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REVIEW: Think Outside Stowaway Universal Bluetooth Keyboard for Pocket PC
Posted by Arne Hess - on Saturday, 02.10.04 - 18:15:13 CET under 08 - Reviews - Viewed 27124x
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A couple of weeks ago, ThinkOutside, the maker of the famous foldable keyboards announced their first Bluetooth foldable keyboard for PDAs and mobile phones and thanks to PDA-Point, the European distributor I got a review unit two weeks ago which I've heavily used and tested during the past days and weeks.

As good PDA and mobile phone input methods like "Transcriber" or "T9" and "iTAP" are, for sure nothing compares with a "real" keyboard and if you want to use your mobile device more productive, you can not ignore an external keyboard.

The ThinkOutside keyboard combines some of the most favorite features I prefer to use and therefore it were even more interesting for me to test it: Bluetooth (the technology I believe into to connect devices) and ThinkOutside's award winning foldable design which makes their keyboards so handy.

What's in the Box?
The Bluetooth Keyboard comes with all you need to start right away after you opened the blister pack:

  • Bluetooth Keyboard with removable stand
  • Driver CD-ROM
  • Manual
  • Two AAA batteries
  • Pouch

How is it working?
After you've removed all the marketing prints and plugged-in the batteries, you can open it the first time

The mechanism follows the well known ThinkOutside mechanism, introduced before with the Stowaway XT Ultra-Thin Keyboard (click here to see how it is working).

Because it features Bluetooth and therefore it neither needs a physical connection between the device and the keyboard nor a line-of-sight (like required for IrDA keyboards) you can virtually use it in any combinations:

Either with the attached stand:

Or with the removed stand:

If you use one of the new Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition devices, which natively supports portrait and landscape (or you use a 3rd party application to use the same functionality with your previous Pocket PC) you got the full flexibility and you can get all you want, out of this combination without connection or infrared align hassles.

Using the Keyboard
Unlike standard keyboards, the XT Keyboards and therefore the Bluetooth Keyboard as well includes 4 key-rows only which means it doesn't include a separate number-row. But, unlike other keyboards, it includes two function keys: one green and one blue one and most keys have several functions.

White functions (mostly letters) can be accessed without the function keys. Blue functions (which includes program shortcuts) as well as the numbers requires the blue function keys left of the space bar; green functions requires the green function key right from the space bar. In addition to the standard shift and delete keys, the keyboard also includes a "Windows" key as well as "Caps Lock", "Tab", "Ctrl" and "Alt" which lets you use the keyboard with PCs and Notebooks as well.

Because the keyboard doesn't has the 5th number line on tope, it's smaller and thinner than the previously introduced foldable keyboard. Also it folds different:

But like the previous ThinkOutside keyboard, it still includes - more or less - a full sized keyboard:

ThinkOutside has a great definition of full size keyboards, based on the ISO standard, on their site:

The ISO International Standard for Ergonomic Requirements has published a specification for office work with visual display terminals based on years of ergonomic testing. The keyboard standard described by ISO 9241-4:1998(E) 6.2.1 states, "The horizontal and vertical distances between two adjacent keys in the alphanumeric and numeric zones measured center to center shall be 19 mm +/- 1mm". Most desktop keyboards use 19 mm spacing, as does the Stowaway; XT and Stowaway IR Wireless have 18 mm spacing. Additionally, ISO 9241-4:1998 (E) 6.2.3 calls for key displacement (travel) between 2.0 mm and 4.0 mm. The Stowaway uses the most expensive scissors linkage mechanisms, resulting in 3mm key travel (downward movement) and great tactile feedback. With 18 to 19 mm horizontal and vertical key spacing and a key travel of 3 mm, the Stowaway series are the only true full-size keyboards available for handheld devices.

So just from the physicals, it's a full size keyboard - just without the 5th key row.

Pairing the Keyboard
Bluetooth for input devices like keyboards or mice requires its won Bluetooth profile which is called HID (Human Interface Device). While this profile wasn't used that much in the beginning, now it becomes more and more popular and even Microsoft's Windows XP supports HID with Service Pack 2.

