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Reviews

Freedom Input Freedom Mini Bluetooth Keyboard

By Legacy November 4, 2005, 12:00 am

INTRODUCTION

    For many, text input
methods on PDA’s and Smartphones has been
problematic at best.  Several options have been
developed to help alleviate this issue, but for
many, the most welcome and trusted method is still
the keyboard.  Some devices are integrating
keyboards directly, others are offering connectivity
to wireless keyboards, such as the foldable
keyboards from Freedom Input and Think Outside. 
There are issues with both approaches, the
integrated keyboards make devices larger.  The
external keyboards add to your device clutter and
create yet another item to keep in your pocket or
gadget bag.  These foldable keyboards offer
fast text input, and while small enough to fit in a
pocket, they are still large enough to hinder
carrying them with  you all the time.  If you don’t have it with you, it
doesn’t help all that much does it.  Size does
matter.  I personally use an i-mate PDA2K
Pocket PC Phone Edition, which includes a slide down
keyboard and I have to admit, I almost never use it. 
I find it slow and awkward, and can enter text more
rapidly using the built in handwriting recognition
using the stylus.  I’d rather have a smaller
device and lose the keyboard.  For serious text entry and
editing, I use my well traveled Think Outside
Stowaway Universal Bluetooth Keyboard (they really
should find a shorter name), but as I mention above
don’t always have it with me.  Perhaps someone
might want to build something in between the two,
larger and more usable than the internal keyboards,
but smaller than the foldable keyboards currently
available.  Something that is easily portable,
but doesn’t make my phone any larger.  Who
would offer such freedom?  Funny you should
ask….


   
Enter the Mini Keyboard from Freedom Input, could
this be the answer?  To answer that question,
I’m going to put the little keyboard to the test,
and use it to write this review.  That’s right,
everything in this review is being typed using the
Freedom Mini Keyboard.  By the end, I’ll have a
very good understanding of it’s strengths and
weaknesses, in a real world test.  Certainly,
some of you will point out that the keyboard is not
intended for this level of text entry, and I realize
that, but this extended use will accomplish two
things, 1) it will force me to learn the good and
bad about this keyboard, and 2) it will enable me to
see how comfortable I become with it with real use.  I remember reading a
review of someone using the Block Recognizer on Pocket PC and tearing it to shreds because it
couldn’t understand his characters, but few days
later, the author of that review posted a follow up
stating that all his troubles were due to user error
and learning.  I want to avoid that.  For this review, I want to
overcome any initial familiarity issues such as
special characters, how to enter numbers, etc…
that all will come with familiarity and use of the
keyboard.  Now with that, thumbs up!  The
question is, will I love it or hate it when I’m
done?

WHAT’S HOT

  • Pocket
    Size, fits in a dress shirt pocket with ease
  • Ease
    of pairing, dedicated pairing button

  • Integrated 4 way navigation button, more useful
    than I originally expected

  • Backlit keys
  • No
    Drivers needed, uses standard Bluetooth HID
    profile

SETUP

     While the retail box for this
keyboard is supposed to come with the following; mini freedom keyboard,
Installation CD-ROM, Quick start guide, Instruction manual, Pouch, 2x
AAA batteries, and a TMTI (Talk Me Through It) Free
support card… our review unit was not retail packaged and arrived with
just itself and nothing else.  That’s right, no instructions, no
CD, not even a quick start guide.  Hmmmmm, this may be a challenge.  The On/Off was easy enough to
find, Ok there.  Now how to pair with my Pocket PC Phone Edition. 
Luckily, there is a clearly labeled "Link" button.  I pressed it,
nothing happened.  Pressed it again, nothing happened.  Hmmm,
maybe I should press and hold it for a few seconds.  Success! 
A little blue LED near the link button starts blinking away.  This
must be discoverable and pairing mode.  Let’s try to pair on my
phone…

      

     From the Bluetooth
Manager, simply select the appropriate option for
adding a new keyboard (above left), on my device it
is labeled "Connect to a keyboard".  This may
vary from device to device, so check with your
device’s documentation.  The device then
searches for keyboards within range, and once found
displays a standard authentication challenge (above
right).  The 6 numbers must be entered from the
keyboard, and once you press the enter button…

      

…They’re paired,
successful on
the first try.  Quickly and easily,
with no instructions needed.  It doesn’t get
much simpler than that.  After pairing is
complete, the keyboard is now available for use, and
you can see the new shortcut labeled "Input from
Mobile Keyboard" for this keyboard.  Note, that
you only have to pair once, after that you just
start typing and your device will automatically
connect.

