Smart Covers

Lately Apple has been trying its hand at first party case solutions. It stated with the bumper on the iPhone 4, carried over to the original iPad, and continues now with the iPad 2. Bumpers were an interesting idea, though clearly designed to mitigate unintended antenna attenuation from holding the phone in your hand, and the first iPad case, while novel, never felt quite right in the hands and had an unhealthy attraction to table crud. I also go over smart covers in our video review

Third time's a charm, and this time they're both better engineered and endowed with the magic of magnets - they're called called smart covers. 

I told Anand that I wasn't going to buy another expensive first party cover at launch just because there weren't any other options, yet here I am with a black leather smart cover. 

Smart covers come in two materials - polyurethane and leather. There are five neon polyurethane colors and five more subtle/traditional leather colors. Polyurethane runs $39.00, leather will cost you a somewhat staggering $69.00. I opted for the black leather, Anand opted for neon orange and blue to match the official AnandTech color scheme (why didn't I think of that?).

The polyeurethane covers have a soft textured feel to the front and get the job done at the same price as the first Apple iPad cover. The colors aren't quite as saturated as you'd expect (it's more of a light blue and creamsicle rather than neon blue and lambo orange) but they still look pretty good.

The leather version feels and looks real, and passes the standard sticky test for leather. The outside of the cover is the actual leather surface, whereas the inside is a soft microfiber material. Both the polyurethane and leather models have this microfiber interior. The benefit is that it does keep the screen somewhat clean, the only downside is that it doesn't clean along the vertical strips where the smart cover folds. After a couple of days, you end up with some vertical strips of greasiness punctuated by thick ones of clean. 

The smart cover aligns and attaches to the body of the iPad 2 using six magnets along its side that line up with a similar set of magnets on the device. When I acquired the smart case at launch, I immediately set out to determine what magnetic wizardry was at play and borrowed some magnetic viewing tape from my friend Alex (who wrote the glass section). Also no, the smart cover does not work with the iPad 1. 

You can clearly see the set of magnets on the iPad 2 and smart cover that are used for alignment using the magnetic viewing film. This strip is from United Nuclear, but there are other vendors online. There are two visible sets of three magnets on the iPad 2 which mate up with corresponding patterns of magnets on the smart cover.

The magnetic viewing film is comprised of tiny beads with a small nickel filament inside, and are suspended in a fluid between two transparent polymer sheets. One side of the bead is reflective and appears light green, the opposite side is matte and appears dark green. The nickel filament orients along the magnetic field, and just like that we can see it.

The iPad 2 also has magnets on the far right side to keep the smart cover latched closed. These mate up to an appropriate set of magnets on the smart cover. Inspecting the smart cover carefully also shows a circular magnet which is used to trigger the iPad 2’s magnetic lock sensor. 


The circular magnet above the strips of bar magnets is used for signaling the closed/lock sensor on the iPad 2.

Unsurprisingly, you can also make MacBooks and MacBook Pros that use the same kind of magnetic latch sensor go into standby by waving the smart cover or iPad 2 over just the right place. There’s an excess of magnets on the far right of the smart cover to hold the flap in position when rolled upon itself. The only other unintended consequence of putting so many magnets in the iPad 2 is that it sticks to every ferromagnetic surface. The cafe I frequent has metal tables, and the iPad 2 literally sticks to the surface until you yank it off.

The first time you fire up the iPad 2, the area in general settings lacks any toggles for the smart cover lock. After you attach the smart cover and activate the sensor once, a new toggle appears. It's one of those subtle things that Apple does which fits with the - keep extraneous settings and indicators hidden when they're not actually doing something - philosophy.

 
Left: Before attaching the smart cover for the first time, Right: After attaching the smart cover.

The smart cover can be rolled onto itself and into a triangle, which then angles and supports the iPad at 15 degrees for typing on a flat surface.

Push the iPad 2 further, and it'll stand upright at 115 degrees for use as a more traditional display, say if you have the Bluetooth keyboard or want to use it to watch movies. 

The smart cover, while novel, has a few puzzling flaws. First up is what position to put the flap when the cover is opened and held in the hands. Folding the smart cover around to the back works, but magnetic attraction is weak and flap doesn’t stay in place at all. This is how users place the flap in videos on Apple.com and in marketing materials. The cover also makes it difficult to access the power and volume buttons in this position, though admittedly locking functionality with the smart cover should be left to the flap.

Left folded completely over, the second problem is that the cover then completely occludes the iPad 2’s rear facing camera. The other option is to fold the cover in half, which is probably the best solution. You don’t cover up the camera, and the cover doesn’t flap around as much. It still isn’t entirely secure, however.

Third, the smart cover leaves you with the same limitation as the first Apple iPad case: there's no way to make the iPad 2 stand up in portrait mode. There are a couple of landscape options as we described earlier but if you want to prop up the iPad 2 in portrait mode you're out of luck.

The final problem is that the smart cover doesn’t protect the rear of the iPad 2, which any iPad user will tell you is the surface that immediately starts to show aging from scuffing, scratching, denting, and white aluminum oxide from handling. Aluminum is a soft material, and while the iPad 2's aluminum seems to be harder and less porous than the MacBook Pro, it still picks up table crud like nobody's business. It’s frustrating because the smart cover is otherwise one of the most innovative parts of the iPad 2 experience. 

