How to choose a keyboard for your PDA

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Sooner or later, nearly every PDA user will want a keyboard to use with his or her handheld. Tapping the stylus or using Graffiti gets old really fast, especially if you use your handheld for anything more than setting calendar appointments or keeping track of addresses.

We talked with Tim Bajarin, president of the Silicon Valley marketing research firm Creative Strategies, and a leading portable-computing analyst who has been advising vendors for the past 20 years, for his take on the alternatives for PDA keyboards.

“As PDAs become increasingly capable, the issue of how to enter data into them has become one of the hottest topics in mobile computing,” Bajarin says. “A number of approaches have been proposed, but most of them require too many compromises by the people who use them. In short, most keyboard or keyboard-equivalent solutions offered have failed to adequately take our human physical and sensory limitations into account.”

You’ll discover it’s not as easy as simply buying a “PDA keyboard” because there are a number of different styles, approaches and options available. To help you decide which keyboard best suits your needs, here are some descriptions of the types of keyboards available, plus some of their pros and cons, followed by some thoughts on each option from Bajarin:

Thumb keyboards Thumb keyboards: OK for entering a few words at a time, or as an alternative to Graffiti or the on-screen keyboard. Their drawbacks? They are not fast, accurate or comfortable for longer messages or “serious” typing. Also, reports have begun to emerge of repetitive-motion injuries affecting the thumbs of frequent users of thumb keyboards.

“Nobody has mastered the thumb keyboard except RIM with its Blackberry pager, and even that is only really appropriate for very short, even terse, e-mail messages,” says Bajarin.

Sub-size folding keyboards Sub-size folding keyboards: Adequate for up to a couple of sentences at a time, occasionally. But they are not touch-typeable, meaning you really have to keep a close eye on either your fingers on the keyboard or the screen to make sure you’re hitting the right keys. More typing errors lead to an overall drop in accuracy. And because the keyboard isn’t really big enough for human-sized hands, these sub-size keyboards can be uncomfortable for typing more than a couple of sentences.

“You wouldn’t think that a millimeter difference here or there between keys would be such a big deal, but our all-too-human fingers can definitely distinguish between full-size and sub-size keyboards. And it’s almost impossible to touch-type, or to type quickly and accurately, on a folding keyboard that’s less than full-size when it’s open,” says Bajarin.

Roll-up keyboards Roll-up keyboards: Convenient to carry and weather/spill-resistant, which are great features. On the other hand, their poor tactile feedback makes it difficult to type accurately or to touch-type at all, leading to high error rates.

“This is a really creative idea, and as a novelty it will probably get a little mileage. But honestly, tapping your fingers on a plastic or fabric mat doesn’t come close to replicating the tactile feel of an actual mechanical keyboard. It’s more like trying to type on your microwave keypad. Enough said.” says Bajarin.

Half keyboard Half keyboard: Designed to be used by a single hand. The one we know about is very compact, but it takes a long time to learn to use. Many experts agree it’s best considered a novelty item.

“I think that the problems with the half keyboard are self-evident. Who is willing to unlearn everything they know about touch-typing and start all over again? And just imagine trying to go back and forth between a half keyboard for your PDA and a full-size keyboard for your desktop or laptop computer,” says Bajarin.

Wireless keyboard Wireless keyboard: Good idea that still has some implementation problems. For example, such keyboards are subject to outside interference, which could be tremendously problematic. At least one requires a separate stand or requires users to rotate the handheld, and it’s currently not compatible with all handheld software.

“Eventually, I think that wireless keyboards will be ubiquitous, but it’s still too early to call this approach practical or workable. While I applaud the efforts of the makers of the early versions of wireless keyboards, I have to suggest that most people should wait until this technology is a bit more advanced before they get one,” says Bajarin.

Projection keyboard “Air” and projection keyboards: These &ldqou;virtual” keyboards represent a very creative concept, but they are impractical for most people. They provide no tactile feedback, so users need to maintain visual contact with the projected keys to use them accurately. As a result, they’re not appropriate for touch-typing. Another problem is that you can’t be sure of finding an appropriate background for projection of the keys.

