How to Choose a Keyboard for Your PDA

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First, let me thank Julie and Judie for the opportunity to write this article for the
Gadgeteer. Julie was one of the first to recognize the true potential of the
Stowaway keyboard in her review when we originally introduced the keyboard.

As the co-founder of Think Outside, I have strong opinions about keyboards
for handhelds that are based on our research and our experience in selling
close to 2 million units (making us the leader with 75% market share), by far
the most successful accessory for PDAs ever. My opinions may be considered
biased, but in fact, they are my actual beliefs based on my own criteria.

I’d like to point out that Think Outside’s products are the ONLY full-size/no
compromise keyboards currently on the market. We decided from the start not
to compromise on the typing experience in order to make the keyboard smaller
when folded. We felt that people would appreciate this because it is our
belief that only a full-size keyboard allows error-free touch-typing with no
adjustment needed when moving between a desktop or notebook keyboard. It’s
easy to design smaller keyboards that fold to smaller packages, but we
weren’t willing to sacrifice the typing performance we wanted to provide.
(By the way, the International Organization of Standardization [ISO] has
defined what qualifies as a full-size keyboard, and it includes the spacing
between keys – 19 mm ± 1 mm – and a key travel, or how far a key depresses
when you push it, of 2.0 to 4.0 mm, with 3.0 mm being the “magic” number for
desktop and laptop keyboards.)

What you can do with a keyboard

Think Outside has heard from hundreds of its customers about how they are
using their PDA-plus-keyboard combination. Here are some of these uses: . An engineer writing email while in flight, synchronizing with the desktop
in the office to send out the messages
. A student taking notes in the classroom
. Mobile workers writing email and sending by wireless networks (e.g., Palm
VII, Sprint wireless card on iPAQ)
. A product manager taking notes in a meeting and beaming the notes to
attendees before they leave the meeting, along with a list of assignments . An adventurer keeping a diary using a Stowaway keyboard and a Palm PDA
while scaling the Himalayas
. The NY Red Cross gathering information on building damage and family
situations in NYC after 9-11, using Stowaway keyboards with Visor PDAs . A well-known wine merchant taking tasting notes in the chateaux of France . A flight attendant writing a letter during a short break . A doctor recording patient information with his Palm PDA and Stowaway
keyboard while making his rounds
. A couple keeping a travel diary while touring Europe
. Navy men writing email on the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier . A reporter taking notes in Afghanistan . An author writing a book while traveling . A student learning to touch type . A college student writing a paper while sitting in a Starbucks coffee shop . A sales director returning from a convention and typing in new contacts
while on the plane
. An explorer using a Palm PDA and Stowaway keyboard where no notebook could
go: on an expedition to Antarctica
. Researchers for Interplast taking notes while interviewing patients . A policeman taking notes at the scene of an accident . A lawyer taking notes at an interview in a courthouse . A researcher taking notes at the library

PDAs are evolving quickly from fancy organizers – great for keeping
calendars, scheduling meetings, maintaining up-to-date addresses and contact
information – to powerful computing and communications devices. In some
cases, people find they can use their PDAs as laptop replacements, some or
all of the time, while they’re on the go.

But even with their increasing sophistication, PDAs still lack some of the
capabilities of a laptop computer, notably a “real” keyboard. If you’re
ready to move beyond Graffiti and stylus-tapping for entering information
into your PDA, you have a number of options for keyboards. Deciding which
one to choose depends largely on how you use your PDA.

If You See a PDA as Potential Laptop Alternative…

It’s easy for “road warriors,” students, and other on-the-go people to grasp
the appeal of a PDA as a laptop replacement: No more lugging a relatively
(compared to the PDA) bulky and heavy piece of equipment, no more waiting as
the laptop boots up.

On the other hand, the PDA on its own doesn’t offer a keyboard that’s
comparable to that of a laptop, so entering information – taking notes in
meetings or in class, composing thoughtful or lengthy e-mail responses,
generating memos or letters or reports – can be tedious and inconvenient.
That’s where an add-on keyboard becomes invaluable.

If you want to be able to touch-type, you owe it to yourself to get a
full-size folding keyboard. A 100% full-size folding keyboard is ideal for
just about any typing activities you would do on a laptop or on your desktop
computer. It presents a no-compromise solution: It folds up small for easy
mobility, yet unfolds to a full-size keyboard for complete typing
functionality. The key layout and size of the keys, and the tactile feedback
you get as you press the keys, make it feel comparable to a high-quality
laptop keyboard.

If you want full size but don’t care about mobility, there are adaptors
available that allow you to use a desktop keyboard with a PDA. This option
means carrying a rather large, non-folding keyboard with you, as well as
purchasing a serial cradle.

The next step down from a full-size keyboard would be one of the sub-size
folding or non-folding keyboards. Sub-size keyboards are OK for occasional
use of up to a couple of sentences at a time, but most people find that they
are not touch-typeable. Their more cramped layouts make it easy for
human-sized fingers to hit the wrong keys, which translates into lower
accuracy and can also lead to discomfort for many people if they type more
than a few sentences. Often they compromise on key placement, which causes
errors. Without the design constraints of full-size keys and standard key
layouts, sub-size folding keyboards can be lighter and smaller when folded
than a full-size keyboard – but only by sacrificing the typing functionality
of full size.

