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REVIEW: Think Outside Stowaway Universal Bluetooth Keyboard for Smartphone
Posted by Arne Hess - on Sunday, 06.03.05 - 14:21:34 CET under 08 - Reviews - Viewed 29239x
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For some days now, Think Outside is publicly offering the Windows Mobile drivers for their Stowaway Universal Bluetooth keyboard and even if it sounds a kind of weird to use a Smartphone with an external keyboard, there are some good reasons to do so.

The Think Outside Stowaway Universal Bluetooth keyboard combines some of the most favorite technologies I prefer to use and therefore it is even more interesting for me to use it: Bluetooth (the technology I believe into to connect devices) and Think Outside'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 (which doesn't contains the Smartphone driver yet because it is brand new)
  • 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 Think Outside 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 or removed stand:

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 includes 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 Think Outside keyboard, it still includes - more or less - a full sized keyboard:

Think Outside 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 own 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 Think Outside delivers the keyboard with the appropriate drivers for Pocket PCs. The newly released Windows Mobile Smartphone drivers needs to be downloaded from Think Outside's website. However - the download is free of charge at all. Nevertheless, you need to keep in mind, that (right now - where this review was written), the drivers are not signed. This means that they are not working with Orange's SPV Smartphones (like the Orange C500). However, a signed version is already announced and expected to be released soon.

After you've installed the driver on your Smartphone and rebooted it, you have to pair it with the keyboard. this needs to be done only once. A pairing wizard helps you here and normally it's going smooth:

Since the Bluetooth driver is not part of the standard Bluetooth profile but a separately running application, it contains a couple of settings to optimize your keyboard use:

A little bit more tricky is the shortcut and softkey handling because the keyboard was originally designed for Pocket PCs, not for Smartphones.
Since you don't have a touch screen, everything have to be handled through the (Smartphone) keyboard. However, it would be pretty inconvenient if you have to remove your fingers from the Bluetooth keyboard to use the left and right softkey buttons as well as navigating through the D-Pad or joystick on your Smartphone. Here, Think Outside got a clever idea: because the keyboard is foldable, it doesn't has a single space-bar but two. This space-bar(s) simulates the left and right softkeys in conjunction with the blue function key. So you can navigate through the Smartphone, using the left/right space-bar and the cursor- and return-key without removing your fingers from the keyboard.
The keyboard also has shortcuts to the basic Pocket PC applications like Calendar, Contacts, Pocket Internet Explorer, etc. and as long as these applications are part of the Smartphone (like Calendar, Contacts, Tasks, etc) you can also start them through the shortcuts. Applications like Word or Excel can not be started since they are not part of the original Smartphone software.

Final Conclusion

For sure primarily the Smartphone isn't an input device and since it lacks Pocket Word and Excel you are way more limited in what you can enter. For entering just a URL, the keyboard would be slightly "overdimensioned". However, there are some cases, where it can makes a lot of sense, to use a Windows Mobile Smartphone in conjunction with the Think Outside keyboard like E-Mail, messaging, note taking (in meetings) and for sure blogging (I'm updating/maintaining PPCW.Net through my Smartphone also).

E-Mail is one of the most used applications today, even on mobile devices and while both - my Pocket PC and Smartphone were mostly output devices in the past, they became input devices (thanks to the keyboard) also now. If I'm traveling, pretty often I use just my Smartphone to reply to E-Mails, where I have used my Notebook before.

The overall size and weight of the keyboard are good enough to carry it in your jacket For sure the size and the missing 5th row is a compromise between making it truly portable while it still can be used like a "regular" sized keyboard; but I got used to it.

While I had some problems with the first Pocket PC driver version to re-awake a connection after you switched off your Smartphone or closed the keyboard (which switches off the keyboard) I don't have these problems with the Smartphone driver anymore. After you opened the keyboard, it takes some seconds but then it is connected with the keyboard and you can use it immediately.

Another point I appreciate is the multi-language support of the driver. While it is available in English only, it supports the different keyboard layouts like US and UK English, German, French, Italian, etc. I got my US English keyboard replaced with a German version and therefore - even if the driver is English, I can use my known German keyboard layout which makes it even worthier for me.

Altogether I can clearly recommend the 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 Smartphone with a newer one and lust but not least you can use the keyboard across most of your devices - from Smartphone to Pocket PC to your Notebook or Desktop PC!

The Think Outside 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 Think Outside for around 150,00 US$.

Cheers ~ Arne

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