One of the biggest bugbears with the iPad is its paltry rear-facing speaker. Some tablets, notably the BlackBerry PlayBook and Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1, have a pair of front-firing stereo speakers, which make them sound considerably better when watching videos and playing games.
This fact hasn't escaped Belkin, as the new Thunderstorm testifies. It's a combined case, stand and speaker system for the iPad 2 and 3 (although a model that's compatible with the iPad 4's Lightning connector is due for late 2013). See iPad 2 vs iPad 3 comparison review.
There's no version in the pipeline for the iPad mini, unfortunately.
It's quite a bulky case, adding considerably to the iPad's thickness and weight (at 665g, it's marginally heavier than an iPad 3). However, it's easy to overlook the fact that there's a built-in battery which will power the speakers for 10 hours. Oddly, Belkin doesn't promote this nearly as heavily as its partnership with Audify, which supplies the sound chip inside the Thunderstorm.
The processor works with the free Thunderstorm app and lets you adjust the mode for music, video or gaming, and sliders allow you to alter the 'width' of the sound. The app is optional though, and you don't really need it to use the speakers.
Belkin Thunderstorm: design
The Smart Cover-like cover slots into a strip on the side of the Thunderstorm and folds like Pong's iPad case as well as in a triangle shape (like a traditional Smart Cover) to stand the iPad at an angle suitable for watching videos. It also has a cut-out so you can still use the speakers to listen to music with the cover closed.
Unlike other cases, the Thunderstorm is more like a tray into which you pop your iPad and the dock connector slides into place and 'locks' the tablet into place. This is why it will work only with the iPad 2 and 3 currently.
There's a hole for the rear camera and headphone socket, plus buttons which operate the iPad's own buttons. Note that the mute/rotation lock switch will only mute game audio - in our tests, audio still played from the Thunderstorm's speakers when playing music and watching videos.
A bundled mains adaptor charges both the internal battery and iPad's battery. With a fully charged iPad inserted, the Thunderstorm's battery takes around three hours to charge.
Belkin Thunderstorm: sound quality
Most people will buy the Thunderstorm for watching videos, so that’s where we began our testing. The improvement over the iPad's built-in mono speaker cannot be overstated. Dialogue is exceptionally clear and loud. There's also surprisingly good bass considering the size of the enclosure (which is ported).
Unsurprisingly, it's no substitute for a proper home theatre system, but the Thunderstorm still produces respectable audio for movies, managing to deliver background music and sound effects without much distortion even at high volumes.
There's more volume than you expect, and the Thunderstorm can easily fill your hotel room (for example) with sound. In fact, that's one of the places we imagine the Thunderstorm being used most, or at home when you're not in the living room and able to use your existing hi-fi system.
There's quite a bit of vibration through the case when you crank up the volume, and this adds an extra dimension when playing games. We tried out a few games including Real Racing 2, and were again impressed with the power and clarity of the sound, as well as the rumble and vibration.
Belkin Thunderstorm: bottom line
Good though it is, the Thunderstorm is pretty expensive. Especially for something that's specific to one device. For similar money, you could buy your choice of iPad case (see 29 of our reviews here, including Belkin's own great Cinema Stripe case) and a decent-quality separate speaker system, whether that be wireless and battery powered, or mains powered and connected with a wire. You could then use any other devices you have with that system.