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Stowaway: A Real Keyboard, Anywhere Print E-mail
Written by SymbianOne   
Wednesday, 08 February 2006
As text applications for Symbian devices get more sophisticated these devices' small keyboards limit what can be achieved with this new software. An external keyboard may be the answer. Richard Bloor put the Stowaway Bluetooth keyboard through its paces.

However you look at it, smartphone keyboards provide a clumsy method of text entry. While they are convenient for messaging on the go, they are less than ideal for prolonged, intensive typing. With applications, such as Quickoffice or Documents To Go Word, it is simply not possible to get the most out of them with a Symbian device's built-in keyboard.

One option to overcome these limitations is an infrared or Bluetooth technology Stowaway keyboard from Think Outside. These keyboards come with drivers for Sony Ericsson's P series or the Motorola A925 UIQ smartphones or (as claimed by Think Outside's web site) an oddly aged selection of Nokia S60 devices, the Nokia 6600 is the most up to date device with official support.

I opted for the Bluetooth version. This version has the advantage over the Infrared option, which requires the phone to sit in the keyboard cradle, of allowing the keyboard to be placed anywhere within 10 meter of the phone - although, practically they need to be a little closer if you want to be able to read the phone's screen.

Folded away a Stowaway keyboard is about the size of two P910s or Nokia 6630s laid side by side. The keyboard is cased in reassuringly sturdy brushed aluminum, with a plastic stand folding over the top. Once unfolded it is fractionally shorter then a standard desktop keyboard, exclude the navigation and numeric keypads. The Stowaway has four rows of keys, as opposed to the usual five, with the numeric keys doubled up with the first row of alpha keys. Numbers are typed using the left most of two function keys. The usual symbols keys are included, with the addition of euro, pound, dollar and yen currency symbols. A set of navigation keys are included in the bottom right of the keyboard.

Before the keyboard can be used its driver software needs to be loaded. This is a simple process with the supplied SIS files. Putting the keyboard to use requires Bluetooth to be activated on the phone and the keyboard driver application enabled. The keyboard is then started by pressing the control and both function keys simultaneously. Bluetooth then searches for the keyboard. Once found the phone and keyboard can be paired. The driver software has the secure connection option selected by default. To use this mode requires entry of a passcode on the phone and then again on the keyboard. Once this is done the Stowaway is connected and ready for use, with the driver application usefully reporting the state of the battery at the same time.

The driver application for both UIQ and S60 devices allows a number of keyboard features to be customized. On the Status tab the key repeat rate and key repeat delay can be set. The Options tab allows Bluetooth security to be turned on or off, and the keyboard format (US, French, or German) selected. The Keys tab allows applications on the device to be assigned to the letter and semi-colon keys on the first two rows of the keyboard.

Application assignments on the first row of the keyboard are activated with the Alt, left function and assigned key pressed together, while those on the second row simply require the left function key and assigned key to be pressed. The first row needs this slightly complex key sequence as the left function activates number 0-9 from its keys. The second and third row of keys are preprinted with default application and function selections, however these are clearly for non-Symbian devices as not all of them match the default Symbian assignments. For example K is marked "Word Memo" but by default opens the phone application on a Symbian device.

The extra functions on the third row of the keyboard are also clearly for other devices as not all of them work. For a UIQ phone C (marked Programs) opens the main application list, while V (marked Settings) opens the control panel, none of the other keys seem to have a function on UIQ. The one other key with a specific function worth mentioning is the "Windows" or the Cmd key which opens the application menu in UIQ.

As a keyboard the Stowaway works well, the keys are positive and although the key travel is shorter than a desktop keyboard, the action is familiar. Touch typists should be able easily too achieve their usual typing speed with the Stowaway. For one fingered typist the Stowaway does have two features that take a little adapting to. The first is that the keyboard is not supported under either end, meaning it can be easily rocked while typing. The second is that the spacebar is split, to allow the keyboard to be folded, and it is possible to hit the gap between the two halves and, as a result, not type a space. These are however little more than a few more good reasons to consider learning to touch type.

On UIQ

The interaction with UIQ is generally good, but there are two limitations. The Stowaway can not enter information in dialogs in UIQ, nor can it activate screen icons. This example illustrates the limitation on dialog entry. Assume you want to create a new diary entry. It is simple to switch to the Calendar using the left function and "a" key. Now you want to go to a date 2 days in advance, the solution must be the cursor keys. Unfortunately, no. The only feature accessible from the keyboard is the menu, and this does not include a go to date option. So the day has to be found using the screen navigation icons or jogdial. (You could set the date in the new entry, but it spoils the example some what!) Once the right date is displayed it is possible to add an item from the keyboard, as there is a New option on the menu. In the new entry you can type the description with the keyboard, however you are then stuck. There is no way to move to the type, date and other fields, they have to be selected with the stylus. The keyboard can be used to scroll and select items in the type drop down list, but is no use in the date and time selectors (except to escape out of them), can be used to type the location, is no use in the alarm selector, and is no use in the repeat selector (a dialog with radio buttons).

Essentially similar problems exist all over UIQ. The Stowaway can only interact through menu options and the first field in any dialog (if it is a text field), everything else needs to be done with the stylus or navigation hardware on the phone. While it would be desirable to be able to use the keyboard for all navigation, the interaction style is no different from switching from a keyboard to mouse for navigation on a PC. So while disappointing, these features don't detract from the Stowaway's usefulness as once you are in a field that requires significant text entry it works perfectly.