NOTE: This setup
shows Pocket PC Phone Edition 2003, the steps for
your device may vary.  It also assumes that you
have support on your device for the Bluetooth HID
profile.  Many devices do, but many still do
not support this profile.  Check your
documentation to determine if your device supports
the HID profile or not.

PRODUCT FEATURES


    Now that we’re paired and talking
successfully, let’s look at the features packed into
this mini keyboard. 

Look and Feel
– The keyboard sports a basic, clean look that will
fit into any business or casual setting with ease,
and stylish enough to look cool doing it. 
Nothing too flashy about the design, but it has nice
lines that really aren’t too distracting or
attention grabbing.  The case is made of
plastic, but feels solid and
well built, with very few plastic creaks during use. 
Overall, it’s quite light and should not hinder most
people trying to carry it.  On to the keys
themselves, one thing that jumps out quickly is that
there is good tactile feedback on button presses. 
The buttons are small, but very usable still, and
have a very positive click that you can feel and
hear (if it’s quiet) during typing.  There are
even bumps for the "F" and "J" home keys for all the
touch typists out there.  Instead of adding the
Home Key bump on the keys directly like most
keyboards, the bumps are a feature of the case and
sit directly below the F and J keys, being a touch
typist, I had to wonder about this, but in practice
it worked just fine.

Keyboard Layout
and Use
– The keyboard layout for letters
follows a standard QWERTY layout, so this will help
most people.  Due to the small size of the
keyboard, there are no dedicated number keys, which
also means that most punctuation characters are also
not on dedicated keys.  Almost every key on the
keyboard has multiple uses, the standard upper and
lower case letter, and a special character. 
For example, the "A" key is used to enter "a" and
"A", but is also used to enter "%".  On most
keyboards, the "%" is located over the "5" key,
which means that if you’re familiar with a standard
keyboard, you’ll have to go hunting for the
characters you need.  The special characters
and numbers are printed in Orange (See detail below) on the keys to
make hunting for them easier. 

Backlit Keys
While not initially obvious, the keys can
actually be backlit for use in low light.  Next
to the "Link" button is an icon for a light, printed
in orange.  This icon is printed on the
keyboard case instead of on the key directly, but if
you press the "Num" key (described below) and the
"Link" button, you’ll see the buttons light up in a
subtle orange.  The keys themselves don’t light
up but the letter do, as do the special characters
and numbers (printed in orange).  This makes
typing in the dark not only easy, but a pleasure. 
The subtle tone and brightness of the backlight is
also very low key.  It’s plenty to work with,
and easy to read.  My PDA2K on the other hand,
lights up the entire keyboard keys in a beautiful,
bright blue that is almost unearthly, and always
gets other’s attention.  Normally, this causes
people to come over and ask about it, usually when
I’m trying to get something done.  The Freedom
Mini Keyboard on the other hand is practical, easy
to read and so far has not gotten anyone else to
comment on it when I’m trying to get something done.

The Shift Key
– There is only one [Shift Key], and it’s located on
the rightmost bottom corner of the Keyboard. 
Entering capitol letters is accomplished by pressing
and holding the [Shift Key], and then pressing the
corresponding letter.  This is in fact, exactly
how most standard keyboards work, but I found it to
be sometimes awkward on a small thumb keyboard. 
For letters located on the left of the keyboard,
such as [Q], [A], and [Z], this approach works fine. 
For letter located on the right however, such as
[I], I found this very awkward.  Remember,
there is no [Shift Key] on the left, so your right
thumb is pressing [Shift] while your left is
reaching all the way over to press [I].  Not
nice.  A better implementation (in my opinion)
is the way my internal PDA2K keyboard handles it,
once I press the [Shift Key], it holds that press
until I press the next character.  This is not
the way standard keyboards work, but I find it to be
a better thumb board implementation.  At this
point, you may be asking yourself, "Why didn’t they
put a [Shift Key] on the left side too like most
keyboards?".  Hold on, that’s covered in
the next section.

