It’s the holy grail of handheld computing: A technology that makes it just as easy to enter information into a mobile device as it is to type into a desktop personal computer.
Existing solutions don’t cut it. Plastic folding keyboards are bulky compared to the handhelds. Thumb keypads are difficult to master. And Palm’s Graffiti system of drawing squiggly lines is unbearably slow.
Logitech Inc. has jumped into the fray with a variation on portable keyboards. Its new KeyCase is made of fabric and is so flexible it can do double duty as a protective cover.
It’s a terrific idea in theory but disappoints in real-world tests. It only works with the latest Palm handhelds and the keys are frustratingly small. And it doesn’t solve a vexing problem of all keyboards for handhelds: many programs require switching between stylus and keypad.
Owners of Pocket PCs, Handsprings, older Palms and mobile phones are out of luck. The KeyCase only works with the Palm Universal Connector, which is found in the Palm m125, m130, m500, m505, m515 and i705 Series.
The pad, which sells for $99.95 and is available only online and in catalogs, is made of a lightweight gray fabric that feels like canvas on the outside. The keyboard side is slightly softer but durable. The lightweight fabric, called ElekTex, consists of conductive fibers combined with traditional textiles. It can sense when a key is pressed and how hard.
Setup is easy. After installing the proper drivers using Palm’s desktop software on either a PC or Mac, the handheld snaps to the cloth keyboard via a mount that holds the Palm upright while typing.
The keyboard is just the right size to wrap around a handheld with an attached elastic band to keep it in place, but this limits the real estate necessary for full-size keys.
Unfolded, the KeyCase is about the size of a laptop keyboard, but the keys are smaller and closer together, particularly in the top two rows of numbers or shortcut keys.
The keyboard’s sensitivity can be adjusted through a Palm program, though this didn’t improve my accuracy. I often launched the Memo program when I meant to hit “Backspace.”
Perhaps smaller hands work better.
The KeyCase’s feel reminded me a lot of the flat, membrane keyboard of my first computer, the Atari 400. In both cases, two-finger typing worked better than using all 10 digits.
The KeyCase seems useful for punching in a quick note or updating a calendar listing, but the coolness of having a cloth keyboard wears off quickly while entering anything longer than a few sentences.
Another bonus is that the fabric repels liquids. I dumped beverages on the keypad (luckily avoiding the Palm) and even tried typing after eating potato chips. It still worked.
Logitech also added some interface improvements, which are supposed to minimize switching between the keyboard and tapping the screen with a finger or stylus.
On startup, a scrollable list appears of all available programs. The KeyCase’s scroll buttons can be used to navigate the list, and “Enter” launches the selected program.
The top row of keys is devoted to shortcuts for common tasks such as selecting, cutting, copying and pasting as well as launching various programs.
But once a program has launched, be prepared to pull out the stylus. Though the KeyCase has an “OK” button, it does not work unless “OK” is a specific option on the screen. It doesn’t work for logically similar buttons such as “Done” or “Yes.”
AvantGo, a popular program for browsing downloaded content, does not support using the tab key to move through links, unlike most desktop PC Web browsers. The only option is tap the screen with a finger or stylus.