Twenty-one overlooked iOS accessories
As the Macworld editor who coordinates coverage of iPhone, iPad, and iPod accessories, I see lots of gear over the course of the year. Unfortunately, because time and space are not infinite resources, not every item can enjoy its day in the sun. Still, in the interest of giving good products their due, here’s a look at some of the year’s best under-the-radar accessories—ones that have made my iOS-using life more enjoyable. Many of these products would make great gift ideas, or great add-ons for that new iPhone, iPad, or iPod you might receive yourself.
Stands and mounts
Studio Neat Glif ($20): The more the iPhone’s camera improves with each iteration, the more people are using the iPhone for serious photo-taking. The Glif, which actually started shipping in late 2010, but became widely available early this year, is a must-have for iPhone photographers. This clever-but-simple accessory slips onto to the bottom edge of a bare iPhone, giving the phone a standard 1/4-inch tripod mount. When you’re not taking pictures or recording video, the Glif can be used as a stand for propping up your iPhone in portrait or landscape orientation. (It works great for FaceTime chats.) The Glif is compact enough to keep on your phone all the time, and the company even offers a +Pack of useful accessories for the Glif itself. (The +Pack is $12, or you can buy the Glif and +Pack together for $30.)
Mountek MT5000-CD ($25): Most car mounts for the iPhone or iPod attach to your windshield (leaving wires dangling everywhere), clip onto a vent (usually flimsily), or sit on your dash (messing up the dash surface if the mount adheres; serving as a potential projectile if it doesn't). Mountek realized that for many people with an iPhone or iPod, the car’s CD player goes largely unused, and it’s usually right where you’d most want to mount your portable player. The MT-5000CD is a unique car mount that slips into the CD-player slot—far enough to grip but not so far as to damage—and then expands for a secure fit. The cradle can accommodate a bare iPhone or one in a case; rotates between portrait and landscape orientation; tilts left or right for the best view; and provides an opening for connecting a charging cable to your player. I’ve tested dozens of iPhone and iPod car mounts over the years, but the MT-5000CD is the first to earn a permanent spot in my car. Provided the placement of your CD player doesn’t make the MT-5000CD block other important controls, it’s a standout mount.
Griffin Technology Xpo Compact Universal Tablet Stand ($30): When I’m traveling with my iPad, I often want a stand to prop up the tablet for video viewing or typing with an external keyboard. Griffin’s Xpo was a regular travel companion this year: At 6.5 inches long, about an inch wide, and just 0.4 inches thick when folded up, and weighing only 50 grams, the aluminum Xpo adds about as much bulk to your bag as a few pens. But unfold the Xpo, and it provides either a low-profile stand for onscreen typing or a surprisingly stable upright stand with about 30 degrees of angle adjustment. Non-slip pads keep the stand from sliding on your desk or damaging your iPad.
Incase Origami Workstation ($30): If you use Apple’s Bluetooth Wireless Keyboard with your iPad, you need a stand, but you may also want something to keep the keyboard safe (or just to keep the keyboard from accidentally turning on). The Origami Workstation handles both tasks with aplomb. As I mentioned in my iPad keyboards buying guide, the Origami Workstation encloses your Wireless Keyboard in a sturdy travel case that unfolds into a solid iPad stand when it’s time to get to work. You can even use the Origami Workstation to type on your lap.
Grayscale Cdock ($65): I know more than a few people who use their iPhone 4 or 4S as a clock. I also know a bunch of gadget geeks who’ve purchased an iPhone 4S but refuse to get rid of their iPhone 4—or even pass it off to a family member. The Cdock should please both groups. Made here in the U.S. from real walnut, the Cdock is an attractive, retro-design, tabletop charging station. You just slide your iPhone 4 or 4S into the Cdock to charge it, running any of the hundreds of iOS clock apps to turn the setup into an alarm clock or executive desk clock. (If all-wood isn’t flashy enough for you, you can opt for a brushed-aluminum, black-resin, or white-resin faceplate for the same price.) The Cdock is a unique charger for your current iPhone; it’s also a clever way to make use of that retired iPhone 4 that you can’t bear to get rid of.
Cases and protection
Case-Mate Barely There cases for iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S ($25 to $40): The Barely There is a super-thin shell that fits like a glove, covering the back and sides of your iPhone 4 or 4S to protect it from scratches and minor bumps. Unlike most shell cases, the Barely There leaves the top and bottom edges of the iPhone exposed, making it easy to connect third-party accessories, to access the Sleep/Wake switch, and even to place your iPhone in most dock-connector cradles. (The downside is that the front-top and front-bottom edges of the phone are exposed; I think that’s a fair tradeoff.) The sides of the case extend slightly past the front of the phone; this lip protects the screen when you place the phone face-down. Case-Mate offers the case in over 60 colors, designs, and textures, as well as in a do-it-yourself custom version.
