Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Pretty Universal Keyboard

I did have a long search after a solution to how I could write emails and my personal journal while travelling "on the go". My old Psion Revo had became a bit limited in features and also a bit unreliable so there was a need for a new tool. The limiting factor was that I did not want to buy a PDA, as my work at Nokia provides me a S60 smartphone(s) which I was going to use anyway.

I ended up buying the Stowaway Bluetooth Portable Keyboard after reading couple of good reviews and the impressive compatibility list. As the keyboard works with Symbian phones, Palms and some Windows CE PDA:s, and also with WinXP and OSX not too much is left to be desired in that front. I have had some experience with companys folding keyboards for Palms, so I expected something similar. To be honest I was positively surprised.

The mechanics and size of the product are impressive. The metallic finish pleases the eye and feels good at hand. When the keyboard is closed the package is not completely "sealed" so dirt and dust can get into the mechanics from the sides. Therefore I have used the cover bag which was shipped with the product without complaints.

So far, I have only used the keyboard with couple of Nokia S60 phones (3660, 7610, 6670 and 6630) and have yet to try it with Mac and Windows. So, the experiences here are just from the mobile phone usage.

As S60 phones do not yet support BT HID profile, a driver and control application has to be installed on the phone. The SIS package installation went without problems, no reboot needed etc. The pairing of the keyboard is straightforward: When user presses ctrl+lfn+rfn combination on the keyboard, it breaks the present pairing and is open for new connections. The utility app then discovers the keyboard (shows the list with MAC addresses if there happens to be many of them present) and does the normal BT pairing, by asking the passcode etc. The keyboard utility application allows the user to change the Key repeat delay and -rate, and bluetooth security setting, in addition to actual pairing procedure with the keyboard. The same stowaway application seems to be used also with the IR keyboards made by same company.

It seems that you are able to pair with the Keyboard also from the S60 Bluetooth application, even the password confirmation works the same way as with the Stowaway utility. However, this method cannot be used to get the keyboard to work - the kb driver itself does not recognice the device paired outside its own application. I did found this as I tried the keyboard with Nokia 6630 which is not yet officially supported by the driver. I managed to get it work in the end by turning off the Bluetooth security (not recommended).

Immediately after pairing the keyboard, it is in use. When the keyboard is set as authorised, the connection is made immediately after the first keypress after the keyboard is opened. In practice there is about one second delay.

The very first usability bug emerged on the first sentence I tried to write: The S60 pen menu popped up every time I pressed either of the shift keys. After some practice I found out that when you press the shift long enough, you are able to type capital letters without the pen menu. This was a nuisance and really affected the usability of the keyboard with S60 phones before it was fixed.

Also the couple first times I used the keyboard I was unable to find out how to use the softkeys - there was no mention of that on the user guide! Thankfully the tech support was quick enough to reply my short e-mail: The softkeys are used by pressing left FN and either left or right section of the spacebar. The other keymappings to S60 keys were sraightforward enough: Applications, OK, etc were found on keyboard. Copy and Paste even worked with familiar Ctrl+C/Ctrl+V (!)

There is now a new driver available which fixes the Shift-pen menu -bug. With the fixed version the usage of the keyboard is as it is ment to be. The last time I checked the website it stated there are no PalmOS support at the moment, but I have been left under impression that alpha/beta versions of Palm drivers are in the circulation already (not confirmed).

Battery life with two AAA batteries seems to be good. I bought the keyboard at end of October and now, after one and half months I'm still using the same batteries. During that time I have used the keyboard couple times a day almost every day.

The final verdict is that Stowaway Bluetooth Portable Keyboard is a solid product and I am very pleased with it. With the keyboard I have been able to write long emails, journal entries and other texts with ease. Recommended!

Good points:
+ Solid, good mechanics
+ Ease of use, and take into use
+ Full size keyboard
+ Detatchable stand for mobile
+ Literally universal, works/will work with almost anything
+ Support responds in finite time

Minus sides:
- Symbian drivers still buggy. (The pen menu pop -bug solved now, though)
- Complete key mapping not in the user guide
- No separate number keys