At last an answer to texter’s thumb and a way to make my phone much more useful.
When I moved back to the UK a couple of years ago after a decade abroad, I was surprised at the rise of text messaging as the primary way of using mobile phones for most people. When I acquired my first, brick-sized, phone back in about 1991, it was voice only and with the cost of the old Cellnet tarrifs you used it only when really necessary, but when you needed to it was a godsend. I then spent 6 years working offshore and didn’t bother getting a new phone as I was never around to use it. After that I moved to Holland where I had a work phone because of the on-call nature of my work but again I didn’t really use it much.
After Holland it was the US, and nobody there used text messaging, we just had large bundles of minutes and called each other. The time in the far east was as part of a small ex-pat community and my cell phone was really just for emergencies when out on long cycle rides.
Coming back to the UK, everybody texts and I started learning to tap out messages on tiny keyboards. I have big hands, it’s not that easy and I absolutely refuse to use txtspk, although my mum’s become very adept at it. I blame my kid brother for that. I’ve been using Bluephoneelite for the past couple of years, so when I’m home my phone sits on the desk and I don’t touch it unless there’s a call, using my laptop to send and read texts etc.
With phones now doing more and more, there’s a need for a better way to input data quickly in large amounts. Since getting my Nokia N95 8Gb a few months ago, I’ve been using it for email, texting, web browsing, blogging, voip etc. For most occasions I don’t need to take my laptop with me now, except that if I want to type long emails or blog posts, then it takes forever using T9 on a phone and I never catch all the mistakes.
All of this is a roundabout introduction to the latest piece of gadgetry that I’ve acquired, the iGo Stowaway Ultra-slim Bluetooth Keyboard. There’s been a fair few reviews of it about the place, but in the true spirit of the blogosphere, I’m adding my 2p.
Finding the keyboard at the bargain price of £17.09 with free shipping (17.99 minus a 5% voucher) on Play.com was very welcome, as only a few months ago this was retailing closer to £50 and was out of my price range. It arrived, as all Play.com items do, in a large jiffy bag. Inside I found exactly the kind of packaging I truly hate. I’m a bit of a packaging nazi, I hate excess packaging and think that good packaging should add to the user experience, not detract from it. Apple (yes, yes, I’m going to use them as an example of good design yet again) really understand this, and the packaging they produce shows as much thought and care as everything else about their design process.
The packaging on the keyboard was that moulded and welded shut kind of plastic that requires something akin to a plasma cutter or thermic lance to get into. My workshop scissors had a tough time opening it up and I left a few scratches on my hands from the sharp edges. Honestly, why do people use this stuff. In cutting through the plastic I found the instruction manual to be right where I was cutting, hidden between the card pieces. Not ideal.
Once I managed to dig the contents from their moulded sections, I was surprised at how well put together the unit is. I was expecting something much flimsier and plasticky. The case is mostly metal, lending a solidity to the unit and, with the metal hinge mechanism, it looks like it will take a fair bit of abuse, which is just as well for something that’s going to see as much traveling as this will. They supply a nice padded leatherette case too, which should help prevent dings and scratches in transit.
The keyboard is powered by two AAA batteries (included), which are apparently good for several months use, due to effective power management. I’m sure it’ll depend on how much it’s used but I’ll report back on that later. One other thing that impressed me is that the included batteries weren’t the usual ‘heavy duty’ made in China useless pieces of junk, they were Energizer alkalines. I’m pleased about this, it’s another nice touch that, to me at any rate, shows that they’re serious about their product and that adds to the quality feel of the item.
A detachable rest for your phone/pda has two settings, for portrait and landscape modes. My N95 doesn’t sit properly in landscape mode, as the hinge stop is in slightly the wrong place and the phone slips under the supports. A fix involving a match was posted on symbian forums and can be found here. Not having matches at home I’ll have to wait until I can find one before trying it. If I’m doing much writing I’m not sure if I’ll prefer portrait or landscape mode better, but the match trick is completely reversible so I can play with it and see how I get on.
A button on the left side releases the two halves and the top swings open on a clever hinge mechanism, locking flat with a satisfyingly firm ‘click’. Unlike the Nokia keyboard, which doesn’t lock, this one can be used on your lap if necessary without folding unexpectedly. Rubber feet on the bottom stop it sliding on most surfaces and in normal use I’ve not found it to move around unless my typing gets particularly ‘enthusiastic’.
The keyboard is made this small by dint of removing the row of numeric keys and putting the numbers as a second function on the qwerty row, accessed through the left function key. This works well, I don’t tend to use numbers a lot and it means that they can make the rest of the keys bigger.
The keys are only fractionally smaller than the ones on my laptop, as you can see in the photo below, and so I found it very easy to touchtype on it without much adjustment. When I tried the similar Nokia keyboard I found the smaller keys more difficult to type with, but I’m guessing you’d get used to that eventually.
The little booklet that comes packaged with the keyboard gives you the most minimal information about setting up, but on the CD there’s a full user manual which details everything from pairing to assigning function keys to troubleshooting.
I’d been told ahead of time that there’s no driver for the N95, but that the N73 driver works perfectly. If you’d not been told this, then going to their site and trying to download one would have made you really somewhat annoyed to be told that the keyboard is not compatible with this phone. I didn’t try the default S60 driver from the CD, just downloaded the N73 one, installed it on the phone and activated it.
Setting up pairing is a simple matter of pressing and holding the ‘ctrl’, left and right ‘Fn’ keys until the little status LED above the T key flashes about once a second. The driver walks you through the steps of typing the passcode on both devices and then you’re up and running. Pop your phone/pda on the stand and start typing.
All the phone functions can be accessed using the various keys, and for the past few days it’s sat on the keyboard stand beside my laptop, and I’ve used the keyboard exclusively to control the phone. Once you’ve got the hang of using the function keys, and remembered the major key combinations, it’s very fast and convenient to access the usual menu systems and navigate around. There are alternative functions for most of the keys, which are labelled and colour coded to remind you which function key combination activates each one. There are also key combinations for pretty much any foreign character and accent you might need to type. These are described, with their key combinations, in the user guide on the CD. I imagine that most people who are likely to use them will quickly remember the ones they particularly need.\
Between uses, the keyboard powers down, but stays paired. When you next need to use it, the keyboard has to wake up, connect with the phone’s bluetooth stack and start communicating. This takes a few seconds, so you have to be a little patient. I generally tap a couple of keys and wait for it to wake up and turn on the display backlight, then carry on with what I actually want to do. It’s not really an issue and helps preserve the battery life.
You unlock the keyboard by sliding a small catch just above and to the right of the P key, folding the top half over and clicking it shut, then fold the support down over the case.
So far I’ve used it for web browsing, emails, texts, notes and a couple of blog entries, and I see it being something that will live in my backpack and go pretty much anywhere I go. When I bought my Nokia, and started to explore it’s abilities, I realised that this was no longer just a clever phone, it had the ability to replace my laptop for a good chunk of the time that I usually take it out if only there was a better way to enter large amounts of text. Having just come back from a trip away where I would have been likely to write blog entries for later uploading, and where I was travelling with hand luggage only, this combination starts to make a really attractive, alternative lightweight kit for the traveling writer/blogger/journalist, if you can cope with the small screen size. With an unlimited internet package you can blog from anywhere your phone works, if you’re travelling for an extended period you could use this to blog along the way and upload your text and photos when you next get to a coffee shop or internet cafe that has wifi.
I’ll be interested to see how I get on with this in the coming months, but I think my back will thank me for leaving the laptop at home much more from now on. I just have to find a text editor and blogging client I like and I’m set.