Like all good stories, mine begins with “there I was”. You see, I was preparing to complete a 5-day off-road motorcycle excursion called the Washington Backcountry Discovery Route (WABDR) when I realized my Garmin GPS unit appeared to have stopped working. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time this happened. In fact, this was actually a second replacement unit.
With less than a week to go before the trip and not wanting to throw down the money for another Garmin, I began looking at other solutions. I had seen several other riders using Apps on their smartphones, but never gave it much thought until now. With little time to spare, I did some quick research and found a great navigation App called Gaia GPS. I was able to download all the base maps and tracks needed, but then I realized I had another problem…how do I keep my iPhone 5 from breaking, vibrating to pieces, or getting wet?
While Apps have revolutionized the way we use our smartphones and tablets, the devices themselves remain somewhat delicate and prone to breakage. I mean, most smartphones couldn’t handle one weekend in the hands of a drunk sorority girl much less attached to the handlebars of an off-road motorcycle. They need to be ‘hardened’ against water, vibration, dust, dirt, sand, impact, and the occasional drop in the toilet. Well, fortunately for me I stumbled onto Lifeproof and Andre Industries, two companies that take protection of electronic devices to the next level.
For my evaluation, I decided to use an Apple iPad Mini with Retina Display mounted to the handlebars of a KTM 990 Baja. Both cases were tested thoroughly for this review, riding in hard terrain throughout the Cascade Mountains and both experienced the inevitable off-road tumbles and crashes.
However, because I am not a millionaire and don’t have access to a warehouse of iPad Minis, I didn’t do any “destructive testing”; i.e. throwing the cases against a wall or shooting them with a 12 gage shotgun. That being said, the cases were subjected to vibration, heat, cold, rain, dust, mud, being whacked by branches, and other riding hazards. In addition, each case was submerged in a river to test for water tightness and both passed with flying colors.
Andre Industries aiShell Mini
Let’s start by taking a look at the Andre Industries aiShell Mini. This is an extremely robust case designed for hard use by soldiers, firefighters, and industrial workers. Designed and made in Germany, the case features a unique clamshell design that makes getting the iPad Mini in and out a breeze. Five latches rotating on stainless steel pins secure the case together, while a silicon interior gasket keeps the case watertight.
On the inside, the iPad Mini is secured in place by soft rubber ‘bumpers’ located along the bottom, sides, top, and corners to offer excellent fit and impact protection. The charging and headphone ports are both protected by removable rubber plugs that are lashed to the case. In addition to the built-in replaceable screen protector, an optional snap in hard plastic screen cover is available that can be moved to the back of the case when not in use. The rear of the case has several unique features including anti-slide rubber feet, kickstands for propping up the device, and embedded RAM/AMPS brass fastener points which enable the user to directly mount the case itself without the need for a cradle.
On top of all this, the case features the only waterproof charging cable on the market, making it an ideal choice for boaters, kayakers, overlanders, and anyone else who may need to power their device while exposed to the elements.
Oh yeah, did I mention that the Andre Industries aiShell Mini case also floats?
With all these features, I was ready to fall in love with this case. It seemed to have everything I was looking for to make navigation on my KTM enjoyable. However, the big dream killer in practical use was the built-in screen protector. While the iPad Mini makes navigation a joy, it’s not without its flaws. One of which is the readability of the screen in direct sunlight. While still very good, it doesn’t get as bright as the iPhone 5 and having a free-floating screen protector seems to exacerbate the issue. Because the screen protector is attached to the case and not adhered to the iPad screen itself, sometimes the sun illuminates the screen protector, causing a glare that makes seeing the screen underneath difficult. This wouldn’t be an issue inside the cab of an overland vehicle or boat cabin; but mounted on a motorcycle or ATV where there’s no escape from the sun, it becomes a deal breaker.
-Very robust, high-quality construction (Made in Germany).
-Easy to insert and remove iPad Mini from the case.
-Simple, secure, Ram/AMPS capable cradle with no moving parts.
-Optional waterproof charging cord available.
-Case itself can be mounted without a cradle.
-Screen protector is replaceable.
-North American Distribution limited to DN Distribution in Canada (Excellent Customer Service).
-Cost. There’s no getting around it, at $199 this case isn’t cheap, but iPad Mini’s aren’t cheap either. The added protection and features can make it worth your while, especially considering you don’t need to buy a separate cradle or floatation accessory.
-Screen protector can cause glare in some direct sunlight situations.
-While the aiShell Mini will fit both the standard iPad Mini and the Mini Retina, note that the case is lacking the upper microphone port found on the newer Retina models.
Lifeproof Nuud Case for iPad Mini Retina
Recently acquired by Otterbox, Lifeproof has been making rugged cases for several years. I’m no stranger to Lifeproof; in fact, it’s the case I chose to complete the aforementioned Backcountry Discovery Route with my iPhone 5. Having a phone mounted to the bars of a single cylinder off-road motorcycle is a fantastic way to test vibration resistance and impact protection.
The most unique feature of the Nuud case line is their ability to create a tight seal around the screen of the device itself, eliminating the need for a separate screen protector to work as a waterproof barrier. This means you get to see every pixel of that beautiful Retina display without anything getting in the way. After experiencing the glare issue with the Andre Industries aiShell, I was ready to give up on the iPad Mini for navigation and go back to using just the iPhone.
However, I decided to try the Lifeproof Nuud case to see if that changed anything. Boy am I glad I did! It really helped solve the glare issue I was having, enabling me to use the device in full sunlight conditions. So, if you’re going to be in full sunlight the majority of the time, the Lifeproof Nuud is the way to go.
As far as construction goes, the Lifeproof Nuud is very sleek and sexy, with form-following contours and attention to aesthetically pleasing details. The case comes in two separate halves which snap tightly around the iPad Mini using a tongue-and-groove fastening system. While this eliminates excess bulk, it does make removing the case more difficult than the aiShell. Thankfully, Lifeproof is including a new tool to help “unsnap” the two halves of the case, making repeated removal much easier if necessary.
The case itself is not Ram/AMPS mountable, but the optional cradle is. An advantage the Lifeproof cradle has over the Andre Industries cradle is that it is lockable, helping deter the average snatch-and-grab thief.
-Sleek, durable, modern design (made in China).
-Affordable price point, roughly $100 dollars.
-Ability to use without screen protector.
-Cradle/Mount is RAM/AMPS compatible, robust and lockable.
-Fits iPad Mini Retina perfectly, supporting all microphone and speaker ports.
-Does not have a waterproof charging cable available; all ports must be closed to remain waterproof.
-Case will not float without optional floatation accessory.
In short, these are both excellent choices for protecting your iPad Mini. What you intend to do with your device will drive your decision toward one or the other. Simply by virtue of case design, the Andre Industries aiShell Mini case will be more rugged, but at the sacrifice of overall size and direct sunlight readability. I’d recommend this case to hikers, overlanders, kayakers, boaters, military personnel, and industrial users. The Lifeproof Nuud offers much better sunlight readability, a locking cradle, and a sleeker design. So I’d recommend it to Adventure riders, ATV riders, pilots, overlanders, and everyday users who may need to see the full resolution of their displays while also wanting excellent protection.