Review: Belkin Thunderstorm Handheld Home Theater for iPad
Currently finished for the iPad 2 and iPad (3rd-Gen) with a separate version on the way for the fourth-generation iPad, Belkin's new Thunderstorm ($200) offers an interesting solution to a collection of common-enough problems: finding a way to protect an iPad, stand it upright as necessary, and watch videos on it with respectable audio quality. To that end, it combines a case, Smart Cover-style removable lid, and speaker into a single product. With these pieces together, the question that must be asked is if they're more valuable together, or if you're better offer with each piece taken by itself. The version we've reviewed here has a Dock Connector built in; the Lightning-equipped model for current iPads isn't due until later in 2013.
Judged solely as a case, Thunderstorm is large. At nine inches wide, ten inches tall, and three-quarters of in inch thick, it’s not only significantly larger than an unencased iPad, but also pretty much any case we’ve tested. Made of matte black plastic, it’s also set up differently from other cases on the market. Instead of snapping onto the back of the iPad, or wrapping around its sides, ThunderStorm is more like a tray the tablet fits into, without any give. Instead, a two inch segment of the bottom slides down when you push a button on the back. Doing so disengages the Dock Connector plug, and lifts the iPad just slightly, but enough to easily be removed.
Belkin integrated glossy plastic volume and Sleep/Wake button controllers, plus a sliding control for the side switch, all of which work well. The Dock Connector port is covered—the iPad can be charged while the case is plugged in to the included wall adapter—but the rear iSight camera and headphone port are left open. If you’re using headphones with an abnormally large plug, you may have an issue connecting them due to the somewhat tight tolerance of the plastic, but then again, if you’re using this case, you’re likely not using headphones. On the bottom, the speaker is covered by a plastic grille, although no audio comes out when the case’s speaker is playing.
Thunderstorm’s lid is very similar to Apple’s own Smart Cover in a lot of ways, although Belkin took a few steps to differentiate it. The front is a plasticky-feeling material, and the inside is lined with soft microfiber. Unlike many integrated lids, this one is removable. Rather than connecting directly to the iPad, its metal spine easily snaps into a ridge along the left side of the case, and can be taken off as necessary. In addition to being able to fold the lid into a triangular stand for viewing or typing—with embedded magnets holding the shape—you can also fold it in on itself for a deeper angle. We weren’t surprised to find that the cover also automatically wakes the iPad when opened and puts it to sleep when shut. The other factor that separates Belkin’s lid from Apple’s is the 6.5” long opening that partially exposes the case’s speaker grille.
Running along the iPad’s left edge, or underneath when the tablet’s propped up, Thunderstorm’s speakers are the defining factor of the product. Belkin partnered with a company called Audifi, heavily promoting its involvement in the engineering and sound processor. When your iPad’s inside Thunderstorm, sound is routed through these speakers instead of the one built into the iPad itself. While Belkin’s packaging for ThunderStorm doesn’t mention it, there’s also a 10-hour rechargeable battery inside the unit, so that you can use the speakers on the go without relying upon the adapter. This—the ability of the iPad to perform videos with amplified volume, on an angle of your choice, in a form factor comparable to a slim laptop—is the only reason users might consider dealing with the case’s added weight and size.
On a positive note, the sound that Thunderstorm puts out is much louder than what the iPad is capable of, and it does sound good, considering the form factor Belkin’s using here. Besides enough raw amplitude to fill a small room, you get the benefit of some additional bass, and cleaner midrange performance at higher volumes than the full-sized iPad can put out on its own. Optionally, a free Thunder app allows you to adjust the stereo separation between three settings—close, medium, or wide—with the ability to test each setting with sample music, audio from a movie, and audio from a game. Thunderstorm’s arguably at its best when assisting with movies, where it improves the cinematic experience by delivering stereo audio directly from the iPad’s face, rather than relying on monaural reflections from the tablet’s back.
The real issue you’ll need to answer is whether the added power is really necessary relative to the iPad’s integrated speaker, or superior to what you’d get for less from a standalone Bluetooth audio system. If you feel your iPad already has sufficient volume and sound quality for your on-the-go needs, this expenditure won’t seem worthwhile. Moreover, if you’re looking for real power, you’ll find the thin stereo drivers inside to be tweeners, adding something without matching the best $100 standalone speakers we’ve tested. The same dollars can go towards your choice of any iPad case, stand, and portable speakers with more horsepower, potentially with comparable physical volume to a Thunderstorm-enclosed iPad.
Belkin is on to something with Thunderstorm, but it’s not a strong enough product for the $200 price tag to earn a recommendation. At a lower price, it might make sense as an alternative to better but larger speakers, but the overall concept forces too many compromises to justify the expense. If you’re at home, you likely have a television for watching movies—surely a better experience. While traveling in public, you can’t generally use loud speakers, except when you get into a semi-private space. But even if you really want to watch videos on your iPad with louder or clearer audio, it’s easy to find speakers with equivalent or better sound quality for half the price. Overall, though the concept could catch on quickly as a more affordable bundle, Thunderstorm earns a C+ rating.