It dawned on me three months after buying an iPad 2 that keeping the tablet encased in its original clear packing sleeve was a bit like having my living room furniture covered in plastic: practical, yet tacky.
The purchase of an orange Smart Cover from Apple to protect it was perhaps just a bit impulsive after all. Lifting and lowering the cover turns the screen on or off. But while the cover protected the glass just fine, the bare aluminum back seems vulnerable to getting scraped and scuffed no matter how durable Apple says it is.
Not wanting to acknowledge a $39 mistake (for polyurethane; $69 had it been leather), and knowing that enterprising accessory makers had alternatives, I returned recently to the local Apple Store and stared at the wall of covers.
It did not take long to engage another customer in a game of "What are you looking for in an iPad 2 cover?" We opened boxes together, felt textures, commented on clever designs and imagined our iPad 2s snug and safe. He found what he was looking for; I moved on to Best Buy, Staples and then Target, making more temporary shopping friends.
But they found what they needed. I could not pull the trigger.
Now that I was no longer an impulse buyer, I devised a strategy. Most important, I knew what I was looking for in a case that incorporated the magnet "technology" that turned the screen on and off.
It took a while for companies to start making rivals to the Smart Covers, but the choices are already overwhelming. I started by narrowing the field to products clearly marked for the iPad 2, which is slimmer than the first iPad. Many covers made for the original iPad are still on the shelves, which can be confusing. The newer covers have cutouts for the ports, switches and the back camera of the iPad 2.
Nothing beats getting your hands on a cover, but the next best thing is watching videos online of someone else opening a box with a new cover and using it. Often those videos are included on the manufacturer's Web site, and they are a good starting point.
To narrow the list, I looked at a range of back covers that would work with my Smart Cover, from $20 to $50. Next, I examined some competing products that sold for $50 and up. The least expensive route is a simple snap-on back, which often can be found in a color to match the Apple cover.
Hammerhead, for example, sells a thin polymer back cover in 10 colors at hammerheadcase.com. The HyperShield from Sanho, made of thermoplastic polyurethane, or TPU, also comes in 10 colors, plus clear (hypershop.com). "It is dirt-proof and washable," the company says. XgearLive.com features the slim XCase flexible shield (also made of washable TPU) in six colors. All respectable choices; all $20.
Prices go up from there, depending on the material and fit. Still, when it comes to Apple products, price is never the sole consideration. It has to look and feel great and shout to all lookers: "Yes, I am sporting the iPad 2!"
As this long but hardly exhaustive list shows, distinguishing one product from another can be daunting. There is the shockproof CoverBuddy from SwitchEasy.com, available in 10 colors (plus ultraclear) for $25; the Snap Shield cover from Belkin.com, which comes in clear, Apple Pink and Smoke, and sells for $30; the BackBone from ifrogz.com, which sells for $35 in matching Smart Cover colors, plus white and clear; or the higher-end iFrogz Summit for $60, which combines a folio style with a snap-in core.
XgearLive.com also sells the EXOSkin, in black, silver or white, at $30, and the Smart Cover Enhancer snap-on case for $35, in black or clear. Hammerhead's lightweight hard shell case made of a durable and water-resistant polymer, in 10 colors, is $40. Incipio offers the Smart feather ultralight hard-shell case in 11 colors for $35 at myincipio.com.
Speck has a SmartShell Case with a magnet on the back to secure the cover when it is folded back. It comes in orange, pink, clear and black satin and sells for $35 at speckproducts.com.
The AViiQ Smart Case is made of plastic encased in a solid aluminum plate anodized to match the Smart Cover colors. It sells for $50 on aviiq.com.
Broadening the search from just back covers to the whole tablet turned up a wealth of other options.
Mophie (mophie.com) updated its faux-leather workbook for the iPad 2 to add the magnets and kept the price at $50. It features interchangeable straps in four colors, inclines the iPad at multiple viewing angles, and offers full access to ports, camera and controls. Out of the box, it looks professional and feels secure.
The Joy Factory (thejoyfactory.com) has introduced a few cases for iPad 2, including the SmartSuit 2, its ultraslim synthetic leather snap-on case with a wake/sleep cover, and the Folio360 II, featuring a magnetic cover and an adjustable case and stand that rotates 360 degrees. Both sell for $60.
For a bit more money, the CarbonCover from Ion-factory.com at $70 comes in black and graphite, white and silver, red and rouge, and white and pink. It features a snap-to-fit hard grip cover in the rear and what it describes as "imitation carbon polyurethane" in the front.
Imitation is nice, but real leather can be had from Grove, which offers a magnetic case with combination black or tan leather cover with Ultrasuede liner and amber or light bamboo case, for $99 and up, at grovemade.com.
Pad & Quill offers two handmade leather products incorporating magnetics: the Contega for $90, and the Octavo for $60 with an optional interior pocket for $10 more (padandquill.com).
Bella Cases is selling the Smart Libretto, a leather case that can be folded into a stand, has the sleep function built in, and has custom holes for cords, ports and buttons, for $120 (bellacases.com).
The premium Padova II from Orbino (orbino.com) can be ordered in four "bark-tanned" Italian leathers for $209; exotic skins like red ostrich start at $569. (That's only $70 more than the least expensive iPad.)
The Logitech keyboard case by Zagg, for $100, is tempting. It has an embedded Bluetooth-linked keyboard and incorporates smart technology. Remove the iPad 2 from the case and it automatically wakes up. Place it back, and it goes to sleep. The description on its Web site (zagg.com) says it is made of aircraft-grade aluminum with a bead-blasted, anodized finish that matches the iPad 2. Sweet, but the back is still not protected.
In the end, I did some math: in April, I paid about $620 for the iPad 2 with only Wi-Fi, the protection plan and the Smart Cover. I mostly use the iPad 2 at home. At this point, $20 for a simple back cover seems like a small price to keep the iPad 2 in tip-top shape, and I no longer have to feel guilty about buying the Smart Cover.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times .