Android devices are a little under-represented in the area of high-end accessories, and when it comes to cases, you can't get much more high-end than Portenzo. But the Nexus 7 has carved itself a nice little niche, and the American case maker has extended its full line of book-style protective coverings to the Nexus 7 2013. With three case styles ranging from $35 to a whopping $145 (more than half as expensive as the base model Nexus 7 itself), these accessories are not for the feint of heart or the light of wallet. The old adage "you get what you pay for" is in full effect.
Assuming that you've got the cash and the inclination to spend it, Portenzo's book cases are fantastic accessories and functional tools to boot. The HardBack (the cheapest case with the fewest options) left me a little cold, but the BookCase is an excellent piece of craftsmanship and the ultra-premium Alano is nothing less than an object of desire. Whether you can justify the cost of these cases is up to you, but if you can, you won't be disappointed.
Variations On A Theme
The Portenzo cases all have a few things in common. First of all, they each mimic the look and feel of a hardback (or for the Alano, a leather-bound) book, so if the style doesn't appeal to you, you might as well pass on the rest of this review. Second, they all feature a Moleskine-style strap to keep the cover securely closed. And third, they're all handmade in the United States.
Portenzo has quite a few color and feature options for all their cases. The one thing that nearly every potential customer will want (and which, to my mind, should have been included by default) is the camera opening. The basic models of the case use a solid back, so the Nexus 7 2013's rear camera becomes unusable when in the cases. All three of our review units feature the opening, a $5 additional charge. I can see why Portenzo made this an option, since a solid back would help keep the stylish illusion of a hardcover book. But it really should be an extra selection step rather than the default.
All the cases have various color or pattern options, some more expensive than others. The HardBack and BookCase let you choose both the outside and liner colors plus the color of the elastic strap, for no additional charge. The leather cover of the Alano comes in various styles, some of which add as much as $30 to the price of the already-expensive case (the "Indiana Journal" option seen here is a $20 surcharge). All of them also offer the Intellistand feature, which allows the case to bend about halfway up the back to form a basic tent-style stand, for an extra $10.
All three cases include integrated magnets to activate the Nexus 7's sleep cover feature. They work perfectly in that respect, and the embedded magnets are hidden well enough that you have to know they're there to notice them.
Base price: $34.95 Price as tested: $39.10
The HardBack is Portenzo's cheapest option. And in this instance, it's entirely appropriate to judge the book by its cover. The Hardback is nothing more or less than a hardcover shell with two non-adhesive sticky Grip Strips on the inside to secure your tablet. Around the back you'll fine the elastic strap and a snazzy Portenzo badge embossed into the covering.
Inside is the liner (green on ours, one of several available options) and the Grip Strips. These things deserve some attention all on their own. I've seen these kinds of incredibly sticky (but non-adhesive) materials before, an they've generally been disappointing. Not so with the HardBack. Once you apply some solid pressure to the Nexus 7, it's not going anywhere. I literally shook it as hard as I could via the loose flap, and it didn't budge by a millimeter. Very impressive. According to the insert, it can be cleaned with a damp cloth if (or more accurately when) dust and debris gets stuck on.
It may take more than one try to get the tablet properly aligned with the case - the included guide recommends laying it on the opposite side of the interior, screen-down, then applying pressure to the Grip Strips. That worked on my second try, after the "spine" of the case created a slight misalignment on the first go. To remove the tablet, just pull away carefully from the top or bottom. There is no residue left on the back of the device.
The HardBack is the thinnest of these cases at 17mm closed, compared with 8.7mm for just the tablet. It adds a bit of bulk (which is unavoidable for this particular style of case) but not much weight. Unlike the other two cases featured here, the sides are left exposed. I'm not that concerned about any actual damage because the edges of the case extend past the tablet for about 2-3mm. But if you really care about a case that looks like a book (because you enjoy subtle technology-based media metaphors) it might not be all that appealing. Considering the cost of this particular model, I'd recommend upgrading to the BookCase below. Honestly, you're already spending much more than is practical for something like this, so you might as well splurge.
Base Price: $59.95 Price as tested: $74.85
The BookCase is the middle child of this very abridged lineup. It's larger than the HardBack in every dimension, and at 21mm, we're starting to add some serious bulk to the svelte Nexus 7 2013. The exterior is the same basic design as the HardBack with a more "authentic" fabric texture, but this model includes the Intellistand feature - note the subtle crease in the middle of the rear. Our review unit came with a red exterior, black elastic and Portenzo embossed badge, and a tan-colored interior lining.
The larger case features a sort of cradle for your tablet to rest inside. It's made of maple wood with some foam spacers to protect the back and grippy corners and ridges to hold the Nexus 7 in place via friction, no sticky pads required. Cutouts for the MicroUSB port, headphone jack, and power and volume buttons are spacious and accessible even when the case is closed. Even so, I had a little trouble pressing said buttons due to their slight downward tilt. It's a good thing that the magnetic sleep function means I almost never had to do so.
