Review: Vaja Classic AP161 and AP171 for iPod nano
Pros: Premium customized leather cases for the iPod nano, each including a clear integrated screen protector and a classy design. Available in a wide variety of colors, plus two types of leather, as well as with multiple clip options. Each case includes a beautiful, gift-quality box.
Cons: Many features that are optional here are included with other cases; even at base prices, more expensive than competing cases that are identical or near-identical in protection.
Ask long-time iPod users which leather case they’re most anxious for, and the answer is most likely Vaja’s iVod, a case that was just shown in the Sneak Peeks section of our Holiday Buyers’ Guide. But before that case is released, the Argentine case maker has two other options that were apparently easier to produce, the Classic AP161 and Classic AP171, which in all honesty just aren’t as exciting. Though both cases are heavily user-customizable, the hallmark of Vaja designs, they are relatively pricey for what they are - a trend that is worsening, rather than getting better, with the release of iPod nano - and simple by comparison with the company’s classic iVods.
Our new capsule reviews will spotlight six critical factors in each case’s design: appearance, build quality, ease of use, special features/innovation, protectiveness, and value for the dollar.
It’s rare that we get excited about flip-open cases, and though it’s well-built, the Classic AP161 ($40) isn’t an exception to this. Three smart design touches make it stand out from the pack, but you’ll have to decide whether they’re worth the price - higher by $15-20 than the mass-produced leather nano cases we’ve recently tested, and even more than that if you want to customize the case in any way other than coloration.
Appearance: First impressions count, so it’s unfortunate that once in a while we wind up with oddly colored review samples that don’t show a case in its best light. Our AP161 used a mix of reddish brown and mint green leathers - the brown forming the case’s front and back panels, and the green a sleeve for the iPod nano, which shows through the case’s sides and bottom. Thankfully, for the price, you can choose from 18 different colors of Analine leather, and $6 more gets you 13 additional choices of Vitelino leather. In any event, Vaja’s classy logo appears in metal on the case’s bottom front, and the brown interior uses a new Vaja-logo embossed leather that looks really cool. All of the leather, and particularly the nano sleeve portion, looks and feels great.
Build Quality: The first thing you’ll notice about AP161 is how light and thin it feels by comparison with many cases. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: it’s a nice compliment to the nano, adding little weight or bulk, and internal reinforcement of its pieces gives it an appropriate feeling of resilience. There were no problems with stitching or other elements of the design. You’ll also find a good nano screen protector inside, and Vaja can also include its excellent Vellum-like Click Wheel protector for an additional $6. Our sample included this protector, which feels and looks excellent, integrated seamlessly into the case design.
Ease of Use: Flip-closed cases are always more challenging to use than cases without lids; you don’t have full-time access to the iPod’s screen or controls. The same is true with AP161; you’ll need to pop the front panel open to gain access. On the bright side, the case hangs your nano upside down so that it’s easy to see the screen in its proper orientation once it’s been opened. And if you get one, the Wheel protector works wonderfully, covering the Click Wheel without preventing you from using the nano underneath.
Special Features/Innovation: The only semi-unique part of AP161 is the way it secures its lid: a thin central magnet is used, and is mostly invisible to the user. This works better in our view than a snap-closed clasp. A bigger surprise is that Vaja now sells this case with or without a custom Rivet metal belt clip (add $15), a sturdy detachable option we’ve mentioned elsewhere on the site, which benefits from a very small metal nub that’s mounted on the case’s rear bottom. You can also go with a cheaper plastic belt clip (add only $4), or none at all.
Protectiveness and Value: These categories are where AP161 has most of its issues. When closed, the case unnecessarily exposes all four of nano’s corners, even going a bit beyond what was needed for the headphone port and Hold switch. Tunewear’s leather cases, as just one example, do a better job of covering your iPod. And even though we thought those cases were too expensive, they’re most likely going to be cheaper than the AP161 once you start adding in Wheel protectors or belt clips. Are these extras necessary? No. But a $40 starting price is high given that Tunewear now includes nano protective film and better nano body protection with all leather cases it ships, irrespective of price. The case we received would cost $61 with the options ours had, not including shipping, and doesn’t include nano film. If it wasn’t for the fact that the case’s coloration is so customizable without additional charge, we’d not find it as generally recommendable as we do - as-is, it’s a high-class but high-priced case, and very likely to be topped on the former (and, unfortunately, the latter) quite soon.
