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Review: CruxSKUNK iPad keyboard case

If there's one promise I hope I can make to TUAW readers, it's that this will be the last iPad keyboard case review you'll read for a while. We've had quite a few over the past few months, but the subject of this review – the CruxSKUNK (US$179 introductory pricing, $210 regular MSRP) -- has been touted as a contender for the top iPad keyboard case. Let's see how it does compared to the ClamCase Pro, the current recipient of the TUAW iPad keyboard case review crown.

Design

The CruxSKUNK was funded by a popular Kickstarter project; the project team was requesting $90,000 and the final backing was almost $250,000. What got the backers so excited about YAIKC (yet another iPad keyboard case)? Well, compared to most other cases, it's built like a tank – or more like a MacBook Air. Machined out of aluminum, it's only 19 mm thick. A MacBook Air, by comparison, is 17 mm thick at its widest, and the nearest competing iPad keyboard case – the ClamCase Pro is a bit chunkier than both at 21.6 mm.

While the ClamCase Pro uses aluminum only stiffen the keyboard, the entire CruxSKUNK – except for a few pads, the keys, and some inserts – is made of aluminum. The CruxSKUNK case weighs in at 1 lb. 11.6 ounces (.782 kg), while the ClamCase Pro weighs 1 lb. 9 ounces (.709 kg). Those who are looking for a lighter weight case/iPad combo are going to prefer the ClamCase Pro.

Unlike the ClamCase Pro, the back of the iPad is unprotected. This is a plus if you want to display the back of your iPad to everyone, a minus if you want to protect your device from possible scratches.

Like the ClamCase Pro, the CruxSKUNK has a hinge that allows the iPad to be flipped through a full 360 degrees. The CruxSKUNK has four "bumps" surrounding the keyboard that keeps it from pressing against a table when when the flipped underneath the iPad so it can be used as a tablet. This works great on a hard surface, but you should still consider turning the keyboard off when you flip it underneath the iPad.

As for the keyboard itself, the CruxSKUNK uses a traditional layout with just a few variations. First, there's a "keyboard" key next to the leftmost control key that brings up the iPad's virtual keyboard. Next, the top row (above the numbers) consists of keys that control many of the iPad built-in functions without the need to press a "fn" key. From left to right, those keys bring up the iPad homepage, the iPad search page, start the slideshow, allow toggling through different keyboards, a lock key (which is odd, because it looks like a small monitor but acts the same as the lock key I'll mention in a moment), copy and paste keys, play/pause/fast forward/fast reverse keys, volume control/mute keys, and the lock key – which didn't actually function as a lock key when I pressed it (it did nothing).

There is a set of arrow keys in the lower right hand side of the keyboard to round out the keys. Going to the controls specific to the CruxSKUNK, there's a recessed power button that glows blue when depressed for a few moments to let you know that the keyboard has been turned on or off. There's also a button that's next to a Bluetooth LED that is used to force pairing with the keyboard. No buttons are located on the sides of the device.

The iPad itself – generation 2 through 4 – is held into an aluminum frame with the combination of an aluminum bar at the top fo the screen and a pair of small swivels at the bottom. Since these swivels might not be adjusted properly for your iPad, Crux includes a set of small hex wrenches to adjust them properly, as well as a few extras in case they fall out and are lost.

Functionality

The CruxSKUNK is certainly sturdy, and if that's what you're looking for in an iPad keyboard case, you've got it. However, I didn't particularly care for the fit and finish of the device compared to the ClamCase Pro. For example, as I type right now I can see through small gaps on the sides of the iPad. With the ClamCase Pro, there are no gaps as the iPad fits tightly into a plastic shell. In addition, I found the edges of the aluminum frame to be uncomfortable when carrying -- which might be the reason that Crux included a free zippered case with the CruxSKUNK.

The feel of the keyboad is very good, and all of the keys are exactly where you'd expect them. For a writer, the CruxSKUNK is an excellent keyboard and fast touch-typists are going to love the feel and spacing of the keys.

I wasn't particularly happy with the mechanism used to hold the iPad in place in the CruxSKUNK. With the ClamCase Pro, I simply popped the iPad into the plastic shell and went to work. Here, I had to loosen the two small swivels, move them into place, and then tighten them again with the included hex wrenches. During my review, one of the swivels came loose and had to be tightened again. That's an annoyance that CruxSKUNK owners should have to put up with.

The hinge mechanism of the CruxSKUNK is much looser than that on the ClamCase Pro, which is both good and bad. It means that it's easier to move the screen around to "tablet mode", but it also means that a slight bump or jolt of the keyboard can knock the iPad out of position. I also found that the top of the case never quite closed all the way -- with many other iPad cases, there's a positive click that gives you feedback the the case is closed. With the CruxSKUNK I just never felt that sure that the case was closed and that my iPad was shut off.

Pairing with the CruxSKUNK was quite simple, requiring only that a 4-digit code be entered once to confirm the pairing. Pairing the ClamCase Pro was even easier and didn't require the numeric entry.

There were several times during my testing that I wanted to shut the keyboard off so that I could use the iPad in "tablet mode." To do this, I pressed the power button for a short amount of time until the Bluetooth indicator disappeared. Bringing the keyboard back on line required the same little press-and-hold movement. While this works, I found the plainly marked "on-off" switch on the left side of the ClamCase Pro to be a much better indicator of whether the keyboard was on or off.

One thing I really liked about the CruxSKUNK was that when it was in a typing position, there's a full-width rubber strip on the front bottom of the keyboard that keeps the entire setup from moving across a slick table.

In terms of the looks of the CruxSKUNK, I'm not impressed. Having the back open and surrounded by the aluminum frame gives it a kind of "unfinished" look. Sure, I can see the Apple logo on the bottom of my iPad, but the back of the CruxSKUNK just looks odd. That open back also leaves the iPad open to bumps and scratches, which is probably yet another reason why Crux includes a zippered bag with the CruxSKUNK.

Conclusion

While the CruxSKUNK offers a good typing feel, excellent battery life, and sturdy metal construction, there were several points that kept me from putting it at the top of my personal list of iPad keyboard case favorites. The CruxSKUNK is a bit more expensive than its nearest competitor (the ClamCase Pro), and its open back, while exposing the Apple logo on the back of the iPad, also leaves it open to possible damage. The lock key didn't seem to have any function, not working as it should on an iPad keyboard. In terms of looks (which are definitely a subjective review factor), I just prefer the smoother looks of the ClamCase Pro to the CruxSKUNK – your mileage, and opinons, may vary.

Pros

  • Definitely a typist's keyboard, with a good feel, properly spaced and positioned keys, and positive feedback
  • Hinge mechanism makes it easy to move the iPad "display" into any position, although it's somewhat looser than on competing keyboard cases
  • The aluminum structure will put up with a lot of wear and tear
  • It's the thinnest iPad keyboard case out there, only a hair thicker than a MacBook Air

Cons

  • The manufacturer doesn't provide any numbers on battery life, leading me to wonder how it compares to competing products that do provide exact durations
  • The open back design leaves the iPad open to possible damage
  • The "swivels" used to lock the iPad into place at the bottom of the "screen" of the CruxSKUNK tend to loosen during use and require tightening with a tool. The company provides extra swivels, which makes me believe that they expect users to lose several during the life of the case
  • While competing keyboard cases provide a very positive indication of closure, I was never quite sure that the CruxSKUNK was "closed" and that my iPad had turned off
  • Price is higher than competing keyboard cases

Who is it for?

  • Fans of Jony Ive's favorite material, "aluminium", who need an iPad keyboard case

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