“If you’ve mastered the lsqou;air guitar,’ you might be drawn to these virtual keyboards! Seriously, it’s another very creative concept that turns out not to be practical or in tune with our human sensory apparatus. It’s just too ‘out there’ to jab your fingers semi-randomly into the air, trying to “hit’ the projected keys with any semblance of accuracy. I could see these keyboards playing a role in certain techie-type movies or TV shows, but I can’t see them catching on in the real world,” says Bajarin.

Full-size folding keyboard Full-size folding keyboard: The full-size folding keyboard presents a no-compromise solution: It folds up small, yet unfolds to a full-size keyboard. The tactile feedback and typing “feel” are comparable to that of the highest quality laptop keyboards. A 100-percent full-size folding keyboard is really the only option for touch-typing with a handheld. It’s ideal for using the PDA for lengthy e-mails, taking notes in meetings or class, or writing reports, memos, letters. The combination of a PDA and full-size folding keyboard enables people to can leave their laptops home for many on-the-go activities, from airplane travel to working in one room away from your desktop computer.

Issues to Consider

When evaluating a keyboard for your PDA, here are a few things to look for:

  • Layout and spacing of the keys

    You know what it feels like to type on a laptop or desktop keyboard. For touch typing, your PDA keyboard should feel essentially the same. From a technical standpoint, look for spacing between keys that meets the standard definition for a full-size keyboard, which is 19-mm ± 1-mm distance between keys, both vertically and horizontally. Also, check out the arrangement of the keys. Are they where you expect them to be, i.e., the same as on your desktop or laptop keyboard? If not, your ability to touch-type will be severely hampered. Pay special attention to the Enter, Shift and arrow keys.

  • Tactile response of a key when you press it

    When you press a key, you should be able to feel and/or hear it (i.e., the click). Again from a technical perspective, a keyboard’s “key travel” — that is, the distance the key travels when you press it — should be approximately 3.0 mm, which is the standard for full-size keyboards. If you try to touch-type on a keyboard with smaller key travel, you’ll find it more difficult and less comfortable to type as accurately or quickly.

  • Can you touch-type with the keyboard?

    Try out any keyboard you’re considering for your PDA. What it comes down to is simple: Can you touch-type on it?

  • Is the keyboard software compatible with your other applications?

    Just because a keyboard works with your model of PDA doesn’t automatically mean that it also supports all the software you run on your PDA. Be sure to check specifically that the keyboard will enable you to use the software you run regularly.

  • Power requirements

    Does the keyboard require its own battery power, or does it use the handheld’s battery? If the latter, how power-hungry is the keyboard? The ideal scenario would be a keyboard that makes miserly use of the PDA’s battery power.

  • Construction quality and sturdiness

    You want a keyboard that will last, and you also want one that has a solid feel to it, for comfortable typing. A metal enclosure is best for sturdiness. And look for a keyboard life of around 10 million keystrokes per key — which translates to about eight to 10 years of “normal” use.

  • How well does the keyboard works with your particular model of handheld?

    This criterion should probably be the first thing you check, because if a particular type of keyboard isn’t available for your PDA brand, there’s not much point going through any further evaluation!

Putting it All Together

We’ll pass it back to Tim Bajarin to sum up this discussion on PDA keyboards.

“There are a number of alternatives you can consider if you want to enter only a few short messages once in a while. But if you’re at all serious about using your PDA as a viable alternative to your laptop and you want to be able to type faster and more comfortably, your best bet is to go with a full-size, touch-typeable folding keyboard. Think of it as a smart way to get the most from your PDA investment,” Bajarin says.

Phil Baker and Bob Olodort are the co-founders of Think Outside, Inc., creators, manufacturers and marketers of the (Targus) Stowaway Portable Keyboard and Palm Portable keyboards. Think Outside’s keyboards are the only 100 percent full-size folding keyboards currently available for PDAs.

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