folios. Second, it doesn’t really cover the iPad’s bezel—it’s just there to provide something hard to keep the iPad inside an otherwise soft fabric cradle. Both iPads wiggle around a bit inside the holder, and there’s a small but visible gap along either the top or bottom edge, depending on where the tablet ends up resting inside. The frame does rise above the level of the screen a bit, so if the iPad is dropped, the screen is less likely to touch the ground.
Smart Case does quite a good job of covering the back of the tablet while leaving access to the ports and buttons. There are holes for the headphone port, microphone, rear camera, side switch, Dock Connector port, and notably, a dot-for-dot recreation of the speaker grille. Even larger than average headphone plugs should fit without much issue, although the Dock Connector opening won’t accommodate plugs much larger than Apple’s, and the iPad Smart Case won’t let either iPad make an electronic connection with the official Apple iPad Dock.
Elevated button protectors cover the Sleep/Wake and volume buttons. They’re outlined in white on all of the Smart Cases save for the light grey model, which has darker grey accents. This coloring is the same for the Apple logo on the back of each case, white on five cases, darker grey on the light grey version. Notably, laser text engraving—an option previously only available for iPads and iPods, not accessories—is offered as a free customization for Smart Cases purchased from Apple’s online store.
We had high hopes for the iPad Smart Case, and they were partially met. While Apple has unquestionably designed a better accessory than Smart Cover, the Smart Case still falls short of the best alternatives we’ve tested. Apple’s lid continues to set the bar for a combination screen protector and stand; it’s the best of this style we’ve seen. But the rear design choices left us scratching our heads, wondering why a company capable of designing something as precise as the iPad couldn’t build a case that fits as snugly. For the $49 asking price, the iPad Smart Case falls firmly in the “good” category, and earns our general recommendation—it’s a much better buy than the standalone lid. For various reasons, Smart Case is likely to be the most protective option in Apple Stores, and we’d strongly encourage customers who only shop through Apple to choose this over Smart Cover. However, quite a few better options are available elsewhere at similar or lower prices, so unless you’re fixated upon the Apple logo, our advice would be to spend your dollars on smarter, more attractive designs.