The Stowaway keyboard was designed to last 8-10 years of daily use and
withstand drops and severe environmental conditions. It is constructed of
steel, aluminum, glass and carbon-filled plastic and uses the most expensive
key switches – the same used in the keyboards from the major notebook

The smallest keyboards available are “thumb keyboards.” Extremely small and
portable, thumb keyboards can be stored with your PDA as a single unit.
They’re an excellent substitute for Graffiti or the PDA’s on-screen keyboard
for entering a few words at a time, and they can be used while standing up or
even (if you’re very coordinated) while walking. However, they are not
appropriate for longer messages or “serious” typing.

There are many thumb keyboards available in the marketplace today. In my
opinion, none of them approach the performance of that used on the RIM
Blackberry. Still, although some think the RIM’s success is a result of
their keyboard, I think it is in spite of this keyboard, which demands that
users become proficient in an entirely new way of typing.

If You’re Most Interested in a PDA as an E-Mail Device…

You still need to decide if your priority is short messages or longer
e-mails. For short emails (a word, a phrase or one sentence) any keyboard
will work. For longer e-mail messages, or note taking in a meeting, you
should consider a full-size, touch-typeable keyboard – for all the same
reasons already discussed previously in the “PDA as Laptop Alternative”

If Your Top Priority is Using Your PDA While Standing or Walking…
You know who you are: The people striding through airports, along city
streets, or across parking lots, earbud in place for talking hands-free on a
cell phone and/or using one hand to type messages or memos into a PDA. Or
maybe you want to be productive while you’re standing in line, waiting for
planes, commuter trains, or buses, or at the post office, bank, or lunch
counter. If it’s a rare moment that catches you actually sitting down to use
your PDA, you might want to focus on keyboard solutions that can be used

If You’re Spill-Happy or Work in a Wet or Dirty Environment…
A roll-up or fabric keyboard may be of interest. Besides being easy to carry
and store, some do withstand soda or coffee spills, dust and rain splatters.
(Though your PDA might not be able to take the same amount of punishment,
which might limit the keyboard’s actual versatility.)

But do not expect to be able to be able to do fast or accurate typing on it.
Unfortunately, my experience of using one is like typing on a bathmat more
than anything identifiable as a keyboard. Some have described it as like
trying to type on your microwave keypad, which obviously doesn’t come close
to replicating the tactile feel of an actual mechanical keyboard. The poor
tactile feedback of the roll-up keyboard makes it difficult to type
accurately or to touch-type at all, leading to high error rates.

If a Physical Keyboard Strikes You as Unnecessarily Mundane…
A new approach is the non-physical “air” or projection keyboard, also known
as a virtual keyboard. It works by projecting a keyboard layout into thin air
or onto a tabletop or other surface, and you “tap” your fingers in the air to
“hit” the desired keys.

This sounds like a great conversation starter, but otherwise I consider them
virtually unusable. Because they provide no tactile feedback, it’s difficult
to know when you’ve “hit” the right key. Touch-typing – which you should be
able to do without looking at either your fingers or the screen – is not an
option with an air keyboard. In fact, accurate or quick typing of any kind
is extremely challenging with this approach. And where do your hands rest
when you’re not actively typing? Suspended in the air?

If You Depend on Certain Software on Your PDA…

Be sure that any keyboard you’re evaluating not only works with your brand of
PDA (an obvious first criterion to consider), but also that its drivers
support all the software you want to run. While you’re at it, if you want to
use your PDA in a language other than English, check to see that the keyboard
is available in the languages you want. The software that comes with the
keyboards varies. I suggest you check to see if it requires you to initiate
the application each time you use it. Does the keyboard work with all
applications? Are there convenient shortcut keys? Does it support widely
used applications such as WordSmith, Pocket Word and Pocket Excel? (Think
Outside has a developer program offering a developer’s kit and email and
phone support. We have nearly 1,000 software engineers that have signed up to
support and enhance their applications to work best on Stowaway keyboards.)

There are obviously several options available. After reading my assessment
of the variety of keyboards in the marketplace, I hope you’ll be inspired to
add one to your PDA.

Good day and happy typing!

Phil Baker, founder and president of Think Outside, has been a major
contributor to the field of handheld computing and has extensive experience
in business and product strategy in the high-technology area. He previously
managed product development for Seiko, Apple Computer, Polaroid, Polycom and
Proxima. At Seiko, he was responsible for the product development of consumer
and computer products. At Apple, he was responsible for developing the
second- and third-generation Newton MessagePads, served as director of Entry
PowerBooks and orchestrated Apple’s development and manufacturing strategy in
Taiwan for portable products. Baker holds more than 35 patents. He received a
bachelor’s degree in physics from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in
Worcester, Mass., a master’s degree in engineering from Yale University and a
master’s degree in business administration (MBA) from Northeastern University.


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