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The case of the mysterious iPad magnets

The sleep/wake function in some "smart" cases isn't working with the new iPad. It remains something of a mystery as to what the exact problem is--and whether it's limited to third-party cases, or afflicts Apple Smart Covers as well.

The 'smart' on/off feature in this early review sample of a Belkin iPad 3 case worked with one new iPad in our office but not two others.
David Carnoy/CNET

Recently, a few stories have posted about problems some new iPad buyers encountered with the iPad sleep/wake function when opening and closing "smart" covers--those iPad screen covers that automatically put the tablet to sleep when closed.

Mashable wrote a story focusing on the problem with Apple's Smart Covers, "which attach to the iPad's built-in magnets [and] are supposed to turn the tablet on automatically when you flip them open." Apparently, some users were complaining that their old Smart Covers weren't working with their new (third-generation) iPads.

Apple has maintained that its existing Smart Covers are supposed to work fine with the new iPad. What's a bit confusing--and perhaps misleading--is that a lot of folks are referring to any cover with the sleep/wake function as a "smart" cover. It's unclear how much the problem exists with genuine Apple Smart Covers, though message board posts indicate that some people have exchanged faulty covers at Apple Stores (of course, it's always hard to confirm whether message board posts are fact or fiction).

Now playing: Watch this: iPad 2 Smart Cover

Today I received a note from Cygnett reps mentioning the online discussion about the wake/sleep issue and saying that some of the company's new covers might have a problem with some of the early units that went out (mostly review units and retail samples in North America).

Editor Scott Stein's 'old' green Apple Smart Cover worked fine with the new iPad. Apple

"Cygnett will credit or replace the product at the company's expense for any consumers that encounters this problem," the rep requested I post.

When I went to check the review samples Cygnett sent, my new iPad automatically toggled off and on with no problem. However, an early case sample that Belkin sent didn't work with my unit or Senior Editor Scott Stein's unit (we both just purchased Wi-Fi-only 64GB iPads). Weirdly, the 4G Verizon review unit that Apple loaned to Senior Editor Bridget Carey worked fine with the Belkin case, automatically switching from off to on as we closed and opened it.

Apple has yet to confirm that there's a problem, and an Apple PR person I spoke with declined to comment.

Interestingly, Scott Stein's Apple Smart Cover, which he bought at the time the iPad 2 was released, works perfectly well with his new third-gen iPad. The same goes for CNET Apple reporter Josh Lowensohn's Smart Cover and his new iPad, and mine as well. (Note: There is a toggle in the settings for "iPad Cover Lock/Unlock" that must be set to "on" for the smart cover feature to work).

What's the cause of the problem? According to Cygnett reps, speculation is that sometime in the last year Apple changed the polarity of the magnets embedded in the iPad, "as some customers who used the Smart Cover would find their iPad turning off with the cover folded back in certain positions."

The rep says it's a simple fix (it's "just a matter of having a magnet fitted with the correct polarity"), but it will definitely be an issue that will "nag manufacturers for the next week or two."

Since Apple hasn't weighed in yet, we're really not sure what to make of all this, especially after our tests showed that the Verizon 4G review sample worked fine with the early Belkin case while our two Wi-Fi-only units didn't.

In the short term, if you have a problem with a third-party case you bought for the new iPad that has the "smart" feature, you should have no problem having it replaced by the manufacturer (so long as it says it's specifically designed to work with the iPad 3). If for some reason you have an Apple Smart Cover--new or old--that doesn't work with new iPad, we suggest you take it into an Apple Store and explain the problem.

As for "smart" covers from third-party manufacturers that were designed for the iPad 2 and now have an issue with the new iPad, you most likely won't be able to make an exchange.

On the other hand, you could always make your own Smart Cover. Or--if you get really, really desperate--you could just use the sleep/wake button on the iPad, too.

Update: After this story posted, Belkin released a statement saying that it had "identified an issue with the auto awake feature on select folios for the iPad 3rd Generation due to a change Apple made in the iPad's sensor." The company has since remedied the problem and will immediately replace any non-working folio cases with new ones. "We strive for consistency and excellence in all of our products and take it seriously when issues arise," Belkin said. "We apologize for any inconvenience this causes our valued customers and retail partners."