As a stand, the smart cover is excellent, and it’s also nice to see Apple finally adopting some magnetic signaling for when to lock the device. Any Blackberry user will tell you this isn’t anything new at all, but execution here is indeed awesome.

Video and Still Quality Analysis WiFi and 3G Basebands
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  • vol7ron - Sunday, March 20, 2011 - link

    Smoking the magic of realism, that's the point this device needs to hit. You can take that back to your IPS gods.

    I didn't say it was feasible to happen right away, but that's where it needs to be for the low-end devices. The upper-end of the spectrum should land in around $450.

    BTW, you misunderstand R&D and cost procurement. Just because these devices have a hefty starting price does not mean the cost of materials is even 1/1000 of that price. Whether the service providers are eating the price, or not, it all comes down to the fact that these devices do have a large mark-up. I think you need to consider the cost of an iPod Touch to the iPhone if you need a simpler way to compare - the 3G modem doesn't cost $300 lol and the Touch still had a high mark-up.

    "when the competition with a 2 decade head start still hasn’t been able to compete on price" ... no one has had a 2-decade head start. Technology (manufacturing and supply chain) and costs have both shifted over the last 20 years to make things more affordable. You come at this with an emotional response of "that can't happen", when I say it can and it will. Be care about being shortsighted it will come back to bite you one way or another.
    Reply
  • name99 - Sunday, March 20, 2011 - link

    Look, if you want a crappy cheap computer, go out and buy one. They make $50 computers (none of that extravagant $100 OLPC nonsense) for India powered by 6502s.

    But at the end of the day you are being disingenuous. You don't ACTUALLY want a $250 PC --- you can get something like that today if you buy a second hand Eee on eBay. What you want is an actual iPad, not something with a tenth of the functionality, but at $250.
    Good luck with that.

    And spare us this "eventually". If you're not content with a $250 eBay Eee now, buy the time the $250 iPad equivalent comes around, the real iPad 5 will be quadcore, 2GiB of RAM and a retina display screen, and you STILL won't find the cheap equivalent an acceptable choice, not when there's a real device at $600 that is so much better.
    Reply
  • medi01 - Monday, March 21, 2011 - link

    "Competition" has such devices for as low as about 100$, go google. They don't come with IPS panel or good battery, but how much do those parts cost?

    Competitors like Samsung do not have any reason to lower prices, as they are competing for different customers anyway. Not to mention, people perceive cheaper devices to be inferior.
    Reply
  • medi01 - Monday, March 21, 2011 - link

    PS
    There are NETBOOKS (from Acer, Lenovo or pretty much anyone) with multi-touch screens for below 300$.
    Reply
  • michael2k - Monday, March 21, 2011 - link

    They also weigh 2 to 3 times as much and have half or less the battery life. Reply
  • sean.crees - Monday, March 21, 2011 - link

    I still am amazed when people complain about the iPad being too expensive. I remember a little over a year ago everyone expected it to have a starting price of $999. It debuted at half that, and people still complain it's too much.

    It's now a year later, and even Apple's competitors cannot make a device that is competitive with a $499 starting price point or less.

    Here is where i see the iPad fitting in. The console and notebook have effectively replaced my PC. Everything i used to do on a PC i now do on either my notebook or my PS3. You're always going to have a cellphone. The tablet then does what you used to use a notebook for 10 years ago.

    You end up with a cell phone, a tablet, a notebook and if you want to game, a console.

    I don't know if a tablet will ever replace a notebook, maybe for some who can't afford all 3 and have to choose between a tablet and a notebook and don't need the productivity and power you gain with a notebook. Like how a TV is just for media consumption, a tablet is the same but you carry it around with you.
    Reply
  • Mishera - Tuesday, March 22, 2011 - link

    People complain about the device being too expensive because for what it is capable of doing, and compared to other devices it is overpriced. For Apple the price makes perfect sense for what they portray as a luxury device. It starts with enough room to drop the price (which they did sort of) and to be able to introduce another smaller ipad at some point in the future without cutting into their sails of macs. That's probably why they went with their keyboard choice.

    I thought about buying one but came to the conclusion that it simply was far to expensive to justify, especially since all I needed was an ereader, and later a new laptop. But I ended up getting on for Christmas so I wasn't complaining. Turns out the iPad is for EXACTLY what Steve said it was for. This is essentially a couch companion. This takes care of all my computer need when I'm at home and don't have to do work. But that's about all it's good for since it's too big to feasible carry around and doesn't replace your laptop.

    I still stand by my belief that the ipad is overpriced though much more attractive at $400. I think tablets will be very important in the future, it's just that they are far away and apple right now is only interested in making consumer devices while everyone else follows them. But right now everyone seems happy with just a new toy..
    Reply
  • george1924 - Saturday, March 19, 2011 - link

    DSC_2328.jpg and DSC_2364.jpg Reply
  • george1924 - Saturday, March 19, 2011 - link

    Great in-depth review though! Still can't get excited about tablets very much yet. I've had fun playing around with them, but don't think I could justify it along with a laptop, desktop, etc... Reply
  • MonkeyPaw - Saturday, March 19, 2011 - link

    Yeah, and the problem with playing with them at the store is that they always look really gross. I was messing with a tablet at a store today, and immediately washed my hands afterwards. I'm not a huge germ-a-phobe, but when I guy blows his nose, then approaches the electronics, I just start getting uneasy. I guess the screen just shows what's on all the mice and keyboards there, too. :p Reply

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