Think Outsideís new product is a clever piece of engineering and creativity in a single product. We tested it with a couple of Pocket PC, and yes we used it to write this article. Think Outside sent us an engineering sample of its Stowaway Bluetooth Keyboard. This is a pre-production but fully functional unit.
As soon as I got the e-mail with the Fedex tracking information I rushed to install the drivers on my HP iPAQ h4150, waiting for the keyboard to arrive. What a wait. And it was worth it.
Think Outside implemented a collapsible QWERTY keyboard in a tiny package, with some smart key controls. The keyboard logic fully implements the Bluetooth HID (Human Interface Device) profile. This means that you can actually use this keyboard with any Bluetooth device that implements this profile, as we found out.
Stowaway Bluetooth Keyboard and h4150
The keyboard itself is very small, folding to only 139mm x 99mm x 13mm and measuring 251mm x 148mm x 13mm when open. This is small and light enough (160g) to fit in even in the front pocket of your jacket. The keys have nice spacing between then (18mm) and key travel is 3mm, similar to most notebooks in the market. After opening the keyboard you'll have a platform where you can rest your Pocket PC. This platform has rubber pads, so the handheld will sit nicely and will not slip. You can also control the inclination for your Pocket PC, for better comfort and light control. The range of this device is 10m, but I doubt you could read anything on your PDA from that distance, so let's keep them close together . You can remove the stand (it's just a clip-on) and move the Pocket PC to another position, detached from the keyboard itself. It's also suitable to have the handheld in landscape position.
Stowaway Bluetooth Keyboard open
Ready to use
Resting on rubber pads
Using the keyboard is very easy. Insert two AAA batteries in the compartment and open the keyboard. This will turn it on. Close the keyboard and itíll turn it off.
After installing the supplied drivers through ActiveSync, start the configuration on your Pocket PC. The drivers will require a specific Bluetooth version on your device, either a Widcomm or Socket Bluetooth stack. According to the documentation this includes the Asus MyPal A620, Dell Axim X3, iPAQ h1940/h2210/h1940/h4350/h4150 and any Pocket PC with a Socket SD or CF Bluetooth (Pocket PC OS 2002 or Windows Mobile 2003). In my tests it also worked with an iPAQ h3970 running Windows Mobile 2003. I tried it on an i-mate Pocket PC Phone Edition and it worked as well (make sure you're using the drivers version 3.1 and up). These handhelds use Microsoftís own Bluetooth implementation, which is not compatible with these drivers. The keyboard also works with some Symbian Series 60 and UIQ smartphones (Sony Ericsson P800/P900), although I have not tested it with these devices.
Make sure the keyboard is in discoverable mode, by pressing CTRL-[left Fn]-[right Fn] keys. Turn on your Pocket PC and make sure Bluetooth is enabled. Open the driver by tapping on the little keyboard in the status bar and switch to the BT tab. From there you can scan and connect to this keyboard.
The keyboard control in the status bar
There are two connection types: secure and non-secure. Secure connections require bonding between these devices, while non-secure will enable the keyboard to connect to any device. Once connected you can change to the other configuration tabs and change settings from there.
The keyboard has two function keys, Blue (left) and Green (right). Some keys will have different functions depending on being used alone, or together with the function key. For example, there are pre-defined functions to access the most common Pocket PC applications: press [left Fn]-A to open Calendar, or [left Fn]-D to open InBox. [left Fn]-X closes a program and [left Fn]-Z goes directly to your Today screen.
Numbers are functions of the first row (the QWERTY), but thereís a NUMLOCK function that will allow fast number entry when needed.
The keyboard implements four directional arrows, and when using these keys together with SHIFT and CTRL youíll have the same functionality weíre used to in the Windows desktop applications. For example use CTRL-arrow to jump to the beginning of the previous or next word, and SHIFT-CTRL-arrow to jump and select the word at the same time. Even key combinations like CTRL-X (Cut), CTRL-C (Copy), CTRL-V (Paste) and CTRL-Z (Undo) are implemented.
Iím actually writing this article on my Pocket PC. Iím currently using TextMaker, as you can see in the screenshot below. Unlike Pocket Word, this text editor allows me to format the document and keep the formatting between platforms (Pocket PC, Windows, Linux). Very handy, and with the Stowaway Bluetooth Keyboard it seems like a perfect combination for writers and users who need fully formatted Microsoft Word documents on the handheld and the desktop/laptop.
Using the Stowaway Bluetooth Keyboard with TextMaker
If you want to create your own keyboard shortcuts, the drivers allow you to define key combinations and applications to start. This simplify the process of launching appllications, although it couldnít be easier as it is now. If you press the Windows key the Start button will open, and simply use the arrow keys to go up and down the application list. Pressing ENTER will open the application. Thereís even an OK function to respond to dialogs.
If you are using the secure connection thereís no need to manually reconnect the devices when using the combo the next time. As soon as you press a key, the Stowaway Bluetooth Keyboard will try to connect to the last paired device, and it works all the time.
There are also functions for special simbols, like Ä•£$, all accessible by pressing one of the function key and a letter, and diacritics can be entered by combination of keys.
As I wrote before, the keyboard fully implements the Bluetooth HID profile, and I actually used it for a while with my laptop. When using the correct drivers you should be able to connect and use it in less then a minute. Not that you need it, since laptops already have their own keyboard, but it's always fun to try.
Connected to my computer
Some programs implement CTRL shortcuts, as I found out trying the key combinations. For example on TextMaker if I press CTRL-O it'll show the Open Files dialog, CTRL-F will open the Find dialog, CTRL-H will do a Find and Replace and CTRL-M will open the menu. These don't work on Pocket Word though . Also, most applications on Windows Mobile implement a Close Application function, invoked by pressing CTRL-Q, the same as ALT-F4 in Windows applications. This is different from the [X] in the top right corner, which usually "minimise" the application without closing it.
What I missed on this keyboard was a pointer functionality, like the one available on the Targus keyboard. I had my stylus around for some functions that require tapping the screen, although most boxes will be accessible by using TAB and ENTER keys, like any Windows application. Another thing that could be changed, although not a big deal, is the blue colour used to indicate the functions: itís too pale and depending on the direction where the light is coming from it can be difficult to see them. Remember this is an engineering version, though, and it may be slightly different in the production version.
Overall the Stowaway Bluetooth Keyboard brings a good combination of size, weight, functionality and the freedom of a cordless keyboard to the handheld world. Travellers and users who need to enter a fair amount of data on Pocket PC will be glad to use this tool. For an introductory price of US$149.99 it seems like a good investment for users that still have problem with handwriting recognition on handheld devices .