Unfortunately no Bluetooth enabled Windows Mobile Pocket PC or Smartphone includes the HID profile today and therefore ThinkOutside delivers the keyboard with the appropriate drivers for Pocket PCs only. Windows Mobile Smartphones aren't supported today, unlike Symbian smartphones.
Therefore you have to use the Windows Mobile driver on your Pocket PC and even with Pocket PCs, ThinkOutside isn't supporting all Bluetooth stacks, currently used with Pocket PCs. Supported are Widcomm and AnyCom Bluetooth stacks only; the native Windows Mobile Bluetooth stack, which is used with the Xda II/i-Mate Phone Edition and others, isn't supported today but as far as I've heard, there is a driver already in development.

After you've installed the driver on your Pocket PC, you have to pair it with the keyboard. This can be done through the automatically staring wizard:

So far so good, paired with the keyboard wizard but since it is a stand-alone application, not part of the Bluetooth stack the keyboard isn't recognized in the general Pocket PC Bluetooth settings.

But it includes its own settings configuration where you can fine-tune the keyboard and it also allows you to change the language layout of the keyboard. Also you can assign applications too up to 10 keys where you quick-launch custom applications, not already supported by the keyboard:

As said before, the Bluetooth Keyboard also works with PCs or Notebooks and works even smoother, if you have installed the Windows XP Service Pack 2 (which I recommend for every Pocket PC and Smartphone user anyway) because SP2 already supports the HID profile. Therefore you don't have to install any other drivers but you can pair it directly with your XP PC:

As soon as it is paired and configured, you can use the keyboard within every application:

And I've written this review with the keyboard, paired with my Notebook so you see - it works! :-)

Final Conclusion

Size and weight are perfect to carry it with your Pocket PC and for sure to carry it even better with your Notebook. For sure the size and the missing 5th row is a compromise between making it portable on one hand while it still can be used like a "regular" sized keyboard on the other hand.

Bonding the keyboard with your Pocket PC is mostly hassle free, as long as your Pocket PC has the right Bluetooth stack. Right now, you are left alone if you have a Pocket PC with the original Microsoft Bluetooth implementation only but I'm confident ThinkOutside will improve the compatibility soon.
However, there are two things I wish for the future anyway: First I would like to see that OEMs as well as software developers (like Widcomm or Microsoft) will support HID natively for Windows Mobile devices which makes it easier to use HID enabled items with this devices. And second I would like to see Windows Mobile Smartphones supported as well! Current and future Windows Mobile Smartphones will support Bluetooth (like the Motorola MPx220 and HTC Typhoon) and it's more than useful to have these deices supported, especially because ThinkOutside is already supporting Symbian smart phones.

A little bit difficult seems to re-awake a connection after you switched off your Pocket PC. What I've noticed so far is that - if the connection was a passkey enabled one - it doesn't bond proper anymore and you have to re-pair it. However, I've never had problems if a no passkey connection is used.

Typing longer texts on the keyboard works without serious problems - if you are used to use it and your have trained yourself a little bit. You have to be aware of some shortcut functions, where you have to use the function keys (like for typing numbers) but you can make it as well, I'm sure. I've tested the US layout of the keyboard which made it a little bit harder for me to learn it because I used to use the German layout and if you are located in Germany, the German version will become available during next week as PDA-Point told me last week! That's great that ThinkOutside takes care about foreign language support, thanks for that!

Altogether I can clearly recommend that keyboard for several reasons: first it comes close to a standard keyboard, second it's small and light enough to be carried, third thanks to its Bluetooth support you can protect your investment if you replace your current Pocket PC later. In combination with a new Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition Pocket PC it really becomes a serious competitor for Notebooks and might replace the one or the other much more expensive Laptop!

The ThinkOutside Bluetooth Keyboard is available from various online shops, all over Europe and costs around 140,00 Euro. In North America you can get it from ThinkOutside for around 150,00 US$.

Cheers ~ Arne

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