The Num Key
– Ok, since you asked.  Instead of a left side
[Shift Key], there is a left side [Num] key. 
This key allows you to get the numbers and special
characters printed in orange above the standard
letters on the keys.  For example, [Num] + [H] = "4".  This seems pretty straightforward, but
this is where my first MAJOR gripe comes in. 
Special care should be taken to enable the most used
characters easily, and certain punctuation I feel
falls in that category, namely the period "." and a
comma ",".  There are only 2 special characters
on the keyboard that have single key entry, and what does this
keyboard give you?  Go ahead and guess, no
really.  I’d guess a period and a comma, right? 
Oh no, that would not be the right answer.  The
two special characters that you can access quickly
with a single key press are, you’re not going to
believe me.  They’re a semi-colon ";" and an
underscore "_".  A semi-colon?  This would
be very useful if I planned to write code with this
keyboard, but I find that unlikely.  I’m not
dismissing the usefulness of the semi-colon and
underscore, but if you look at text, the comma and
period are often used more.  I’d request
that Freedom Input remap the next version of the
keyboard to switch the current location of the ";"
with "." and the "_" with ",".  I’m sure some
of you are finding this quite amusing that this
little thing is driving me nuts, but remember, I’m
writing this entire review with the keyboard. 
I thought this was a minor gripe earlier, but it’s
really bugging me now.

The 4-way
Navigation
– On the left side of the keyboard is
a unique 4 way navigation pad.  In normal
operation, the navigation pad operates as normal
keys, Up is the "S" key, Down is the "_" key, Left
is a Tab key and Right is the "X" key. 
Pressing the [Num] button changes meaning of these
keys to standard 4-way navigation controls which are clearly marked
in orange like other special function keys.  It
looks like the navigation pad might also double as a
game controller, but I’m not a gamer and was not
able to test this function for you.  At first,
I thought this feature was nice, but not a big deal. 
After writing a significant amount of text, I find
that I’m using this feature frequently and finding
it extremely useful.

The PDA Holder
The back of the PDA contains a small clip, which
unfortunately arrived damaged so we were unable to
review this functionality.  The clip opens
slightly to allow some PDA/Phones to slip into it, thus
attaching the keyboard to the bottom like other
thumb-keyboards. 

     As you can see in
the pictures above, the clip on our review unit was
damaged and the clip would not stay on to test. 
The close up shows the actual break, which may be an
indication of a weakness in the design.  It’s
hard to be sure, as our unit arrived this way, and
had signs of use before we got it, probably used in
design validation at Freedom before it found it’s
way to us.  To be honest, I would not have used
it, and having the clip off actually made the
keyboard thinner and easier to carry. 


    
Since our review unit was damaged, Freedom supplied
the above image to show one example of how the clip is
intended to work.  Based on our input about
this issue, Freedom Input send us a message
indicating that they have discussed the issue with
their manufacturers and that they are already in the
process of strengthening the hinge mechanism. 
If only every company were as proactive in
addressing issues, Kudos!

Size Comparisons
The above pictures show the size compared with
an i-mate PDA2K and with a Think Outside Stowaway
keyboard.  The Freedom Mini
Keyboard is very small, which adds to it’s
portability.

Power
Consumption
The keyboard is powered by 2
standard AAA batteries, which seem to last forever
in my use.  If and when they eventually run
out, new batteries can be found just about anywhere. 
With new batteries, the keyboard is rated at 120
hours of continuous use, or about 1000 hours in
stand by mode, which is made even longer since the
unit will auto power off when not in use. 
Supposedly, there is a low battery indicator, but I
haven’t seen it yet and it’s showing no signs of
needing a fresh set. 


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HELP SUPPORT

    Our review unit arrived in
non-retail packaging and did not include any
documentation, driver CD or even a quick start. 
I cannot comment on the quality of any documentation
that may be delivered in a retail version of this
keyboard.  This is great news.  Why you
might be asking?  Because I was able to pair the keyboard with
my phone almost instantly, without any instructions. 
How’s that for ease of use?


   
The retail package comes with a TMTI free support
card.  The TMTI stands for "Talk Me Through
It."  The fact that this card exists doesn’t
speak well for the ease of Bluetooth connectivity,
but I had no issues getting this keyboard to work. 
My phone has keyboard support built in, but many
devices do not and may require custom drivers or
other assistance to get up and running.  Our
unit was not retail packaged and thus did not have
this card, otherwise I would have given this service
a test drive for you.

SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS

   
In addition
to the basic requirement of supporting Bluetooth, your device needs to
support the Bluetooth HID profile, which enables use of Keyboards. 
My device shows this in the Bluetooth Manager as an option to "Connect
to a Keyboard," but it may appear different on your device.  In the
past, many keyboards used the Bluetooth Serial Port Profile, but needed
custom drivers to function.  Luckily, this keyboard supports HID
well and no custom drivers or software was needed to install on my
device.  Be sure to check what Bluetooth profiles your device
supports.

   
If your device does not support HID yet, I suggest
you do two things.  The first is to write to
the manufacturer and complain letting them know that
they need to support it!!  The second is to
check out Freedom Input’s webpage and check out
their online drivers to see if they have a custom
driver for your device.  One advantage that the
custom drivers offer is to program shortcuts and
programmable keys for specific tasks.  I did
not use or test any custom drivers for this review.

    
For those who will need custom drivers, Freedom will
be rolling out custom drivers in 3 phases. 
Phase 1 includes support for Symbian series 60 based
devices and these drivers are available now from
Freedom Input.  Phase 2, available in late
October 2005, includes custom drivers for Pocket PC
devices that use the Widcomm/Broadcom Bluetooth
stack, as well as Pocket PC devices that use the
Microsoft Bluetooth stack.  Phase 3, late
October or early November, will provide driver
support for Palm OS 5 and ‘other’ devices.

BUGS AND WISHES

   

I truly like this product, but it is not without
issue.  I found that the signal to seems weaker than
my Think Outside Stowaway keyboard.  I often
set my PPC Phone on a table, and type on my lap. 
With the Stowaway, this was never a problem. 
With the Freedom Mini Keyboard, this usually works,
but sometimes it would seem to be challenged (I’m
assuming due to weaker bluetooth signal.)  What
would happen is a letter I typed would just repeat
for some time like thissssssssssssssssssss. 
Other times, it would simply stop communicating, so
what I typed on the keyboard simply didn’t make it to my PPC Phone.  In most circumstances of normal
use, it operated without these issues.

   
When using a Bluetooth HID keyboard, to connect to
your device, you simply start typing on your
keyboard and the target device such as your Pocket PC
or mobile phone will catch up.  This sounds
good in practice, but needs improvement on this
keyboard.  Let’s compare the Think Outside
Stowaway with the Freedom Mini Keyboard on this
topic.  To test each, I’ll start with a
disconnected Pocket PC Phone Edition, and simply
type, "Pocketnow.com", let’s see how the two
keyboards handle it.

Keyboard:

Think Outside
Stowaway
Freedom Mini
Keyboard

What ended up on
my Pocket PC

Pocketnow.com Etnow.com

   

 

 

    As you
can see, the handling of the initial connection is a
bit different.  With the Think Outside
keyboard, you just start typing and the characters
all make it to your device.  The connection is
handled flawlessly, and quickly with no loss of
typed characters and no waiting on the user’s part. 
This is the way it should be.  With the Freedom
Mini Keyboard, the connection is done automatically
but the first few characters you type are generally
lost, how many depends on how fast you type. 
This means that you either have to go back and
correct the first part of your typing, which will
kill your productivity on a short note or reminder,
or you press a character to initiate the connection
then wait…..  and after the character shows
up on your device, you can start typing more. 
In practice, this limits the keyboard’s usability
somewhat for shorter notes, as it makes the keyboard
slow to whip out and jot a quick note on.  If
you’re going to be typing a longer block of text,
then it’s no big deal, but it does hinder using the
keyboard for small notes and reminders.  If
Freedom can address this issue, it would greatly
enhance this keyboard’s usability and portability,
and you could just whip it out when needed and start
typing.  That’s what it should do right?

    I’ve already mentioned my complaints with the period
"." and the comma "," not being
accessible with a single keystroke.  Being the
most used punctuation keys, I would think that
Freedom would have given fast access to them. 
Instead, to get them you have perform a simultaneous
2 key press, which is awkward and annoying. 
Freedom did however, provide you with fast access to
the semi-colon ";" and the underscore "_". 
Why???  If you plan to be writing C code, you might want
the ";" easily accessible, but I somehow doubt that
most coders will be using this keyboard for that
task.  This just seems like poor planning to
me, but maybe there is a reason that I’m missing. 
After writing this much of the review on the
keyboard, I’m finding this to be a major issue.