Speaking of magnets: the back of the case can be opened with a satisfactory "thunk" of a magnetic release, allowing the wooden cradle to prop itself out and function as a very basic landscape stand. This works well enough, but the nature of the case material means that it never tilts by more than about 65 degrees, which is less than ideal. You'll have to really push down to get those extra degrees, too - I was tempted to try and over-bend the crease in the case shell, but decided not to for fear of ruining the look. The case won't work as a stand in portrait mode or with the shell bent in the opposite direction. When you're ready to close up, the magnets quickly and securely engage - the BookCase won't flop out if you don't want it to. An extra option for this case is a magnetic closure mechanism that replaces or augments the elastic strap, which costs an extra $10. It's not available on the leather Alano version.
The BookCase is a solid accessory and clearly well-made - my pictures can't really express how much it feels like an expensive hardback book. Having said that, it's also going to wear like a hardback book: after a while the creases in the material surrounding the outer shell are going to wear thin, and the oils from your hands will wear down the lining. (It's definitely a bigger problem with the bright red on this case than on the muted black of the HardBack.) Some might appreciate this somewhat authentic aging, but if you're used to a plastic case that will look essentially the same after a year of daily service, it's something to keep in the back of your mind.
There's only one real issue I had with the BookCase: the wooden cradle might actually be too secure. Once the tablet is in place it's almost immovable. It's best to pop open the back of the case and push on the back of the Nexus 7 to get it out. At one point I tried to lever it out by the opening for the control buttons, and it just wouldn't budge. It actually saw the tablet screen rising out of the plastic body by a noticeable margin. This may be a serious design flaw if you buy a case without the Intellistand function. Porrtenzo recommends simply pressing on the back of the case, but I found that it was difficult to put enough pressure on the tablet to get it to pop out.
At just shy of $75, this case is a definite extravagance. I'm not going to say that it isn't worth the price, because it's undeniably well-made. But there are cases that offer the same functionality in lighter and slimmer packages for one-third the cost or less. If you're looking for a stylish case that can take a few punches and look good doing it, the BookCase is a viable (if pricey) option.
Portenzo Alano Case
Base Price: $99.95 Price as tested: $134.80
Let's get this out of the way first: spending nearly $150 on a case for a $230/$270/$350 tablet is absolutely, positively an act of consumer gluttony. This is a "price is no object" accessory paradoxically created for a tablet that's aimed at the budget crowd. It's almost baffling that this product exists. I don't want to paint with too wide brush here, but the Alano makes a lot more sense for an iPad that starts at $500.
All that being said, it's a fabulous case. The only real difference between the Alano and the BookCase is that the exterior is made of leather. I'm not really qualified to tell you the different merits of, say, napa leather versus full-grain, but it feels fantastic and looks amazing. Good grief, it even smells amazing, like a new saddle before it soaks up years of horse sweat. (Don't ask me how I know what that smells like, but I do.)
The "Indiana Journal" style is one of 8 options for the Alano, and to my mind it's the most attractive. It's mostly untreated and uncolored, so you can actually see the scuffs made from the hand tools in the case's creation process. The sole concession to branding is an embossed logo and a bit of trim on the spine, though there are far more fanciful designs available at various price points. Most of them try to ape the looks of a book from a bygone era, and having taken a look at Portenzo's website, I probably would have chosen this color anyway.
Aside from the cosmetic differences, the leather case is a little more stiff and less pliant, so it pushes back a bit more when you're actually using the tablet in one hand. This will probably lessen with wear. Unfortunately the leather case also means that the Intellistand feature creates more of a bend than a crease on the back edge. In practice this means that the tablet won't be tilted by more than 75 or 80 degrees when in the landscape stand mode, which is less than ideal. Again, this may improve as the leather ages. On the other hand, the slight extra give in the leather makes it considerably easier to remove the tablet.
There's no way to deny that the Portenzo cases are quality accessories. There's also no denying that their prices will put them out of consideration for a lot of customers. To be perfectly honest, I wouldn't buy these for myself, being something of a cheapskate when it comes to my own devices. But I'd consider them as gifts for my friends and family who use Nexus tablets (or indeed, iPads).
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Portenzo's primary competition in the ultra-premium, book-style case niche: DodoCase. As it happens, we've got a review of several of their options for the Nexus 7 2013 as well. DodoCase has several styles that are roughly analogous to Portenzo's at about the same price points. The former's cases lack stand functionality options, and their top-of-the-line Folio case is fabric instead of leather and includes a paper pad, something I'd rather do without. Still, if you're spending this much, it would be a good idea to check out the full lines of both companies before making a decision.
When comparing between the models in this review, I think I'd recommend skipping the HardBack. With its $35 starting price it just doesn't offer enough features to justify a purchase above the cheaper and more functional cases made by a wide array of vendors on Amazon and elsewhere. It's well-made, certainly, but if you're going to spend that much on a case with style as a primary selling point, you might as well bump up to the BookCase with its wooden cradle and magnetic closure option.
As for the Alano, I can't honestly recommend it for anyone except those whose budgets have no upper limit. Considering the price and its options and performance compared to more conventional cases, it's just plain extravagant. But if you do decide to buy one, you won't be disappointed: the craftsmanship and detailed work is second to none. The Alano case is probably the nicest home for your Nexus 7 that money can buy, and indeed, you will get what you pay for.
If you've got the 2012 version of the Nexus 7, Portenzo offers all the same cases and styles for the older model as well.