We managed to cover every iPhone case LifeProof has made over the years except for one, LifeProof's iPad case. Introduced in June, LifeProof's Fre case for the iPad mini is an unseemingly ultra-protective case that as you'd expect, is designed to be waterproof down to depths of 6.6ft, drop and impact proof from up to 4ft, snow proof, dirt and sand proof. Despite our underwhelming experience with the Fre case for the iPhone 5, LifeProof has ironed out some of the more infamous kinks with the iPad mini variant. But such a ruggedly slim tablet case doesn't come cheap, the Fre will set you back $100. Arguably a small price to pay in exchange for peace of mind. But is it good enough? Let's find out!
LifeProof cases have become iconic means of rugged protection mostly due to their innocent-looking sleek design you would have never guessed is as tough as a bank vault. But what really impresses me time and time again is that even with all of this ultra-tough protection and waterproof capability, the Fre is one of the nicest most comfortable to use protective cases I have ever used. And with LifeProof's advancements like its screenless Nuud cases, using a totally waterproof case is as effortless as breathing in air. Something you couldn't have said only a few years ago. But unlike the Nuud case for the iPad, the Fre case features a sleek looking design with a minimal border framing the iPad mini's front side, which I think makes the Fre the best looking waterproof and perhaps even the best looking ultra-rugged protective case currently in the market.
You obviously won't be using it to take underwater footage during your vacation, so why would anyone pay this much just to protect n iPad mini against water? Well there are a number of perfectly good explanations as to why you would. You see, the Fre offers a complete 360-degree protection with its integrated screen protector and totally sealed, durable impact-resistant construction. If protecting your iPad mini against water, drops, scratches and dirt falls under your criteria, then it makes absolute perfect sense why a case like the Fre even exists. Suppose your little iPhone is no match for the iPad mini's 7.9-inch screen and you're in a place where extreme protection is advised, the Fre's comfortable form factor proceeds its more than capable protective abilities, which makes it a really nice case to use considering the amount of functionality being offered to you.
As with every LifeProof case, the Fre is available in either white or black flavors to compliment iPad mini. Each case includes a shoulder/neck strap accessory in the box as well as a cleaning cloth. Surprisingly we didn't find the obligatory headphone adapter. Instructions tell you to first ensure the case passes your personal waterproofing inspection by first testing it without inserting your iPad mini making sure water hasn't leaked inside. It's of course an optional step I always tend to skip, and so far LifeProof's cases are as waterproof as they come so long as you properly snap everything into place accordingly.
The interior back shell features an ample amount of shock-absorbing rubber that hugs the edges and partially the back side of the iPad mini.
Putting the Fre together and taking it apart is a jarring process. The two pieces snap together really tightly compared to the Fre case for the iPhone 5 which results in more strenuous assembly and removal. And while we wouldn't recommend you take apart the Fre often because not only is it not easy, but you can risk damaging the build-in screen protector when pulling the case apart using the force required.
During the first installation the Fre's built-in screen protector had a very noticeable pillow-like effect that would make typing or touching the screen feel awful due to the air gap between the screen and the plastic film. After another attempt at taking apart the case and putting it back together purely out of trying another iPad mini, the Fre seemed to have been installed much better the second time around in that its built-in screen protector laid a more flush against the iPad mini's touchscreen leaving only a tiny amount of air gap in-between which really improved the touchscreen experience requiring little to no effort in registering sensitivity.
Pro tip: We soon discovered that if you push out the air trapped in-between the screen and plastic film through the Lightning connector opening whilst pressing up against the Fre's screen protector from the top all the way to the bottom, the film would reduce the pillow effect greatly but will still have a slight gap around the top and bottom portions as aforementioned.
With that said, I have been doing quite a bit of typing on the iPad mini with the Fre case installed and I could honestly say that I don't really mind the resistive-like touch input that I have been experiencing so far consider how amazing of a case the Fre already is. But I've got a strong feeling the upcoming Nuud version will be even better...for one obvious reason. Even with the plastic screen protector contacting the iPad mini's glass display, no bubbles or watermark have appeared which is excellent considering we have had these issues present when we reviewed the Fre for the iPhone 5.
Then again like the Fre case for the iPhone 5, the iPad mini model also suffers from more pronounce top and bottom "pillowing" that basically feels like your physically pushing on a plastic film, albeit the souchscreen is still very responsive. For that alone, LifeProof created the Nuud case which features a screenless design that offers direct access to the glass touchscreen for optimal tactile sensitivity. And because LifeProof is releasing an iPad mini version really soon, we think you should wait for it. However, expect to lay a little more for the Nuud version. Another reason to wait for the Nuud version of the iPad mini case is that while the Fre's built-in screen protector doesn't impede on screen sharpness, it does introduce more glare than usual at an angle.
