Over the years, easily my favorite handheld peripheral has been the Stowaway folding keyboard. Not only is it very useful, allowing me to write dozens of articles and reviews with my handheld, but I’ve really enjoyed showing it off to people. It’s a very James Bond type of gadget and I love to see people’s eyes get big when they see a full-size keyboard emerge from so small a case.
However, even the Stowaway isn’t perfect. While it folds up to be very small for a full-size keyboard, it’s still pretty large when compared to recent handhelds. Fortunately, Think Outside and Palm Inc. have released the Palm Ultra-Thin Keyboard, which is also called the Stowaway XT. This folds up to be even smaller than the original Stowaway and makes some other improvements, too.
When folded up, the original Stowaway is 5.1 by 3.6 by .8 inches and weighs 7.9 ounces, while the new version is 5.5 by 3.9 by .5 inches and 5.6 ounces. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if these numbers do a sufficient job of making you understand how much lighter and smaller the Ultra-Thin Keyboard feels. Maybe the comparison pictures will help some. In any case, I want to point out that the new version is roughly half the thickness of the old Stowaway, which contributes tremendously towards making it feel so much smaller.
Bob Olodort, founder and CEO of Think Outside and the keyboard’s inventor, was committed to making a keyboard that is as much like typing on a desktop or laptop keyboard as possible. This means that saving space by reducing the size of each key was out of the question. Therefore, in order to make the new version of the Stowaway smaller than the original, he reduced the number of keys. The original Stowaway has 69 keys, while the Ultra-Thin Keyboard has 51 keys.
The advantage of this is obvious, but the disadvantage is the Ultra-Thin Keyboard is a bit less easy to use as its predecessor. The best example of this is that there are no dedicated number keys on the new version. A function key must be held down which allows the top row of letter keys to enter the numbers. The dedicated keys for launching the standard Palm OS apps have been removed, too, and so has the stylus holder.
I’m not trying to knock the Ultra-Thin Keyboard. I like it a lot. It’s just that Think Outside had to make a few compromises in order to get this keyboard as small as it wanted it to be.
Because the keys are the same size as the ones on a typical laptop, this keyboard is almost as easy to type on as a regular keyboard. I say almost because if what you are typing contains numbers, your typing speed will be slowed down for the reason I mentioned earlier. However, other than this, there is no reason why you shouldn’t be able to type as fast on the Ultra-Thin Keyboard as you do on your PC or laptop.
Aside from the decrease in bulk and weight, the biggest improvement in this model verses the original is that this one can be used in your lap. The original Stowaway just wasn’t rigid enough to be used without something flat to brace it. I’m not saying you couldn’t type on the Stowaway in your lap, but I could never do it very easily or very quickly. Fortunately, the Stowaway XT has a completely different design and a metal frame, which makes it much more rigid so typing with it braced on your legs is easy.
One of the best features of the Stowaway keyboards is how well they are integrated into the Palm OS. With a Stowaway, you can dispense with the stylus if you want. You can use keys on the keyboard to hit most on-screen buttons, like “OK”, “Send”, and tons more.
They have even added a cursor that can be used in almost all apps that you can control with the directional keys. You select something with the cursor by hitting the Enter key.
Each key does more than double duty. Some do as many as four different things. There are actually five different function keys that can be used to make keys do various things.
Currently, the only version of the Stowaway XT is for handhelds that use the Palm Universal Connector, which is most of the ones it has introduced in the last year or so. This includes the new Tungsten T, the m500 series, and others. If you don’t have one of these, don’t panic, Think Outside has said it will make versions for other handhelds, though it hasn’t laid out any kind of a timetable.
As I’ve already said, I like the Ultra-Thin Keyboard. It’s small and conventient to carry around while making your handheld into something into which you can easily enter large amounts of text. At $99 it isn’t cheap but it makes your handheld so much more useful that I think the cost is justified.
However, I don’t think this is an absolute “must have” for all handheld users. It’s really best for people who use their handheld as a laptop replacement. You don’t need an external keyboard to write in the Date Book “Meet Mom at Home”. But, if you want to write long emails, memos for work, or papers for school, it’s amazingly useful.