BodyGuardz Armor Carbon Fiber for iPad and iPad 2 ($30): I’ve always been a fan of BodyGuardz’s nearly invisible—and nearly indestructible—films, which protect your gadgets from scratches and scuffs while adding virtually no bulk. The company’s Armor Carbon Fiber for iPad offers similarly tough protection, but it’s made to be conspicuous, thanks to a black, white, or red carbon-fiber finish. And unlike the company’s original films, the Armor Carbon Fiber requires no application fluid—it uses dry-apply adhesive that can still be removed without marring your iPad. The Armor Carbon Fiber is a great complement to Apple’s Smart Cover, keeping the iPad’s aluminum backside from getting scuffed; if you don’t have a Smart Cover, the included HD ScreenGuardz can protect the iPad’s screen from scratches. (The company also makes a nice version for the iPhone 4 and 4S for $20.)
Moshi iVisor AG for iPad, iPhone 4 and 4S, and iPod touch (iPad, $30; iPhone and iPod touch, $25): Speaking of screen protection, despite the surprisingly scratch-resistant surface of the iPad and iPhone screens, some of us prefer to add a layer of security. Other people would like an anti-glare surface. I’ve tried many protective and anti-glare screen films for the iPad and iPhone, and the majority are frustratingly difficult to apply, or they make the screen difficult to see, or they make fingerprints even more noticeable than on a bare screen—or all three. The iVisor AG, available with black or white borders, is the best I’ve seen. As with any anti-glare cover, the iVisor obscures a bit of the clarity of your screen, but the effect is much more subtle than with many of the films out there. And because it adheres only to the edges of your device, rather than sticking to the entire screen, the iVisor AG is easy to apply—without bubbles and dust blemishes—and remove. (Moshi also offers versions of the iVisor without an anti-glare finish, but I haven’t tested those.)
Loksak aLoksak IT ($7 to $18): The iPads and iPhones in our household get exposed to the elements: We use them in the kitchen, while camping or skiing, and even—yes—while relaxing in the tub. I tested a bunch of waterproof cases and sleeves this past year, and while some offered better shock protection, and others were better for specific uses, I found the aLoksak to be the most convenient and versatile. The company makes more than a dozen different sizes of this resealable, element-proof, polyethylene pouch, including versions specifically designed for the iPad and the iPhone. Sticking your device inside the pouch—even with an everyday case still on—is as easy as sticking it inside a Ziploc bag. You can even use the touchscreen through the pouch. Over months of use, our iOS devices never got wet. And, of course, you can also use aLoksaks to protect books, maps, a wallet, or anything else you can fit inside.
Photojojo Instant Camera iPhone Decal ($6): I wrote about this cute cover in our recent gear guide, but it’s been so popular with friends, family, and passers-by that it’s worth mentioning again. The iPhone is one of the best photo-taking phones out there, and this inexpensive, removable decal from photo-everything site Photojojo helps it look the part—specifically, by making it look like a venerable Polaroid OneStep Land Camera. As a bonus, the decal protects the iPhone’s glass back from scratches, and as I noted in the gear guide, the decal never fails to produce a smile from my photo subjects. (If you use a smooth iPhone case, such as the Barely There, above, the decal may even work with the case.)
Power, cables, and adapters
MonoPrice 7800mAh Universal Power Bank for Mobile Devices ($41): Despite weighing less than 8 ounces, the lithium-ion battery inside this 1-inch-thick, 3-inch-square block packs a whopping 7800 mAh of juice—enough to charge your iPhone five or six times, or an iPad once with power left over for your phone. In fact, you can charge both at the same time, though more slowly, thanks to the Power Bank’s dual USB-power ports—one provides 2.1A for the iPad and the other offers 1.0A for an iPhone. (You can also use the Power Bank to charge other USB-powered devices.) The battery itself charges via your computer’s USB port or any USB AC charger; the number of glowing letters in the Powerocks logo on top tells you the battery’s current charge level. A neat feature is dual power inputs, which let you connect two power sources to charge the PowerBank in as little as 4 hours. And with MonoPrice’s trademark rock-bottom pricing, the PowerBank is half the price of similar products from other companies. Update: After this article was written, MonoPrice discontinued the Power Bank. The company told Macworld that it will be releasing a replacement product, but it doesn't have any information on availability.
Mophie Juice Pack Reserve ($35): At 700mAh, this portable battery offers a fraction of the power of the Power Bank, but it has some nifty features of its own. For starters, it weighs just 1.5 ounces, is just 3 by 1.5 by 0.3 inches in size, and includes a handy key ring. Designed for giving your iPhone a quick on-the-go boost, the Reserve sports a built-in dock-connector plug—pop off the cover, plug it into your iPhone, and juice up. (You get about half a full charge of the iPhone’s battery.) Just as convenient is the hidden USB plug for charging the Reserve itself—you don’t need to use a separate cable. A built-in LED lets you check the Reserve’s charge level.
