I've been playtesting the iCade for a few weeks now to see how it holds up under "real world" use. The iCade began as a joke product on ThinkGeek's website but was then produced by ION Audio as a real, working arcade cabinet for the iPad. Using Bluetooth to connect to your iPad, the iCade provides a very realistic arcade feel. There are, unfortunately, some major drawbacks. Read on for a full rundown of the hardware and software used to simulate those days of yore, when buttons were meant to withstand hours of abuse and time playing was measured in quarters, not $0.99 increments.Hardware assembly and quality
First, you'll have to assemble the iCade. While not complex, I found the little plastic grommets used to hold the back panel in place could split if overtightened, so watch out for that. The materials used in the iCade are all quite good, really. It's plywood and plastic, yes, but so were arcade cabinets in the 80s. The joystick and buttons feel like they came from a professional supply that you'd find on a decent MAME cabinet. One thing that bothered me was that in every review I'm seeing different art on the cabinet. Personally I'd like to choose a specific pattern, but it doesn't appear to be possible. The picture at ThinkGeek has the coolest artwork, but that's not on the demo unit we received. Go figure.
Power for the iCade is provided by a couple of AA batteries, but if you purchase a power supply, you'll be able to plug the thing in. I found the batteries lasted through several hours of gaming, so unless you use this daily, I doubt you'll need to plug yet another device into the wall.
Speaking of power, while there is a place to "dock" the iPad, it is not a dock with pins. It's simply a plastic molded bracket that holds your iPad in place. While this works OK, I wound up adding a couple of pieces of sponge packing material to the sides of the iPad, effectively wedging the iPad securely into the iCade. As we wound up moving the iCade around among players, this was helpful in securing it. The iCade features rubber feet (self-adhesive, included in the box), keeping the unit pretty stable. But if your kids get aggressive with it, the iPad can move around a bit in the plastic dock.
There's a top panel that rotates out of the way, covering the iPad and finishing the look. The top panel also includes a handy reference for the button mapping (sort of -- more in a moment on this) and how to get started. The information is really just about getting started, so I guess the only use is if you sell this in a garage sale. The buttons are actually numbers (and the joystick can input numbers), used to pair your iPad with the iCade. Honestly, this is clunky at best, and most of those buttons aren't really used in the games for the iCade. But as I said, the buttons and joystick are excellent quality, and I'm not sure what else ION could have done here other than adding another costly component like a numeric keypad.
One nice touch: when the iCade is powered up and ready to go, the place where you would normally insert a quarter lights up. You can see this in the gallery.