Stowaway Universal Bluetooth Keyboard
Folding keyboards for handhelds have been around for a long time now, so if you’re reading this review you’ve probably used one yourself or at least seen one over the last few years. The Stowaway Universal Bluetooth Keyboard is like many of the others you’ve seen, though of course there are some obvious enhancements. When you get the keyboard, you’ll find that it comes with a zippered carrying case, an instruction pamphlet, and a software driver CD. Two AAA batteries are required to power the keyboard and are not included. Installation and setup are quite simple, though I’d suggest that you connect to the Think Outside web site instead of using the software CD, in order to make sure that you have the latest driver for your Windows Mobile or Palm OS device.
The keyboard itself is very small, measuring 5.5 inches long, 3.75 inches wide, and just over 0.5 inches thick when folded. In order to open the keyboard for use, you must first flip up the grey plastic PDA stand and then press the release button on the left side of the keyboard. The top can then be unfolded to become the right side of the keyboard, while the left side slides out. Press the right side down completely and it will “lock” into place, becoming one flat unit that will not fold, even if you use the keyboard on your lap. Please note though that the device stand does not lock into place, so it would be difficult to use the keyboard on your lap if it is still attached. You can remove the device stand completely if you wish, to create a slightly thinner package for travel if you don’t need it to hold your PDA upright when you’re typing (if your device is in a cradle on a desk, for example). In order to close the keyboard for storage, you must slide a release latch at the top right corner, just above the “p” key and then fold the right side over to meet the left and press it closed. Then you can flip the device stand over to rest on top of the keyboard.
This is a four row keyboard, so for regular typing you’ll have access to everything you need. Things can get a bit trickier when it comes to numbers and punctuation though, as you have to hit the correct Function key–either the blue one on the left of the space bar or the green one on the right–in order to get the appropriate character. In practice I found that this was easy to do and rather intuitive, though it took me a while to remember that I wanted the blue function key for numbers and the green one for punctuation. There are also several extra features built in, so that you can access a variety of applications on your handheld by pressing certain key combinations, saving the trouble of having to pick up the stylus and tap on the screen. There’s even a “Windows” key that activates the Start menu on your Windows Mobile device, which is a nice touch.
How does it feel? Just great–at least as good as my laptop keyboard, if not better. The keys on the Stowaway Universal Bluetooth Keyboard are very “tight” and responsive–not in the sense that they’re too close together, but that they aren’t mushy or give too much when you press them. The travel is a little shorter than on most laptops and desktops, but I actually prefer that; I can type a bit faster when I don’t feel that I have to press each key down as far. All of the standard buttons are where I would expect them to be, though the space bar is a little weird since it’s separated into two distinct keys to accommodate the folding design of this keyboard. Enter, shift, caps lock, tab, back space, control, and alt all have their own keys; the only slightly odd placement is the location of the delete key on the far right of the bottom row.
Of course what makes all of this work is Bluetooth wireless networking, and that’s what sets this keyboard apart from most of the others you’ve probably seen. Traditionally handheld keyboards have used either a direct connection (remember the old GoType?) or an Infrared connection in order to communicate with a handheld device. Infrared keyboards were of course a step in the right direction, because you could use the same keyboard when you got a new device, so long as the appropriate driver was available. You still needed line of sight connections though, which led to all manner of funky swing arms designed to accommodate a variety of devices in both portrait and landscape modes. Bluetooth does away with all of those hassles, and it works very well. I can leave my device charging in a cradle or just lay it on a table and use the keyboard in my lap, or I can use the included device stand.
The connection process is quite simple; after you install the driver to your device you activate Bluetooth and then make the keyboard discoverable by pressing Control, blue function, and green function simultaneously. (If you forget that little bit of information is helpfully printed on the bottom of the keyboard. You’ll know the keyboard is discoverable when the little green light just above the letter “t” starts flashing. Then you follow the steps outlined by the driver. On a Windows Mobile device, you enter a passcode on both the device and the keyboard to establish the connection, and of course you also need to choose the Stowaway Keyboard in the input options panel. A keyboard icon will also appear on the Today screen; you can tap that icon to set options such as the key repeat rate and delay and define hotkeys. Regular typing works just as you would expect, without any lags or difficulties that I could detect–just joyously fast text entry without any stylus-based hassles.
