LifeProof Frē for iPad mini
Right before announcing that it had been purchased by OtterBox, LifeProof revealed its newest ultra-protective case: Frē for iPad mini ($100). Instead of developing a smaller version of its full-sized iPad case Nüüd, LifeProof created a larger model of its iPhone 5 Frē case. Continuing the family's theme, Frē for iPad mini is pitched as waterproof to 6.6-foot submersion depths, dirt proof, snow proof, and shock proof for up to four-foot drops. It's currently available in white and gray, with a black version shown on the web but not up for purchase at the time of this review. A detachable shoulder strap is included with each case, along with a cleaning cloth.
Although it’s not quite identical to LifeProof’s earlier iPad and iPhone cases, Frē borrows elements from both designs. Incredibly easy to install on the iPad mini, it combines a plastic front frame with a mostly clear plastic back, and includes transparent screen protection, too. The part of the back that’s not clear is rubberized, and includes button and microphone protection, plus removable strips along either edge allowing for compatibility with the company’s accessories. To install the case, you simply snap the front and back pieces together on your iPad mini, a simple process. Although it more than doubles the thickness of the mini to 15.9mm, Frē doesn’t make the device feel bulky at all. You can still easily hold it in one hand, or slip it into a bag without issue.
Once you’ve snapped the case together, the buttons and ports are all protected. Starting at the top, there’s a rubber protector for the headphone port, a special mesh covering the microphone, a glass lens cover for the rear iSight camera, a mechanical side switch cover, Sleep/Wake and volume button protection, speaker protectors, and a flip-open Lightning port protector that also doubles as a mechanism for locking the case. For the most part, everything works well. Music coming out of the speakers does sound somewhat muffled, but not terrible, a fair tradeoff given that this case is waterproof.
As for the screen protector, it’s clear that LifeProof has learned a lot from its earlier cases. Despite the fact that there’s some air between the plastic sheet and the glass display, we found even the lightest touch was recognized properly. It behaved just as it should, offering protection without getting in the way. The dimple over the Home Button is a nice touch, making use of the iPad’s most major physical button easy. Don’t expect to be able to control the iPad properly underwater, though. As with many waterproof cases, the screen goes a little crazy when submerged; it’s protected, but you won’t be able to interact with it. Otherwise, Frē works properly, keeping moisture out.
Our biggest problem was with the Sleep/Wake button; once the case was fully assembled, it just didn’t work. When the iPad mini was simply laid in the back shell, the button protector clicked just as it should, and continued to do so even as the case was being snapped together. However, it seems the case is just a bit too tight, because once the halves had been fully snapped together, the button could no longer be depressed and the slide to power off screen appeared. This message can be dismissed, and the iPad can still be used, but we couldn’t use the top button to turn the tablet on or off.
Frē is almost exactly what we’re looking for in an ultra-protective, everything-proof iPad mini case. It’s attractive, not too big, lives up to the promised level of protection, and is easy to use. The $100 asking price isn’t ideal, but it’s in the range of what people have come to expect from properly-tailored and fully waterproof iPad cases. Were it not for the Sleep/Wake button issue, it would have earned a somewhat higher recommendation. Unfortunately, this is a real problem, and drops the rating down to a B. You can still use the tablet, but a major functionality is limited, and it shouldn’t be. Hopefully, this is an issue LifeProof can quickly address; the other features all worked as expected, and it’s otherwise a case worth checking out.
Updated June 28, 2013: LifeProof informed us that an early production run of Frē did in fact have Sleep/Wake button issues, and that the problem has since been addressed. We’ve confirmed the fix with a revised version of the case, which works just as expected.