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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  • Mishera - Wednesday, March 23, 2011 - link

    An and you made an excellent point when you said that tablets don't seem on a path towards perfection.  Right now IPads are somewhat of a novelty.  They're kind of like that thing you see at a museum as a child that make you go "wow" or a concept at a convention that's not fully realized.  The problem is people seem content with the device as it is because it's Apple, and companies are trying the "square in circle" method to put it in schools, businesses, etc.

    Thats what really bothers me. Apple pretty much marches on it's own beat, consumers eat up what they release, and companies desperately try to run behind them and release something with better specs, never questioning if there is a better direction.  As a consumer device it's excellent, its just there are so many more directions tablets can go.  I would almost would say that Microsoft had a better idea of what a tablet should be with their umpc line, except they could never get the ui right, and now it seems like their hardware endeavors are over for so I wonder who could really bring a better concept to market.  To make tablets work it's going to take on os and a hardware so far android can't do it, microsoft won't to it and hp is still a question mark so we just have to be content with whatever apple gives us.  
    Reply
  • Zink - Sunday, March 27, 2011 - link

    Here's a very surprising video showing the flexibility of the glass used in the screen.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedd...
    Reply
  • JustinB - Monday, March 28, 2011 - link

    While OEMs are racing to create a competitor to the iPad, it seems like commenters on sites like this are trying to create a competitor to the Reality Distortion Field... Reply
  • NetJunky - Tuesday, April 19, 2011 - link

    Actually Dropbox has its own lack of security. So I wouldn't say, that this is a best example of data sharing via web. Reply
  • Bronx 6 - Tuesday, June 28, 2011 - link

    Apple had touch first congrats.They can keep there not so tech ridiculously rich ppl who buy lesser powerful or frivolous shoppers.xoom is to much with not enough (like ipad) on board no dongle needed ports/hdmi/usb/micro usb like acer.i bought an ipad2 as my first owned apple product just so I could show everyone whata piece crap it is and then return it to the store.The things I get off android apps are sooooooo much better because they arent being ran by the Nazi's (apple).,i like not having to waste money on anything app wise,movie(better than anything I could dream for) and of course free absolutely FREE music mp3s.now I even get artwork on them and they appear just as if I bought them.The music mp3 apps even (some) even include music charts so you know what's new and hot.i dont need cable tv,satelite,nadda I get thousands of channels free from apps which use flash and lemme tell flash is the key to the future and present.i love how developers make the good apps ipad has for honeycomb tabs(splashtop hd remote desktop)-myfav allows me to use all pcs as if I was on it even whem im in another state.the resolution is amazing also the many keyboards u can get-new swype is surreal should be stock on all tabs.tried to ruin acertab with viruses it wont phase it amazing alone.i so love the apps on droid they are made by ppl wno arent like the government and honeycomb keeps getting better asnow 3.1 is so muchbetter and its free.the power.of these tabs are like two ipads and the cameras on ipad2 is patheic like an old boostmobile vga cam.mine has the same quality cameras as iphone4 has another + acer has the best tab for the buck they have a functual full usb port and it connects alot.of useful things like keyboard,flashdrives,ch arging capabilites.i had bought one accessery a case stand that's it had hdmi cords already.the ipad I bought over 8 seperate things totally a money hungry company who designs product too keep you buying shit week after week.itunes is just plain retarded.i get the sameshit they do for free easier than a pc.wide open is free like usa is supposedly.if ur reading this and have a tablet download swype beta for honeycomb.It takes the basic stock keyboard but adds stuff u will love even if you dont swype u type better than the stock more like a real one.i bought 2apps in 2YRS yet ive had more than I can think of.i spent $8 total.i have sold more of these to anyone I show and teach.my old mother has one and now wont use her win7 pc's only thru the tablet-thats including me fixing her old pcs accross the country in california all from my badass acer tablet.apple should stick to ipods.droid tabs are diffently ipad.killers.i hope ppl enjoy wasting their money basically getting raped.so dumb ppl stay apple,smart ppl sick of paying for things that we shouldnt and having the ability to do all n then some on tablets enjoy.ps these flash modified apps on droids I cant praise the quality they look during playback is wow.ive watched more hdtv thru this than I have in years with my hdtv sets pretty crazy,so is the gaming similar to xbox360.buy an galaxy tab first then return it for an acer so you can appreciate getting more for less.send me the difference for enlighting u on values of better things.then again the world is more than 50% ignorant and very rude to ones who help them.take it as grain of salt Reply
  • rampantarmadillo - Thursday, August 18, 2011 - link

    I recommend that you learn to seperate vertex and fragment perf, this would demonstrate you aren't clowns. Reply
  • powchie - Saturday, December 10, 2011 - link

    anand, brian,
    what's that workflow that the iPad cannot fit in?
    Reply
  • ChaoticCupcake - Tuesday, December 27, 2011 - link

    Any word on whether or not a camera can be attached and used as a webcam for FaceTime, Skype, etc.? Reply
  • omkarphatak - Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - link

    Find out why choosing an iPad 2 over a laptop makes no sense... http://www.buzzle.com/articles/which-is-better-ipa... Reply

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