We think of AP171 as i-Volution minus, a highly simplified distillation of the company’s premium cases into a cheaper ($34 base price) design. Two flavors of AP171 arrived for review: one with a metal hook (add $5), and one with a plastic belt clip (add $4). Both came with integrated Wheel protectors, which are sold separately as a $6 option. As with AP161, you can choose from two grades of leather: 19 colors of Analine at no extra charge, or 13 colors of nicer Vitelino for $6 more.
Appearence: In white or black with matching stitching, the AP171 looks a lot like the $25 Belkin Carabiner case we’ve reviewed, with only a slightly better rear-of-nano surface. Rather than just wrapping one sheet of leather around the iPod, Vaja uses a second piece of leather for its back, which benefits from the same embossed interior treatment found on the AP161. This looks really nice until you insert your iPod nano, at which point the embossing is invisible. A metal Vaja logo on the bottom right hand corner is its only other distinctive feature visually unless you buy the optional hook, which is non-detachable, but looks nice in chrome.
Build Quality: Both of the cases felt well built and sturdy, though like the AP161, they both feel very light without a nano or attachments. Appropriate for larger Vaja cases, and still sturdy, the optional plastic belt clip is at this point an oversized mismatch for this small case, especially given that the nub used by Vaja is a big and nicer-looking metal part, regrettably non-detachable. A smaller and even sturdier Rivet clip is available as a $15 alternative.
Ease of Use: AP171 is a simple, play-through design: you get full-time access to the nano’s top and front controls, plus both of its bottom ports, regardless of whether you opt for the Click Wheel protector or not. As with AP161, the Wheel protector is virtually ideal, and a strongly recommended option - we wish Vaja would install them as a matter of course in all of its cases. The screen protector’s fine - not 100% perfect, but good enough for 99% of the population.
Special Features/Innovation: Unless you buy the very nice Click Wheel protector for $6 or the metal hook for $5, there’s nothing really special about this design. As tested, the leather looked and felt good, but not up to snuff with the iVod and i-Volution cases we’ve tested, largely because it’s flat rather than puffed.
Protectiveness and Value: Even if you pay for all of its potential options, the AP171 isn’t a great case on protectiveness. Its entire bottom - including its bottom side corners - is open, and there are holes on both of its top sides, one for the Hold switch. Unless you buy the Wheel protector, that part of the nano will also be exposed to the elements. You’ll need to pay $45 to bring this case to a level where it decidedly surpasses Belkin’s $25 Carabiner in protectiveness and features. That’s basically the summary point on AP171: if color or belt clip customizability is worth around $20 premium to you, check it out. Otherwise, wait for iVod nano or check out Tunewear’s Prie Ambassador, which while similarly too expensive is more protective and - surprisingly - more than a bit better designed in all of its particulars.
The only point we wanted to note as a special aside on the AP161 and AP171 - and all of Vaja’s new cases, for that matter - is packaging. In the past, we’ve been very impressed by Vaja’s black boxes, which rival Apple Computer’s as some of the most luxurious around. Vaja uses a combination of matte and glossy printing on each box, one of those touches that doesn’t photograph well, but wows you when you see it in person.
Amazingly, Vaja’s newest white boxes are at least as good as its black ones, if not better. Each case comes in a white rectangular box with a color wheel integrated into its top surface - the wheel can be turned to a color of your choice, or of the company’s. Besides your case, you’ll also find two Vaja stickers (one orange, one white), a card describing the leather, and a series of colored postcard-sized advertisements for Vaja’s other products. If we had to choose between receiving a gift-quality box like this with every one of these cases or saving an additional $5, we’d pick the latter, but there’s no doubt that the company knows how to make its boxes stand out.