Text for the day: Keyboard still king for hand-helds

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 March, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 March, 2002, 12:00am

Entering text has always been the biggest drawback to owning a hand-held computer. No matter how good handwriting recognition systems may become, the simple fact is that a stylus can never match the speed of a keyboard.

Back in the pioneering days of Apple's Newton, portable keyboards were a necessity - mainly because the Newton's handwriting software was so hard to master.

When Palm arrived with its Graffiti input system things became a lot easier, but not much faster.

Palm also showed us an early need for standards that still do not exist. Those old Apple keyboards would not connect to the Palm's proprietary serial port.

A small company named Landware struck gold when it released its GoType keyboard for the Palm. The GoType was ugly, it was bulky, and it felt cheap. But for less than US$40, the price was right.

The next-generation Palm brought with it a next-generation serial port, and users once again found their new hand-held was out of touch.

See a pattern forming here?

So another newcomer, named Think Outside, invented what, for my money, is still the best mobile keyboard on the market. When the Think Outside Stowaway was released two years ago, its ingenious design, which allows the keyboard to fold into a clam shell just slightly larger than a Palm, won instant admiration. So much so that one member of our staff was promptly assigned to head down to Windsor House and buy eight of them.

The feel and responsiveness of the keys was almost on a par with a Thinkpad, and the quality felt good enough to justify paying the price of two GoTypes. The Stowaway's one drawback is its flexibility. It can be used only on a flat surface.

But soon enough, Handspring, Sony and a new family of Windows CE devices began to hit the stores, and they too had a whole new range of connectors.

Both Landware and Think Outside have tried to keep up, pushing out different keyboards for each new device, but the process is slow and expensive.

IBiz Technology has managed to beat the problem, but at a cost. Its KeySync keyboard can connect to almost any PDA, simply by using a standard serial port. The drawback to this solution, however, is that you have to carry around an extra cable or hotsync cradle.

The KeySync is also bulky. As with the GoType, it does not fold. But if you have several hand-helds and don't want to buy a different keyboard for each one, this is the only option for now. It costs about US$70.

Peripherals giant Logitech has finally got in on the act, and its new keyboards look well worth investigating.

The KeyCase is the coolest Palm-based keyboard for some time. Instead of messing around with fiddly mechanics, Logitech has done away with the hardware altogether. The Keycase is made of waterproof fabric. The company is touting the KeyCase as a traveller's companion. When you have finished typing, just roll up the keyboard and pop it in your pocket. Now all we need is a waterproof Palm.

The more traditional TypeAway mimics the Stowaway by folding into its own clam shell, but it does so far less elegantly, leaving an awkward gap down the centre of the keys. Both products are due on the market next month, but a handful of online stores in the United States, such as Tech Depot and CDW, are already offering them for between US$80 and US$100.

And now that Palm has finally stopped changing its ports, this one should work with all future Palms.

No news on Handspring or Pocket PC units, but they are bound to appear eventually.

For the unorthodox approach, there is the famous Half Keyboard with its 22 keys and impossibly slow learning curve; Taiwan's Sunrex, which produces a keyboard that straps on your wrist and is small enough to wear under a jacket; and Sunrex's foldable, waterproof keyboard, the ugliness of which has to be seen.

Another cool new release is the Q-Pad, from California start-up T Device. The Q-Pad integrates the keyboard and PDA stand in a slim leather PDA cover for either Palm Vx or Visor. The drawback is you need a flat surface to type on, but the benefit is, if you carry a PDA, you will not even notice the extra baggage.

If touch-typing is not what you are after, there are now plenty of keyboards for thumb typists. Thumbpads are too small for fast input, but their compact size means they can easily be carried in a back pocket. Handy if you just need a keyboard for updating personal details or sending SMS messages.

The typical thumbpad slips over the bottom of your PDA as if it were an over-sized mitten. There is little to distinguish models, and most manufacturers have releases for the Palm, Handspring, Compaq iPaq and Sony Clie.

Among the more attractive thumbpads are the SnapNType from Hong Kong's own TT Tech (about US$39.95), Seiko's ThumBoard (US$39.95) and the Targus ThumbPad (US$39.99). The price is good, but their size will not do much for your dictation.