Griffin Technology PowerBlock Plus ($35): When shopping for an extra USB charger for your iPad or iPhone, you’ll want to make sure it can handle the iPad’s power needs. The PowerBlock Plus fulfills that requirement, but it’s got another feature that will make it especially appealing to those with limited outlets in their home or hotel room: a built-in AC outlet of its own so you don’t lose an outlet. The PowerBlock Plus works with any outlet from 100 to 240 volts.
BlueLounge MiniDock ($20): A less-cluttered option for charging an iPhone or iPod, the MiniDock pairs with the iPhone’s own USB power adapter to give you a nifty charging dock that mounts on the nearest wall outlet. It also works with the iPad’s power adapter (for charging your iPhone—the dock won’t hold an iPad) if that’s the only power adapter you’ve got with you. The company sells versions for U.S., U.K., and E.U. power outlets.
Twelve South PlugBug ($35): Yes, another charger—it was a banner year for nifty power solutions. The PlugBug is ideal for MacBook-toting travelers who frequently find themselves in hotel rooms with limited power outlets. This clever accessory melds with your MacBook’s power adapter—taking the place of the adapter’s own cable or wall plug—to let you charge your MacBook and an iOS device from a single outlet. The PlugBug’s USB port provides enough power to fast-charge an iPad; you just supply the USB-to-dock-connector cable. (Why not just plug your iPad or iPhone into your MacBook’s USB port? It won’t charge as fast as the PlugBug, and some MacBook models don’t supply USB power when you put them to sleep. The PlugBug also lets you charge your iPad or iPhone without unpacking your MacBook.) You can also use the PlugBug as a standalone USB charger.
Sanho HyperThin (0.8m, $20; 2.5m, $40): I mentioned this accessory in our recent gear guide, as well. If you’re using Apple’s Digital AV Adapter to connect your iPhone or iPad to an HDTV, the HyperThin is the rare HDMI cable that’s light and flexible enough to toss in your bag. Available in black or white, and in lengths of of 0.8 meters (2.6 feet) and 2.5 meters (8.2 feet), the HyperThin is actually thinner and more flexible than Apple’s USB-to-dock-connector cable. (The HyperThin is also a great accessory, along with WaterField Designs’ Apple TV Case, for traveling with the Apple TV 2.)
Extra-long dock-connector cables: Speaking of cables, I often want to use my iPad or iPhone while I’m charging it, but the relatively short length of Apple’s USB-to-dock-connector cable means I can’t stray very far from an outlet, let alone sit comfortably on the couch a few feet away. Several companies make extra-long cables for charging and syncing; I tested three this year that are worth considering. CableJive’s xlSync ($13), available in black or white, is about the same thickness as Apple’s cable but 2 meters (6.6 feet) long. Woodford Design’s PowerLine (£10) is similar in thickness but gives you 3 meters (9.8 feet) of cable. Griffin Technology’s 3 Meter USB to Dock Cable ($30) is also 3 meters long, but it’s quite a bit chunkier than the other two—it should hold up to some abuse. The downside is that it’s thick enough to be unwieldy at times, and its larger dock-connector plug doesn’t fit the dock-connector opening in every iPhone, iPad, or iPhone case.
Griffin Technology USB Mini Cable Kit ($25): On the other hand, I’ve long been a proponent of cutting down on cable clutter when traveling. Griffin’s USB Mini Cable Kit includes a trio of under-4-inches-long USB cables, each with a standard USB Type A plug on one end and a different connector on the other: mini-USB, micro-USB, and 30-pin dock connector. Between the three cables, you should be able to connect, charge, and sync your iOS devices, Bluetooth headsets and headphones, hard drives, and more.
SoundJaw LLC SoundJaw ($20; $35 for two): Nearly three years ago, I reviewed Ten One Design’s SoundClip, a clever accessory for the iPhone 3G and 3GS that clipped onto the bottom of the phone, covering its bottom-mounted speaker to redirect audio towards you. The SoundJaw is a similar product, but for the iPad. This accessory clips onto the lower-right corner of the iPad and redirects audio from the tablet's rear-mounted speaker towards the front. I’ve found that audio is considerably easier to hear with a SoundJaw on my iPad, and, as with the SoundClip, it’s even louder if the iPad is in landscape orientation and you’re holding the tablet with a hand in each corner—instead of blocking the speaker, your hand acts as an extension of the SoundJaw. The SoundJaw won’t fit an iPad with an all-over case, but it works great with Apple’s Smart Cover.
[Dan Frakes is a Macworld senior editor.]
Updated 12/19/2012, 9:40am, to note the discontinuation of the MonoPrice Power Bank battery.