Products & Reviews
ThinkOutside Stowaway Bluetooth Keyboard
Mon Mar 6, 2006 - 1:40 PM EST - By
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Overview Some days I wonder exactly how small keyboards are going to get. The Treo 650 has a built in keyboard, right? Yes, in a manner of speaking it does, though it isnt exactly what I would call the most usable keyboard in the galaxy, especially when you need to do some serious, fast typing.
So where does one turn when our thumbs get sore? ThinkOutside seems to have the answer for our aching fingers and cramping hands: The Stowaway Universal Bluetooth Keyboard. Whoa, what a mouthful. Included in the box are the keyboard, a manual, a driver CD and a black vinyl zippered pouch to stash and carry your keyboard in when not in use. The driver CD does not, however, include any Palm drivers whatsoever, and the included manual is only for Windows Mobile devices. Drivers and manuals for your Treo must be downloaded from ThinkOutside. Thankfully their website is fairly easy to navigate, and I located my driver in less than 3 minutes.
The keyboard casing looks like aluminum, but on their site, ThinkOutside calls it a polycarbonate, and in another place, metal. Whatever it is, its very pretty. Rubber feet keep it from sliding around while typing, as long as you set it on a hard, flat surface. The pouch is so-so quality, and I would expect something more heavy duty to ship with a unit this expensive. The manufacturer provides a one year warranty. It is more durable than if it were made entirely of cheap plastic, like some competing keyboards, but it is still a little flimsy feeling. The Stowaway may tout compatibility with most Bluetooth enabled devices, but in most cases you will need to get the specific driver for what you want to use it with. Its puzzling why they dont just include all the drivers for the keyboard on the included CD. You shouldnt have to go hunting their site for the Treo driver, like I had to do. On first inspection, I was somewhat confused about how exactly to open this half-inch thick, Hellraiser puzzle box appearing contraption. Its not very intuitive, and the pamphlet included with the unit isnt too clear on this. Theres a specific sequence of procedures to open the unit, which can give you some trouble on your first run. First, install the two included AAA batteries under the battery door on the bottom. The door is a little stiff to remove initially, so be careful not to break it. After a few uses, it gets easier. The mfr claims a fresh pair of batteries is good for an impressive 200 days with an average use of four hours a day. (See the competitive matrix on their Web site for more comparisons with the competition). To open the keyboard you press a switch located on the left side of the unit marked with three circular dimples. The keyboard slides over and then folds open, ready for use.
That was easy! Well, maybe not. The first time I opened it I had a fun time trying to figure out why I couldnt get the keyboard to slide open. I was causing the problem myself, as I didnt expect the keyboard to slide, and this wasnt easy to decipher from the pictographs and hieroglyphics provided in the multi-lingual manual. Its also much easier to slide it open if you set it on a flat, level surface.
Once you HotSync install the correct driver to your Treo, a new icon will appear in applications: Keyboard. Clicking this brings up a Bluetooth control panel where you pair the Stowaway with your Treo. You cant use any other Bluetooth device when the keyboard is paired. This is due to the way Bluetooth works on the Treo and is not a flaw in the design of the keyboard. But it means that you cant use a headset at the same time, which is a bummer.
Using the keyboard is a fairly pleasant experience, though it is nowhere near like using the keyboard on a desktop PC. The spacing of the main row keys is about the same as on my iBook G4, so if you are a laptop owner you should have little trouble adjusting yourself to the layout and spacing of the key caps. As for size, they keys are about the same size as a laptop keyboard, though some of the keys are slightly smaller.
Unfortunately, to save space and give it almost full-sized keys, ThinkOutside eliminated the traditional fourth row of number keys and integrated them into a Function/Shift operation. This is a design compromise that you might like (bigger keys) or not (more steps to type numbers and symbols). To type numbers and most symbols, you press and hold either the blue or green function keys located on either side of the space bar and press the key with an appropriately color coded symbol, much like holding down a shift key to get a capital letter. There are three sets of coding on the keyboard, Blue Bold, Blue Italic, and Green. Blue bold keys are Palm shortcuts, whereas blue italic is for the Windows Mobile environment. Numbers and symbols also appear in blue, but work in either environment. The green function key operates all the green symbols. Typing on the keyboard yielded only a few occurrences of flaky behavior. I am not sure whether this is due to the keyboards transmitter being underpowered, or if it is the Bluetooth widgets in the Treo, but it does happen from time to time. It is also possible that it has something to do with the keyboards power saver. Its designed to extend battery life and power down after a set duration of time. The problem is the mfr set it, and you cant customize it for your own needs.
The keyboard also has shortcut keys for many Palm functions, like Find, Apps, Done, and Details, though not all the labeled functions operate their respective applications by default. You have to go into the Keyboard apps prefs and configure them yourself. Seems like someone at ThinkOutside goofed with this one. One of the neatest functions is the Function-Shift for the arrow keys. Holding the blue function button and depressing one of the arrow keys highlights text on-screen. This is very useful in Blazer or in any text entry or word processor, since it allows easy changing of text without using the stylus. Closing the keyboard is also a little tricky. There is a microscopic black switch above the P and minus keys. It can be hard to find, especially if you have bad eyesight. Sliding this switch unlocks the keyboard so you can slide it back over and close it. The keyboard closes with a noticeable click! and the prop-up stand for your Treo folds back down.
It may feel like you are about to break the stand, so I recommend caution when closing it, until you get used to the way it works. Otherwise, it seems to work just fine, once you master the alien gadgets and switches required to put it all away.
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