The great keyboard bake-off – Bluetooth versus Infrared

Mobile devices are growing up, to the extent that the latest breed of XDAs and iMates are, essentially, small computers with integrated phone functionality. Despite this rapid evolution in capability however, if you want to type anything significant you’ll still need a good, old fashioned keyboard.

Here we look at two keyboards for Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) and smartphones. One is the Freedom Keyboard from freedomkeyboards.com, which uses Bluetooth; the other is an infrared keyboard from ThinkOutside. These were tested with a Dell Axim X30 (Windows Mobile 2003) and a QTek 9100 (Windows Mobile Version 5.0) – behaviour may be different for Symbian and other operating system users.

So, here goes.

Out of the box experience

Both keyboards are supplied as a keyboard, a leatherette case, a couple of triple-A batteries to power the keyboard and a CD-Rom containing the drivers. I confess I couldn’t see the point of the leatherette case, which cleverly increases the bulk beyond that which is portable in a standard jacket pocket. Perhaps it is useful for those types of people who like zipping things up before they put them in their briefcases.

It always seems a bit strange to me that drivers for a PDA device are supplied on a CD-Rom, as it sort of assumes that the purchaser will be synching with a computer. This may not be the case if, say, they are travelling, or even if (perish the thought) they just don’t have a computer! The alternative is to download the drivers from the Web, but when I went to the Freedom keyboard web site and selected the drivers page, I was told, “This option will not work correctly with frames.” Checking the box, I realise I was at the wrong site – I should have gone to www.frekey.com. Now I know, but a link from the main site would have been handy.

The two keyboards are roughly the same size when closed, indeed each can fit in the other’s leatherette case to the extent that I can’t remember which goes in which. I think the ThinkOutside keyboard is a fraction thinner, but not to make any difference (unless you’re trying to squeeze it in the back pocket of your jeans). Looking externally, the ThinkOutside keyboard is in strong injection-moulded plastic, whereas the Freedom has rubberised, protective edging.

The ThinkOutside has a clasp that doubles as the PDA/phone support, and the Freedom has a simple latch. Neither is perfect on closure – the latch doesn’t seem to shut properly and the clasp can end up in the wrong position, I could imagine snapping it off when trying to force it shut. Speaking of snapping, there’s a piece of plastic on the Freedom (next to the PDA stand) that looks like it will snap off at some point, but it doesn’t affect the function so its not that big a deal.

Maybe, I muse, I should just be more careful. I open both keyboards, insert the supplied batteries and sit them on the desk in front of me. The ThinkOutside just opens in the right position, with an infrared “arm” that can be rotated to line it up with the infrared transceiver on the device. Less obvious was the Freedom, which required me to consult the manual (quelle horreur!) to find out I needed to get the stand out of its slot. No big one; more importantly, I find that the Freedom doesn’t quite sit properly on the desk. The central hinge is not letting the keyboard open flat, with the result that one end or the other is hovering a millimetre or two above the desk. I wonder whether this will mean I can’t type properly, which, of course, would be a disaster. More on this later.

Finally, I look at the layout. The ThinkOutside keyboard has three lines of keys, whereas the Freedom has four. Advantage Freedom: separate keys for the numbers: in general this keyboard layout is much, much “cleaner” than the ThinkOutside, which has two function keys, and various key over-printings in blue and green. On the positive side, the ThinkOutside has larger keys, so it’s a trade off between clutter and key size. Again, more on this later. First let’s look at how the keyboards connect to my test PDAs.

Connecting to the device

Recall that Freedom uses Bluetooth, and ThinkOutside uses Infrared. I’m always a bit dubious about Bluetooth – too many bad experiences with poor software stacks and incompatibility between transmitters and receivers. Trying the Axim first, I confess thinking “here we go again” when I installed what I thought was the most obvious driver for Windows Mobile 2003, direct from the “Frekey” Web site, and it failed to connect to the keyboard. Freedom Input does offer an 8-meg download which contains all the drivers, past and present, and once I’d installed the one that was specifically for the Axim X30, I was up and running. I didn’t repeat the “Frekey” saga for the 9100, going straight for the Wizard.

Perhaps it serves me right for trying to be clever in the first place. No points deducted, but an extra house point goes to ThinkOutside. On linking to the Web site from either PDA, I was automatically prompted with a “compatible” driver. These downloaded easily, and I was typing before I knew it. With infrared, it was a simple case of enabling the connection. Not so good with the ThinkOutside was the assumption that the device would be less than a certain thickness. This was fine for the Axim, but not so fine for the rather chubby Qtek. The latter had to be either balanced on a metal bar, or opened which risked pressing the QTek’s own thumb-keyboard.

The Freedom keyboard was much more versatile – not only could the stand support both devices, but also it stand could be detached so the device itself could be positioned on a surface, while the keyboard could be put wherever made it easiest to type. Being able to separate the device from the keyboard was a distinct and unexpected advantage.