While the Stowaway is an excellent companion to the UIQ messaging application, speeding up the text entry in replying to emails and texts, it should come into its own with the word processing packages available for UIQ.

The Stowaway works well with both DataViz Documents To Go and Quickoffice Quickword. The issues with dialogs means that applying formatting requires the use of the stylus, as does switching to edit mode (as this is done using a screen icon on both applications). In Quickword applying highlighting and font color requires use of the stylus too, as they are not options accessible from menu. One frustration using the Stowaway for word processing and text editing in general, is that you can not perform extended selections. Shift in combination with a cursor key extends the selection for one move only, the second press of the cursor key returns to move mode (even with shift remaining depressed), so again the stylus is needed.

So far I've identified only one application that has been designed to work extensively with an external keyboard. That application is Mandala, which I reviewed a few weeks ago.

On S60

Using the Stowaway with a S60 device proved, in some way, to be a far better experience, but was not without issues.

Think Outsides web site indicates that the driver is compatible with the Nokia 3620, 3650, 3660, 6600, and N-Gage as well as the Siemens SX1. However, I was unable to install the drive on my Nokia 6600, but it loaded and functioned on my Nokia 6630 (even though it is not supported) and a Nokia 3650.

The basic connection and function of the Stowaway with a S60 device is similar to UIQ. There are the same set of keyboard assignment options, secure or unsecured connection and key repeat settings.

Navigation on a S60 device is much easier than with UIQ, as every action is accessible from the menu. The left function key in conjunction with the left and right sections of the spacebar activate the left (Options) and right (Back) menu items.

However, not all the documented actions appeared to work. The menu key is supposed to provide an alternative way of opening the Options menu, but appears not to, while the left function and tab key are supposed to provide a cancel from the Options menu, but did not. This problem appeared to be the same on both the Nokia 3650 (supported) and Nokia 6630 (unsupported). The only other minor quibble is that the enter key sometimes performs a select action by when pressed alone, but sometime needs to be used in conjunction with the left function key. Fortunately, these features do little to hamper the usability of the Stowaway as a navigation replacement for a S60 devices.

If we look at the Calendar entry example given for UIQ, in S60 there are no such issues. The calendar can be opened from the keyboard, a specific date navigated to with the direction keys, a new entry added using the Options menu and then all the entry properties set directly from the keyboard.

When it comes to word processing S60 has more limited options. However, the Stowaway works well in conjunction with Quickword (the initial draft of this section was written on my Nokia 6630). The ability to do extended selects also works on the S60, which is a great help. The delete key does not work however, so extended selection comes in handy for deleting text to the right of the cursor.

As noted earlier, Think Outside does not list any S60 device beyond the Nokia 6600 as being supported. On my Nokia 6630 I noticed two possible reasons for this. The first was really minor, immediately after the keyboard has been connected there is a delay in passing keystrokes. However, after this short delay keystrokes are passed immediately, even when the keyboard is used after a period of inactivity. The more serious problem, which occurred only once and in all honestly may not have been a keyboard issue, was that the phone locked up. As it occurred only once during many hours of use and I'm inclined to think it was related on one of the other applications on my phone.

One final note on usability. On both the Sony Ericsson P910i and Nokia 6630 the Stowaway instantly restarted after it had been out of use for a while, even if Bluetooth was turned off during the inactive period. As a result, it is easy to switch to the Stowaway when the volume of typing or environment made it practical or desirable to do so.

It is probably also worth mentioning that the Stowaway's battery life seems pretty good, the supplied batteries appear to be going strong after a couple of month use. I'd still be tempted to carry a spare set however, just to be safe.

Conclusion

If you are looking for a faster way to enter text on your UIQ or S60 phone then the Stowaway is certainly an effective option. The keyboard is light, compact and has the feel of a full sized desktop keyboard, albeit with one of two more convoluted key presses required for symbols and numbers. It restarts immediately after periods of inactivity and the battery life seems very good.

Given the lack of official support for newer S60 devices it is a little ironic that the Stowaway works best with S60, despite a couple of documented features appearing not to work. In fact the Stowaway transforms a S60 device, from one that makes the best compromise between conventional phone design and smartphone power, into one that compromises nothing. I would strongly urge Stowaway to update its driver to provide support for the latest S60 devices.

With a UIQ phone the Stowaway certainly helps expand the opportunities to use it as a notebook replacement. With Quickoffice Quickword or Documents To Go Word, Stowaway and a UIQ device you have a practical combination that creates an office anywhere. It will also be interesting to see how the Stowaway works with UIQ 3 devices, as the introduction of the one-handed navigation option may mean the keyboard can be used for a wider range of tasks.

This is certainly one stowaway to be invited into your business luggage.

Footnote

Think Outside have indicated that they are working to expand support for currently shipping S60 devices. In addition, Think Outside expect to support UIQ 3 and S60 3rd Edition devices, with the possibility of support for Series 80 devices and the Nokia 7710 widescreen smartphone too.


The Stowaway keyboard is available from a number of web retailer as well as physical stores. A full list of US retailers is available here, while international retailers list is here. The Bluetooth Stowaway can also be purchased directly from Think Outside for $149.99 at www.thinkoutside.com/stowawaybt_product.html.

 


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