There’s an unpleasant situation that has happened to me a couple of times and has probably happened to you as well. You start looking for a new handheld and realize that unless you buy one made by the same company as your current model, you are going to have to also buy all new peripherals, too. For power users, this can add up to hundreds of dollars.
This happens because handheld makers refuse to cooperate on coming up with a standard port for connecting peripherals.
One solution for this is Bluetooth short-range wireless networking. This was created to allow peripherals to connect to computers without wires, and while it hasn’t taken the desktop world by storm, an increasing number of handheld peripherals use it to solve the problem of incompatible ports. The latest of these is the Stowaway Universal Bluetooth Keyboard from Think Outside.
Most handheld users should be aware of the Stowaway line of folding keyboards. Think Outside began producing them several years ago and they quickly earned kudos — and a loyal cadre of customers — for their outstanding designs and high quality.
This latest model is no different. It manages to cram a large keyboard into a surprisingly small space.
When closed, it is 5.5 inches wide, 3.8 inches tall, and 0.7 inches thick. It opens to expose a QWERTY keyboard that has 18 mm key spacing and 3 mm key travel, which is about what you’d expect on a laptop keyboard.
Getting a keyboard this large into a package this small didn’t come without a few compromises. The major one is that there are no dedicated number keys. A function key must be held down to allow the top row of letter keys to enter numbers. Much of the time this isn’t a big deal, but if you are doing something that frequently mixes letters and numbers, like a spreadsheet, it can be a real hassle.
It also lacks the stylus holder that was included on most earlier Stowaways. However, this wasn’t a feature I used very much, so I don’t really miss it.
All portable keyboards need a stand to hold up the handheld or smartphone while you are typing. It isn’t practical to try to write with the device lying flat on a table. Because Bluetooth doesn’t require the keyboard and handheld to be particularly near each other, the Stowaway Universal Bluetooth Keyboard includes a detachable stand. This allows you to put your handheld wherever it is most convenient for you while you type.
You don’t even have to use the stand if you don’t want to. I sometimes write things on my handheld while it is in its cradle, which means I don’t have to worry about Bluetooth draining the battery.
When you are writing with your handheld, a nice flat surface isn’t always available. The keyboard portion of this accessory can be used in your lap, but the stand can’t. It isn’t stable enough to hold your handheld or smartphone upright without a firm, level surface underneath it, whether it is attached to the keyboard or not.
Because you’ll want to carry this keyboard around with you, Think Outside includes a soft zippered cover.
Just having Bluetooth on your handheld or smartphone isn’t enough. You have to have software to allow your device to work with the keyboard. This is where we get to the part that is going to disappoint a lot of people: there are currently only drivers for Pocket PCs and Symbian smartphones, not those running Palm OS. Think Outside is working on one now, but won’t commit to anything more specific than saying this will be available by the end of the year.
For those of you running Windows Mobile smartphones, a driver for your devices should be out in a couple of months.
I used the Pocket PC driver with a Dell Axim X30, which has built-in Bluetooth.
Installing the driver puts a new option for input method in the pop-up menu in the lower right corner of your screen. It also puts an application in your Programs screen that allows you to configure the Bluetooth keyboard.
The first time you use it, you’ll need to pair it with your handheld. This is a fairly simple process… if you follow the instructions in the manual. Don’t just try to figure it out yourself.
Once you have your handheld correctly paired with your keyboard, they will reconnect automatically anytime you start typing. At least in theory.
You have the option of a secure or insecure connection. As is usual, the insecure one is easier to set up, but it isn’t a good idea to use this if you’ll often be typing in public places.
Fortunately, you can be connected to more than one Bluetooth device at a time. I was able to use my Bluetooth phone as a modem while typing on this keyboard.
Taking on the Competition
As I said earlier, one of the big advantages of this keyboard is that it can be used with many different handhelds and smartphones. However, Think Outside’s Stowaway keyboard that uses infrared can do this, too.
Still, the Bluetooth Universal Keyboard has some advantages over the infrared version. For example, the Bluetooth Keyboard can be used almost anywhere. I’ve never had much success using the infrared keyboard while I’m outside because infrared light from the sun interferes with communication between the keyboard and the handheld.
Also, I can type with my handheld at any orientation when using the Bluetooth keyboard. This isn’t true for the infrared version. The infrared port on my X30 is located on the top, so if I put it into landscape mode, I can’t get the infrared ports on the keyboard and the handheld to line up.
And finally, the Bluetooth version is smaller, lighter, and much better looking than its infrared equivalent.
However, the infrared version has a couple of advantages, too. For one, it is considerably less expensive. The infrared keyboard costs about $70, while the Bluetooth one is $150.
Also, there’s a bit more hassle involved in using the Bluetooth version. When I’m using the infrared keyboard, I just put the handheld in the holder, enable the driver, and start typing. I have never had any problems. Occasionally when I use the Bluetooth one, I’ll have difficulties re-connecting. To get the two devices talking again, I’ll have to go into the driver and manually order them to reconnect. I’m hoping this is simply a software problem and a later version of the driver will be able to clear this up.
When I first heard that Think Outside was coming out with a Bluetooth keyboard, I immediately wondered how long its batteries would last. Bluetooth takes a lot of power and this device has only a pair of AAA batteries to keep it going.
After my tests, I’m somewhat pleased with the battery life of the Bluetooth Universal Keyboard. It lasted for two or three weeks of intermittent use. I was able to type several fairly long articles, including this one, and I also did lots of shorter test-entry sessions.
To save on the battery, this keyboard will turn itself off if you don’t use it for a while. It will quickly reactivate and reconnect to the handheld or smartphone when you start typing again, and the text you’ve typed in won’t be lost.
There’s no On/Off switch on this keyboard, but there’s a combination of keys you can hold down that activates it, and closing the keyboard shuts it down.
One of the things I missed most on this device was a good way of judging battery strength. When you connect the handheld to the keyboard you’ll get a message on battery strength, but this doesn’t seem to be very accurate. I was told the batteries were adequate just a few minutes before they died for the last time. At least I assume that’s what happened. All I know is I couldn’t get the two devices to re-connect until I changed the batteries.
As it turns out, Bluetooth has less of an effect on the battery life of this keyboard than it does on my handheld. Having Bluetooth activated on the Pocket PC drains its battery pretty quickly, in just a couple of hours.
I ought to point out that this is another advantage for the Stowaway infrared keyboard. I’m still using the original set of batteries that came with my infrared keyboard about eight months ago, and while using the infrared port on my handheld does have an effect on its battery life, it isn’t nearly as much a drain as Bluetooth.
There are some applications for which Bluetooth is ideally suited. This includes using your mobile phone as a modem, because you don’t even have to take the phone out of your pocket or purse to use it. The same is true for a Bluetooth GPS receiver.
Things are a bit different when you start talking about a keyboard. I can’t imagine a logical situation in which you wouldn’t want to have your keyboard and handheld sitting right next to each other when you are typing. This is why I found the Stowaway Universal Bluetooth to be only marginally better than Think Outside’s infrared keyboard.
However, it is undeniably much better than any keyboard that ties you to a single manufacturer’s handhelds through the use of a proprietary port.