Gaming on the iPad (or any slate-style tablet) has one serious drawback: the lack of physical controls. For some games, such as Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja, touch controls are perfectly suited. But many iPad games attempt to emulate gamepads, joysticks, and other traditional control schemes by way of onscreen virtual controls. Lacking any kind of tactile feedback, and often covering up part of the screen, it's not an ideal solution.
The iCade attempts to correct this problem by offering a joystick and eight buttons, laid out in a classic arcade format inside a miniaturized arcade cabinet. The product actually started life as an April Fool's prank on the novelty retail site ThinkGeek.com, but overwhelming consumer interest prodded the company to bring the $99 iCade to life (much like the Tauntaun sleeping bag, another ThinkGeek mockup that became a real product). The actual hardware is made by Ion Audio, a company best known for its plastic USB turntables and high-end Rock Band video game drum kits.
As pictured in the original April Fool's prank mockups, the iCade acts as a cabinet/stand for your iPad or iPad 2. The unit arrives in kit form, with some assembly required. The side and front/back panels are made of particleboard printed with retro graphics, and the kit comes with a page of Ikea-like wordless instructions, along with a handful of hex screws and a tiny allen wrench.
Construction was simple, but the front and side panels took a little elbow grease to fit together, and we managed to crack a plastic tab along the way. Our unit is the ThinkGeek version of the iCade, which has the same wood grain and color rainbow graphics as the original April Fool's mockup. If ordered directly from Ion (for the same $99) the graphics look much more generic.
To slide an iPad in, the top panel tilts open, and the tablet simply sits in a plastic docking cradle. There's no connector cable or locking mechanism in the cradle, so shifting the iCade even a little bit can move the iPad--we'd definitely not suggest moving it around with the iPad inserted. The interior compartment is much bigger than the iPad, meaning you've got a lot of empty space on each side of the screen; a tighter fit would make for a more arcadelike experience, but as it is, we were able to fit a finger alongside the iPad to adjust the volume controls.