    
Then, there’s the no power indicator issue.  The on/off button located on the top is easily
found and used,
but there is no good power indicator.  I find myself forgetting that the unit is on and
leaving the keyboard in the on position.  There
is a small Blue LED near the [Link] button, and this
flashes briefly with each keystroke, but only while connected. 
This is a good indicator that the keyboard is awake. 
When you are not typing however, the LED is off and
you don’t have any visual clue that the keyboard is
still on.  I’ve left it on numerous times all
day, with seemingly little impact on battery life. 
Luckily, Freedom Input has added an auto-off feature
for just such occurrences.  I’d still like a
power indicator.

    
On Ergonomics, the keys on the unit are all
positioned in a grid, much like a standard keyboard. 
While making for a nice neat design and look, it
makes the keyboard a little less comfortable to use
than other small format keyboards that implement a
more ergonomic arc, which fits thumb typing better. 
The Palm Treo for example, or the PDA2K (shown
above) are good examples of this layout of
keys.  It may be a matter of personal taste,
but I prefer the arced key layout for thumb
keyboards.  (If you look at the linked high
resolution version of the above photo, you’ll also
notice that the PDA2K also provide direct keys for
the "." and the ",".  They are located on
either side of the space bar, how very convenient.)

PURCHASING

   

The Freedom Mini Keyboard is planned to be released
in mid-November, 2005. 
To track availability, visit the Freedom Input website, or you can place a pre-order at

Expansys.com for $59.95.  We don’t know
when they’ll be shipping, but at $59.95, we think
that’s a great deal.

PROS

  • Pocket-sized

  • Lightweight
  • Uses
    Bluetooth HID, no custom drivers needed
  • Cool 4-way
    navigation control
  • Backlit
    Keys
  • Long
    battery life
  • Good
    tactile feedback
  • Reasonable
    cost

CONS

  • Most
    commonly used punctuation keys not available via
    single key press
  • Slow
    initial connection, lost characters
  • Grid
    layout of keys, versus more ergonomic arc like a Treo
  • Slower
    than expected text entry
Value
Ease
of Use
Features

Overall

What
do these ratings mean?

OVERALL IMPRESSION

    So, now that I’ve completed most of this
review, let’s get back to my original question. 
Do I love it or hate it after this much use? 
Neither.  While I listed many areas for improvement,
I do truly like this keyboard and would recommend it
with some limitations.  I would not recommend
you try to write something as long as this review
with it, it’s just not the right tool (trust me on
that one). 
If you want to write large amounts of text, use a
more appropriate tool such as the larger foldable
bluetooth keyboards now available.  If however,
you want to have a keyboard available for general
use, quick notes, firing off a few emails, etc. 
Then this keyboard is meets that need well.  The
small size enables it to be carried almost
everywhere without hassle, and I found that I
usually had it with me when I needed it, unlike my
larger foldable keyboard.  Typing speed is not
as high as I had hoped when I started this review. 
Compared with my larger foldable keyboard, typing on
the mini keyboard is very slow.  This is to be
expected for a thumb keyboard, so I do not view that
as a negative, just a comment.  Compared to
using the internal Block Recognizer on the PPC,
typing on this keyboard is faster, but not by a
large margin.  Using the Block Recognizer, I
can almost keep up to the speed at which I can type
on this mini keyboard.  For many common
activities such as setting up a new meeting, or
jotting a quick reminder, I still use the stylus and
Block Recognizer, but for entering a block of text,
the mini keyboard comes out.  Speed is not
greatly enhanced, but it’s just a little more
comfortable to do it that way.  For those who
are uncomfortable with the stylus text entry, or
convinced that it cannot work for them, this
keyboard will likely be a dream come true. 
Freedom Input has put together a nice little package, highly
portable, easy to use and it does what it is intended
for very well.      


Side note
: If you’re wondering, this review was written entirely on an i-mate PDA2K Pocket PC Phone Edition, using the
Freedom Mini Keyboard and TextMaker.  Final
formatting and edits were performed on a
Windows XP machine running FrontPage.  Upcoming
reviews will continue to be written largely on my PDA2K,
most often using a larger foldable bluetooth
keyboard to enable high speed touch typing. 
Due to it’s size and portability, I expect that the
Freedom Mini Keyboard will often be used to augment
my traditional tools in these tasks.


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