Yeah... we know. At this point you're probably clutching your funds tightly, eagerly anticipating the release of the iPad 3. But for those of you who recently purchased version 2.0, or perhaps just discovered your need for a Bluetooth keyboard, allow us to shed some light on the Crux360. Sure this isn't the first one of these we've seen, but the full range of motion in the hinge makes this a nice accessory for your Apple slate. We spent a couple weeks putting it through the wringer, so read on past the break to see what we discovered.
Look and feel
The outer shell of the Crux360 features a matte black finish that provides some grip for when you're hauling your slate around in one hand. The soft coating is much nicer than bare plastic, although it's clear from the vacant iPad slot that the frame is constructed of just that. The tablet holder is a two-part enclosure that fits your baby quite snug. In fact, it took a bit of elbow grease to remove our device once we wrapped our review. When engaged, the rear panel of the tablet is still exposed, which if you're a bit obsessive about things, could be an issue. Then again, we wouldn't want to cover that Apple logo now, would we?
Update: We've received word from Crux that the factory is now more closely monitoring the climate in which final fittings are done for the case. Before, the cases were getting fitted in a nearly 110 degree environment causing the materials to constrict. Now, testing is done at around 75 degrees.
As with any clamshell style case, the hinge is of the utmost importance. In this instance, we found that the strength of that particular feature to be substantial. There was a smidge of play in the rotation angle once the case was asked to carry the added weight of the slate, but once placed at the desired angle, it stayed put. Also in play here is the 360-degree rotation that allows for both laptop-style typing and traditional tablet use by simply folding the peripheral back on itself. We should note here that if you warm to the folio orientation, you should get in the habit of turning off the keyboard part of the case. Don't worry if you forget the first few times -- we did too. This positioning scheme also allows for what the company calls "Movie Mode," which would be of use in presentations and for getting caught up on Breaking Bad.
In terms of size and weight, the case keeps a relatively compact stature. Weighing in at 1.55 pounds (703 grams) on its own, the combined weight of keyboard and iPad 2 surpasses that of the 11-inch MacBook Air and comes pretty close to matching up with the 13-inch model. We're not talking tons here, but there is a bit of a difference, especially if you're counting every ounce that weighs down your messenger bag. While smaller than both laptop PCs in overall size, the clamshell is indeed thicker than Apple's lean machines. It really just depends on which size factor is more important for you when it comes to mobile computing.
And now the feature that you've been waiting to hear about: the keyboard. For the Crux360, it fits nicely within the width of the iPad without adding any extra border around the top part of the case. Fitting the fully functional keypad in that space is great, but it left our hands feeling a little claustrophobic. After passing the total package around to gauge others' reactions, we got mixed reviews. Those used to typing on similar devices thought it was fine, while others who have medium to large hands had some accuracy issues. The keys themselves seemed to be ample enough, with the exception of the super small space bar, and had a good bit of travel when pressed. Perhaps a smidge more space between buttons would allow for a more comfortable work session for the vast majority of us looking to take notes in a marathon meeting or history lecture.
Unlike some similar accessories, the keys here are individual buttons, not enclosed by a single rubber blanket or mat-type covering. This undoubtedly adds to the comfort in key travel, but it also allows us to peek underneath the bottom row of keys just a bit and gauge their construction. Exposed keys along that row peek out just enough that there is potential for them to catch on something and be pulled off. When being used as a folio, especially, those precious keys must fend for themselves.
Up top, the Crux360 does provide a row of function keys that aid in iOS tasks that you often find yourself completing via finger swipe. We found these to be a nice touch, making cutting and pasting a bit easier -- once you get the hang of using the keys to carry out the commands, anyway. Connectivity was a breeze with the device, as we never encountered any connection issues. The Bluetooth worked well throughout our time with the keyboard and was easily achieved via a dedicated button at the top of the keypad, like many similar input add-ons.
After typing a few posts on the Crux360, in both desktop and casual couch type environments, we were able to get a feel for how useful the device would be in a variety of situations. Once we installed the iPad, the case became a bit top-heavy in lap or more casual situations. We found ourselves wrestling to keep the keypad on our laps from time to time; however, the hinge strength was top-notch throughout. When the viewing angle was set, our slate stayed in place nicely, with weight balance being the only issue and only in certain positions. All things considered, though, the only thing missing from full tab to laptop conversion is a trackpad, which is available in the $250 Crux Loaded model.
We used the keyboard to write a few posts during the course of the review in an effort to see if some real-world typing situations would prove too much for the peripheral. The aforementioned close quartered keyboard did take some getting used to, but once we got the hang of the spacing, typing accuracy saw a significant improvement. We had some mishaps with the delete key. Its positioning just below the lock button and its similar size (same width, actually) proved to be a bit of a snare. On multiple occasions we found ourselves inadvertently sending our tablet to the lock screen, a move that interrupted our work flow.
The iOS function keys came in handy in a raft of situations: navigating an iTunes playlist, volume control, and navigation of the iPad's home screen, photo gallery and search features. Perhaps the task we were most looking forward to was using those enticing cut, copy and paste keys. While you still have to indicate where the text you'd like to select begins by touching the screen, we felt like these keys were a nice addition but not super useful for this chore. Especially when the options to copy and paste appear above your finger-selected text automatically.
Update: After getting a good bit of feedback on the keyboard, Crux has swapped out the keypad and addressed some of the issues that we encountered. You'll find that newer models now feature a larger delete key (thankfully) and increased sensitivity when typing. The lock key is still in the same place, but the larger delete key should solve some of the inadvertent sleep mode mishaps.
At $150, this clamshell case would be a nice addition for a casual user, but for those getting some high mileage out your slate, you may want to look for something a little more rugged. There are several options that will provide some added support in your backpack, and a few that are easier on the ol' wallet as well. For the same price as the Crux360, you could snatch up the ClamCase -- although made out of similar materials, this model will fully cloak your tablet's backside. The $50 aluminum Buddy Case is made out of iPad color-matching material, but fails to protect the back of your slate. And if a full-size keyboard is more your style, you may want to check out the Logitech Tablet Keyboard, which can be yours for a cool Benjamin.
Once we had a chance to spend some quality time with the Crux360 in some intense, keyboard blazing environments, our impressions improved... a little. In the end, a combination of the lack of full iPad protection and the cramped keyboard left us wanting more. Sure, we got cozy with the keys once we became acclimated to the compact spacing, but continually launching the tablet into lock mode was pretty frustrating. Even with those things considered, real keys are better than a touchscreen in heavy typing situations. If you're looking for something that is self-contained and ultra-portable to use in meetings or to take notes in class, you might want to give this a shot... if you've got enough in your piggy bank.