Review: ZeroChroma Vario-SC for iPad mini
"Game-changer" isn't a phrase we use lightly or often, and there are more opportunities to misuse it than properly apply it. But ZeroChroma's just-released combination stand and case Vario-SC for iPad mini ($50, aka Vario-SC Mini) comes as close to earning the designation as any accessory we've yet tested for Apple's small tablet. The full-sized iPad version of Vario-SC has grown considerably in our estimation since its 2011 debut -- enough that we've actively wanted a smaller version ever since Apple released the mini last year. Though it's not without issues, Vario-SC for iPad mini is superior to its predecessor, and so incredibly useful that one of our editors will certainly have it on his iPad until something better comes along… which probably won't happen until ZeroChroma releases a sequel.
Understanding the appeal of Vario-SC is easy if you’ve ever used an iPad stand, and even simpler if you believe—as we do—that a great stand can transform the iPad user experience. Unlike electronic docks, stands are designed merely to hold your iPad upright, freeing your hands, lap, and/or desk space in the process. Pair a stand with a keyboard and you can rapidly become a more productive iPad typist; use the stand alone and you can realistically watch a two-hour video from any nightstand or airplane tray. Having a great stand handy at all times makes the iPad a considerably better device for both work and play; the full-sized Vario-SC has spent a year as one of our top picks for this purpose, since nothing has surpassed it in overall practicality.
After testing hundreds of stand options, the most common issues we’ve seen are versatility, size, and stability. Stands rarely offer more than a few positions, and tend to be either cumbersome to carry around or not particularly steady when jarred; stands integrated into cases also have other issues. Apple attempted to address the need for a protective stand with the iPad mini Smart Cover, which is thin and fairly stable but overpriced, falling short in the versatility and protection departments. Case maker Speck subsequently released the full case/stand combination HandyShell for iPad mini, which is relatively protective, stable enough, and reasonably priced, but quite thick and not particularly versatile.
Vario-SC for iPad mini comes very close to achieving the best of all worlds. Firmer than the full-sized iPad version, it’s a semi-rigid plastic case with enough protection to cover most of the iPad mini’s body, leaving predictable but nicely tailored speaker, microphone, camera, and port holes on the edges and back. ZeroChroma has re-engineered its famously versatile rear stand to preserve all of the past functionality—360-degree rotation with 11 different ratchet-locked, stable angles—while dramatically reducing thickness. The full-sized iPad version was already slender by comparison with other stand-equipped cases, a circle that bulged outwards by less than the iPad’s own depth, but the iPad mini version’s stand retracts to add only around two millimeters past the rest of the case’s back. Impressive tapering and stand sturdiness continue to build on prior ZeroChroma implementations, though you’ll need to dig your finger a little more carefully into a smaller divot to pop the stand out. Once that’s done, you can achieve any iPad viewing or typing angle you desire, typically with plenty of stability.
ZeroChroma’s singular failing with the iPad mini version of Vario-SC is in the protection department. Just like the full-sized iPad version, the new case doesn’t protect the mini’s top or side buttons, and regrettably leaves a large stripe-shaped gap on the left side for optional attachment of the iPad mini Smart Cover. Smart Cover support isn’t necessary in the prior version or here, since Apple’s accessory adds little beyond Vario-SC’s own functionality besides screen coverage. ZeroChroma would be better off sealing the side gap and including anti-glare screen film, which would improve protection without compromising functionality in any important way. If these small issues were addressed, Vario-SC would be a near-perfect case, and merit an even higher rating. As-is, however, a case like Speck’s CandyShell provides more comprehensive body protection; either option will require you to self-supply screen coverage if you want it.
Vario-SC’s price for the iPad mini remains the same as the full-sized iPad version’s, but after coming to rely upon both models, the value proposition is hard to argue with. Truly great iPad stands can be had starting at $30, and similarly excellent cases start at $35, so the $50 asking price here represents a fair premium for the superb stand over the cost of a good plastic iPad mini case. While our editors diverged a little as to whether the A-caliber stand and B-caliber case merited an A- or B+ rating, we concluded that Vario-SC’s strong practicality weighs in favor of the higher rating. Additional protection without added bulk or expensive would make a follow-up unimpeachable, so we look forward to seeing what ZeroChroma does for the upcoming fifth-generation iPad—preferably much sooner than nine months into its lifespan.