The original iPad really worked best when in a case, but as Steve Jobs lamented in launching the iPad 2, most iPads have had their beautiful design—toiled over by Apple’s finest aesthetes!—cloaked by cases made of fabric or leather. And cases don’t just hide that pretty iPad—they also add thickness and weight.
Clearly Apple couldn’t stand for this situation, because with the iPad 2, the company has not just introduced a new case, the iPad Smart Cover ( Apple Web page); support for the case is baked right into the iPad 2’s hardware and software.
The new case—actually just a front-only cover—is a rectangle the exact size and shape of the iPad’s screen, divided lengthwise into four segments. The side that faces inward is covered with soft microfiber cloth; the outside is either leather ($69) or polyurethane ($39), each available in one of five colors.
On the left edge of the Smart Cover is its attachment point: a thin, metal “anchor” that magnetically adheres to the left-hand side of the iPad 2—sorry, lefties, you can’t put it on the right—flanked by two hinges that allow the cover itself to fold back. Apple likes to say the Smart Cover is foolproof to attach, but I proved fool enough on more than one occasion. Still, you basically can’t mis-attach the Smart Cover, and once you get the hang of it, you can do it without thinking. The magnetic attachment is strong, too—I was able to lift the entire iPad by pulling gently on the Smart Cover, as the connection was able to bear the iPad 2’s weight.
When you place the Smart Cover over the iPad 2’s screen, it closes with a pleasing snap, and it stays closed. That’s because there’s another magnet embedded in the right-most segment of the cover. What’s more, the iPad 2 has a sensor that knows when that magnet is in place—so as soon as you close the Smart Cover over the iPad 2, you hear the familiar click-click sound of the iPad locking itself.
Likewise, the iPad can sense when you open the cover: Pull the right-hand flap away from the iPad, even slightly, and the iPad automatically wakes itself up, bypassing the lock screen entirely. If you’re worried about security risks, fear not—you can turn off this feature in the Settings app, keeping your iPad 2 safe and secure. But for day-in, day-out use, it’s nice to simply open and close the Smart Cover rather than having to also press the sleep button (or press a button and slide a finger) to unlock.
For my part, I was able to confuse the iPad 2 mightily by running a fridge magnet over its right-hand edge—the iPad unlocked and re-locked like crazy. Don’t do this at home; you may make it angry. You wouldn’t like it when it’s angry.
Beyond giving the cover a lot of flex, those four foldable segments are cleverly designed to allow you to use the Smart Cover in various configurations. Roll it up into a little triangle and it can be a gently inclined typing stand, or (if you flip it over) an upright stand for watching video. In this latter configuration, it’s superior to Apple’s original iPad case, which always felt a little bit wobbly.
You can also fold the cover back behind the iPad when you’re using it. Even there, you’ve got some options: You can either fold it back completely flat, or fold the cover in half, at which point it attaches to itself magnetically, exposing the more rugged exterior side (so you can set the iPad down with a bit more confidence) and leaving the iPad’s rear-facing camera uncovered.
I spent a week with a leather Smart Cover and found it to be a nice companion product, though it took a little getting used to. It adds far less bulk than any iPad case I’ve previously used, and it also gave my fingers something else to hold on to when holding the iPad in one hand. I’m sure there will be a strong market for third-party iPad 2 cases— iPad cases are already being designed that mimic this magnetized design, and many people will want a case that covers the iPad’s back half. But once again, Apple has set a high bar for third-party accessories. Cheap cases that are rushed to market in order to cash in on the iPad 2 product launch will find a hard time of it thanks to the presence of the Smart Cover.