Looking around the back of the case, instead of looking more like its iPhone 5 counterpart, the Fre is similar to the Nuud case for the iPad by featuring a clear polycarbonate back window bordered by gray (or black) rubber in this case. And while I think the Fre's see-through back design as it showcases a large chunk of the iPad mini's design, I think it looks bulky and disproportionate compared to LifeProof's sleeker-looking iPhone cases. Then again, you could argue the iPad mini Fre case carries a ruggedized, tough-looking exterior which is true. Notice the hump around the bottom? On the outside the entire clear surface is smooth and flat, but on the inside the hump provides better audio channeling for the iPad mini's stereo speakers. But I'm afraid it doesn't work so well in practice.
And then there are the speaker ports which give you the impression that every ounce of sound coming out of your iPad mini's stereo speakers will undoubtedly be squirted out from those large speaker grilles. Alas, the Fre case suffers from the same exact audio issues pretty much every LifeProof case has ever since the first iteration. Instead of sound coming straight out of these speaker ports at the bottom of the case, you'll find that your audio actually comes out the back side of the case. Specifically around that hump which we believed would help mitigate these exact issues from the start.
And because the sound has to travel through the plastic, it vibrates the bottom portion of the case and sounds somewhat muffled - not to mention the volume output isn't as high either. With that being said, I don't think this issue should be considered as a deal breaker because to be honest the audio quality is perfectly doable considering this is a waterproof case. Pro tip #2: When not around water, open up the Lightning connector latch to improve the sound quality. As small as it may be, it does make a considerable difference in how clear the audio sounds.
Part of what makes using the Fre so enjoyable is that with the help of the iPad mini's extremely thin and slick form factor, the Fre has been designed to match it as close as possible resulting in a case that surprisingly does not feel bulky to use or hold. So yes it's got some meatiness to it which in the iPad mini's case is always a good thing, the Fre feels great to hold thanks to its rubberized exterior and tapered edges. Who needs shoulder straps when you've got such tremendous grip and an ample resting area for your fingers and hands to grab hold of.
Although the Lightning connector port is unusually recessed beyond saving, it is big enough to accommodate Apple's micro-USB to Lightning adapter as well as other third party connectors that are similar in design.
Another addition that is new to the iPad mini version of the Fre case is the more convenient to use tethered headphone jack port plug which requires no screwing and simply flips open. In case you haven't noticed, unlike the iPhone 5 variant, the iPad mini case doesn't come with a threaded headphone jack adapter which is strange when in fact the port is highly recessed and hard to reach using a normal or angled 3.5mm plug. Only very slim straight plugs will fit when the Fre case is installed so be prepared to purchase a compatible adapter if you've got headphones with L-shaped, bulky plugs. The least LifeProof could have done was to include an adapter. What a shame.
The Fre's dimpled home button has been perfected into the built-screen protector making pressing the button flawless. It's the same type of dimple found on LifeProof's iPhone cases. And while that has not changed, the Fre for the iPad mini does incorporate a new silent/rotation lock switch which is really easy to flip on and off. As for the volume and sleep/wake buttons, they require more effort when pressed but are still acceptably manageable and offer a tactile response as expected.
Like the Nuud case for the iPad 4, the Fre case for the iPad mini features four strap mounting points where you can attach the included shoulder strap in either horizontal or vertical orientation. The strap is fairly easy to attach to the Fre and locks into place securely.
In addition, the Fre also has a side mounting attachment which is concealed by removable rubber strips in which you can attach LifeProof's optional Smart Cover-like polyurethane portfolio cover that doubles as a stand for your iPad mini when folded while providing even more screen protection when magnetically closed. But it isn't going to come cheap at $40. Using LifeProof's Smart Cover alternative is somewhat excessive if you ask us, but we're glad it's an option if you'd like to get the most out of your iPad mini as Apple intended through the use of a convenient foldable viewing stand. It's only a shame such an accessory to an accessory is so expensive having already spent $100 on the case itself.
Like all waterproof cases, the Fre has its constricting limitations that you'd have to understand in order to thoroughly enjoy it for what it's worth. So maybe you're not planning on swimming with your iPad mini, but if you're going to be using it for poolside entertainment or simply need a protective case not knowing what your day will be like, the Fre is an all-around great protective case with some caveats you can easily live with. Although taking it apart and putting it back together is the most off-putting caveat of all. So if life-proofing your iPad mini is something you're looking to do, the Fre is a case bred for maximum protection with minimal bulk you can use as an everyday case. However, if you can wait, we suggest that you don't buy the Fre and wait for LifeProof's Nuud case instead. And if you absolutely need a solution right away, the Fre is a good enough ultra-protective case you wouldn't believe could be so slim.