Both keyboards and both devices responded well to an “off-on” test, retaining the connection. The drivers cohabited quite happily as well, to the extent that I could type on one keyboard, then the other… exactly why I would need to do this is beyond me, but t was nice to know. Equally useless but interesting was the fact that I could switch devices on the ThinkOutside keyboard, a feature not possible with the point-to-point connection of Bluetooth which had to be reset every time I switched. Note there is an auto-reconnect feature when connecting the Freedom to the same device, which is going to be the normal mode of operation for the vast majority of users.

Overall, both keyboards offered wide ranging compatibility, offering the latest drivers as well as being backwards compatible right back to the first PDAs. If I was buying a keyboard en route, and had no PC with me I would be wary of the driver availability from Freedom, but this is a small point (advice: if you’re thinking of going for the Freedom, download the drivers before you leave for the airport!).

More important, however, is how suited the keyboards are to their core function: typing. Lets look at this.

Usability – the finger and knee tests

Typing is as typing does, as Forrest Gump once said off-camera when nobody else was listening. When it comes to keyboards, when all’s said and done typing capability is the only thing that matter the most. When it comes to the ThinkOutside and the Freedom, there’s very little between them when it comes to typing. Both have a set of conventional, laptop-type keys, so there’s no worries about the “dead cat” feel of rubberised keys.

Its worth mentioning that there is a learning curve, in terms of being able to hit the right key at the right time – this is going to be true for any small keyboard. I found it quite easy to use both the more standard-sized keys of the ThinkOutside and the smaller keys of the Freedom, though I do have quite small fingers. Potential users with hands like bunches of bananas may well be better to go for the ThinkOutside.

As mentioned, the ThinkOutside keyboard has many more key assignments than the Freedom. The extra key assignments on the ThinkOutside are helpful when they’re needed, but they can be exceedingly unhelpful when not as their blues and greens distract from the white printing of the letters themselves. While the Freedom is far less cluttered, the disadvantage is a lack of obvious features – the Freedom does not show “Page Down” for example, though it is easy to work out that it’s “Function-Arrow Down”.

Keyboards of this type always seem to suffer from a small amount of character-dropping, so you need to keep an eye on the screen. Both keyboards suffered from this, particularly with the space bars – something to do with the positioning of the microswitches. I say “space bars” as each keyboard has two, one on each side of the hinge.

Speaking of hinges, lets go back to the issue with the Freedom – that it doesn’t sit properly on a flat surface. The good news is that this didn’t prevent me from typing, which would have been a write-off. I did find it slightly irritating, but it was nothing that couldn’t be solved with a well-placed blob of Blu-tak. I do wonder whether this is an issue for all Freedom keyboards, or perhaps the hinge was stiff on the one I was sent; I didn’t try to force the hinge at all, in case I snapped it in two.

Of course, such keyboards are not always going to have the luxury of flat surfaces to sit on. When it comes to balancing keyboards on one’s lap, the Freedom keyboard wins hands down. When opened out it only has one fold, so it is much more stable as a knee-top. In addition, unlike the ThinkOutside, the Freedom doesn’t need the PDA itself to be balanced precariously on top. I found I could sit a PDA on my steering wheel (not while I was driving, of course!) and quite happily use the Freedom keyboard on my lap; This was not really possible, or particularly comfortable, with the ThinkOutside. Note however that both offer better balance than the concertina-type keyboards from a number of suppliers. These open larger and look good, but they do require a suitable surface.

Final thoughts

Overall then, which keyboard would I go for? There is no hard and fast answer, as both can handle the basics. If I were travelling in a way that couldn’t guarantee flat surfaces, for example road tripping, trekking or camping, I would probably choose the Freedom keyboard. If I wanted to take multiple devices with me and switch from one to the other with minimal fuss, I would probably take the ThinkOutside keyboard. Whichever I took, I would be able to get the job done.

While the Freedom wins on gadget vale (watch your kids’ faces light up when you type a message and it appears magically on the device – okay, I’m being a sad Dad now), I admit to a personal preference the ThinkOutside. Now I have got used to the cluttered keys I find I can work faster with it; I also wonder about such issues as Bluetooth interference with Wireless Ethernet, Bluetooth security and potentially battery life, though I have no evidence to prove whether the latter is valid: the batteries in both keyboards have been working fine for several months now. I’m not sure about the rules around Bluetooth on planes, which seem to vary between airlines, another plus point for the ThinkOutside.

To conclude, then. Not so many years ago, infrared technology was seen as a technology past its sell by date, to be replaced by “new and improved” Bluetooth. Here we are in 2006 and infrared is still holding its own: it remains a viable alternative and will no doubt continue to do so, as long as PDAs and other such devices support infrared connectivity.

There is a question whether such keyboards will be necessary at all, given the continued lowering in the entry price of laptops. All the same, there is a growing interest in keyboardless devices such as the Oqo and other Ultra Mobile PC’s (UMPC’s). These devices often come with an integrated keypad, but which is insufficient for any serious typing. For now, such keyboards as the ThinkOutside and the Freedom Keyboard offer a relatively cheap way of turning a handheld PDA or smartphone into a portable word processing device. Not everybody is going to want to stare at such a small screen for too long, but at a tenth of the cost of the average laptop, there are plenty of reasons to invest in one.

The great keyboard bake-off – Bluetooth versus Infrared

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