As you can see, I’ve given the Stowaway Universal Bluetooth Keyboard a “5 Goddess” rating. It works very well, but has a few minor shortcomings that prevent me from issuing a “Perfect 10″ award to this otherwise excellent product. I’ve noticed many scratches on the case of the keyboard, though I’ve always been very careful with it and transported it in the case. The device stand is also a bit tricky and I’m concerned about its long-term durability–while I haven’t had any problems with it, I’ve read numerous reports about the stand being broken quite easily. I’m afraid it’s only a matter of time before I suffer the same problem, and though I can easily live without it that is a disappointment considering the relatively high cost of this product. In all other respects this is an excellent accessory–one that will make your mobile life significantly easier and more productive, and therefore one that I can highly recommend. You can get one for yourself for $149.99 at the Think Outside web site, or from Amazon, CDW, CompUSA or eCost.
Stowaway Bluetooth Travel Mouse
This incredibly handy little mouse works with both Windows Mobile/Pocket PC devices as well as Microsoft Windows-based laptop and desktop computers. The mouse measures 3.5 inches long, 1.75 inches wide at its widest point, and just over 1.25 inches thick at the thickest point. Since your average mouse measures about 4.5 by 2.0 by 1.5, you can instantly see that though the travel mouse is smaller, it isn’t so much smaller that you’ll have a hard time adjusting to it. It’s curved in the same way on both sides so that both left- and right-handed users should feel comfortable. There’s a full complement of buttons too, with both left and right buttons as well as a scroll wheel. The lower portion of the top with the Think Outside logo is the battery compartment; the mouse uses two AAA batteries. I’ve been using the same set since I got the mouse a couple of months ago, so the battery life is very good.
The product I tested is black, though a silver one is all that appears on the Think Outside web site right now, with no color choice available. The entire unit is made of plastic for durability and light weight, though the finish on the top is so smooth and comfortable that it’s very comfortable. The bottom is made of hard clear plastic, so you can actually see the various circuit boards and the like inside the device, which is pretty cool. There are also four white “feet” on the bottom that are designed to make the mouse easier to move across a hard surface like a desk. There’s also an on/off switch and a small recessed button to push to make the mouse discoverable to other Bluetooth devices.
Installation and setup was quite simple, following the instructions and software included with the mouse. No additional software is required if you’re using it with Windows XP; just press the little Bluetooth button on the bottom of the mouse, wait for Windows to activate a driver included with the OS, and you’re all set. If you’re using a Windows Mobile device like the Dell Axim, you’ll need to use the software on the CD and install a driver to your device, but that takes just a few moments. After installation you’ll notice a new mouse icon on the lower status bar, just above the soft keys on a WM5 device; tap on that to activate the mouse (with Bluetooth on, of course) and your handheld will seem even more like a miniature computer than ever before.
While you may not want to use the mouse with your handheld all the time, it is particularly good when used in combination with the Stowaway Universal Bluetooth Keyboard. If you’re in a meeting or class and need to take extensive notes, using the mouse with the keyboard will be faster and easier than using a stylus to navigate, change text formatting, etc. That’s because while you do have to take your hand off the keyboard to use the mouse, you don’t have to pick up a stylus, bring it to the screen, perform the operation, and then put it down again before going back to the keyboard.
This is an optical mouse, and in my extensive testing I found it an absolute joy to use. It’s responsive and smooth, and the buttons have good tactile feedback. I was particularly pleased by the scroll wheel, though I imagine that could just be due to the fact that my laptop doesn’t have any sort of scrolling functionality built into the touchscreen area/buttons, and scrolling through long web pages with a wheel is just so much easier. And while I certainly wouldn’t consider tossing a regular wired mouse into the travel bag when I’m on the go with my laptop, I found that the Stowaway Bluetooth Travel Mouse is just enough smaller that I can nestle it in the middle of my power cord bundle and not have any extra bulk and a minimal amount of extra weight in my bag.
I recommend this product highly and am very glad to give the Think Outside Stowaway Bluetooth Travel Mouse a “5 Goddess” rating. It’s small, it works very well with laptops and Windows Mobile devices, and can certainly make your computing life easier and more comfortable. You can get one for $79.99 from the Think Outside web site or from selected dealers such as Amazon, CDW, CompUSA and eCost.