Review: Clamcase LLC Clamcase All-in-One Keyboard/Case/Stand for iPad
We're genuinely excited whenever any new iPad-specific Bluetooth keyboard case accessory arrives for testing here, as each company's spin on the concept has the potential to finally turn the iPad into the reliable typing device that students and professional writers have been hoping for. Clamcase LLC's just-released Clamcase ($149) is the latest possible breakthrough, boasting a unique hard plastic laptop-like design and a keyboard that's different from the rest, both elements that initially struck us as "just right." Unfortunately, Clamcase fell short of previously-released competitors in a couple of critical regards, and like so many other iPad keyboard cases, this one feels like it will only go mainstream if the developer fixes its problems and lowers its price for a superior version two.
Let’s focus initially on what Clamcase got right here, starting with the basics of the design. Unlike leather folio keyboard cases we’ve previously reviewed, and the standalone plastic and metal portable keyboards that preceded them, Clamcase is designed to look and feel like a small laptop—actually, like one of the hybrid tablet-slash-laptops that Microsoft Windows licensees produced before the iPad came along. The hard black plastic shell holds the iPad in its sculpted top half, which has holes on its sides for ports, controls, and pass-through access to the speakers and microphone—holes that could be larger and/or sculpted better, but succeed at rendering the iPad’s side elements usable with Apple’s own headphone and cable accessories. Thin strips of rubber around the physical keyboard below prevent the iPad from rubbing against the matte-finished plastic when Clamcase is closed.
There’s also a very strong double hinge that can hold the iPad upright on your choice of viewing angles as you type on the keyboard, or alternately allow the screen to fold completely flat backwards to sit above the keyboard, or use the keyboard as a stand for either portrait or landscape iPad viewing. By using this type of hinge, Clamcase effectively eliminates the need to remove the iPad once it’s been inserted for any reason other than weight or thickness reduction; you can use the iPad fully as a tablet, as a laptop-style computer, or as a passive video playback device, benefitting from screen and substantial body protection when it’s not in use. There are minor problems, such as a lack of any rubber padding inside the iPad frame, and plastic that’s so tightly molded that we noticed a small exterior bend and a tiny chunk of splintered-off material after a day of use. Otherwise, Clamcase feels as if it was built to last.
We also generally liked Clamcase’s keyboard, which has two major advantages over others we’ve seen in iPad keyboard cases. First, the company developed what appears to be a custom keyboard—just as wide as the iPad, but making the absolute most of its limited space. Individual letter and number keys are nearly as large as the ones on a standard Apple keyboard, only with all of the gaps removed between keys, and strategic shrinkage for the rest of them: the space bar, shift key, arrow keys, and others are all smaller than they normally would be, except for the Fn key, which is actually a little larger than on an 11” MacBook Air.
Second, Clamcase includes all of Apple’s iPad-specific function keys—and some extras, such as cut/copy/paste keys, which turn what’s normally a two-key combination into a single button press indicated with slashed paper (cut), cloned paper (copy), and paper (paste) icons. There’s also a palmrest area below the keys for your hands to rest on while typing, strongly resembling the bottom of a MacBook minus the trackpad surface. Even the little scoop to help you open the clamshell looks just like Apple’s—a fact that Apple might cite when “borrowing” some of Clamcase’s better ideas for a similar future accessory of its own.
The biggest problems we experienced with Clamcase were regrettably in the keyboard section. Like all of its competitors, Clamcase uses a Bluetooth wireless keyboard with a rechargeable 90-hour active use/100-day standby battery built in, and ships the unit with a USB cable for charging; this one happens to be Bluetooth 2.0 with a mini-USB cable rather than the less common micro-USB variety. We were initially excited to discover large power and Bluetooth pairing buttons rather than the tiny pinhole-sized buttons and weak switches we’ve seen in some previous iPad keyboards, but when we went to press the power button to turn the keyboard on, nothing seemed to happen. So we plugged it into a spare USB port elsewhere to charge it up, and a small red charging light next to the mini-USB port came on. We came back hours later and tried to hit the power button again, with no result.
Then we held down the Bluetooth button, and thankfully, a blue light began to flash. Our iPad refused to pair with Clamcase. We turned the iPad’s Bluetooth on and off, and pairing was still a problem—something that had never happened with another Bluetooth keyboard accessory—so we looked at Clamcase’s instructions, hoping that we wouldn’t have to return the unit. One of the troubleshooting steps involved inserting a paper clip into a tiny hole next to the mini-USB port. After doing that, and again turning the iPad’s Bluetooth feature off and on, we succeeded in pairing, and finally learned that the power switch worked; it just didn’t have its own light and only really signaled power was on after it had succeeded in pairing. This was a bad start to what we hoped would be a good typing experience; Clamcase thankfully manages its own power, turning the keyboard off after 10 minutes of inactivity, so the power button and indicator’s failings aren’t as important.
Typing turned out to be problematic for one seemingly small but practically important reason: space bar responsiveness. Presses on the left and the center of the bar register, but presses on the far right do not, which led us to have major problems composing sentences and paragraphs using Clamcase’s keyboard. As much as we can relearn typing fundamentals for smaller keypads, and as good as the iPad’s auto-correct feature is at adding spaces between words it recognizes as separate, we found the space bar sensitivity to be a nearly fatal flaw. Between the cramped keys and spacing failures, words jammed together so consistently that we didn’t want to write this entire review using the keyboard; that’s always the final test we use to determine whether an accessory of this sort is worthy of a recommendation to mainstream users. When something this fundamental is wrong with a product that’s purchased primarily for typing, we wouldn’t want to actually use the keyboard ourselves. That’s not worthy of our high, general, or limited recommendation at $149 or even $100 price points.
Overall, though we think Clamcase gets a lot right, the overall typing experience really needs to be perfect—or as close as something designed for the 9.7” iPad can get—before we’d be wiling to tell readers to go out and buy it for any price, let alone $149. Hybrid keyboard cases need not be and generally are not this expensive; the $100 price point chosen by earlier developers should represent the ceiling rather than the floor for accessories of this sort, and the quality of both the case portion and the keyboard need to be better before mainstream success will follow. The good news for Clamcase as a company is that its first product’s issues are easily correctable in a second-generation iPad version, and it has made more progress than anyone else in bringing a laptop-style keyboard case to fruition. Since the form factor and collection of features it has assembled are naturally appealing to laptop users who want to make the transition to an iPad, we’re really looking forward to seeing what it does next.