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By Stephen H. Wildstrom Ever since Apple's Newton hit the market in 1994, the biggest complaint about handheld computers has been the difficulty of entering data. Things have gotten a lot better since Newton's almost-useless handwriting recognition, but problems remain.
This difficulty is also a major impediment to any use of wireless phones designed to handle data more complicated than a simple page. Typing on the keypad, which can require four taps to enter a single character, is painful. So, Nextel and Motorola have come up with a novel solution for the data-ready i85s phone, the Motorola iBoard.
The $100 iBoard is a modified version of Think Outside's Stowaway folding keyboard available for a wide variety of PDAs. In addition to a full standard keyboard, it features an assortment of special keys to mimic the function of such phone keys as send, end, and the left and right soft buttons. When the i85s is snapped into the iBoard, you can use it as a speakerphone while controlling all of its functions from the keyboard. It takes a bit of getting used to -- I found I always wanted to select an option on the phone menu by hitting the return key instead of "right option" to choose "OK," but it works well.
MISERABLE DISPLAY. Of course, attaching a keyboard to make phone calls is silly. Its main use is entering e-mail messages. And here, the iBoard can solve only half the problem. With a keyboard, I can bat out messages as quickly as I could on a desktop or laptop. But to read e-mail, or even to read what I have written, I'm still stuck with the phone's miserable six-line display. Even a very good keyboard can barely make a phone a mediocre e-mail device.
Think Outside's iBoard ingeniously folds into a package just 5 x 3.5 x 8 inches and weighs 8 ounces. Still, that's bigger and heavier than most PDAs.
If you want a keyboard of sorts in a much smaller package, consider the $50 Pocket Keyboard from Fellowes. The Pocket Keyboard for Palm and Handspring was designed and made by Cirque Corp., which is best known for making laptop touch pads. It uses the same electrostatic technology as a touchpad, so the "keys" don't actually move when you tap them.
NO TYPING NEEDED? The Pocket Keyboard is just 3.8 x 2.7 in., and the keys, in a standard QWERTY layout, are circles about 1/4-in. in diameter. Despte the unit's diminutive size, it's possible with a little practice to type with good accuracy and reasonable speed of perhaps 20 words per minute. The main thing that takes getting used to is the lack of tactile feedback from the keys and the unusual arrangement of some of the symbols. The comma is below the "m" key rather than to its right. The Pocket Keyboard comes in versions for all Palms except the m500 series and all Handspring Visors except the Edge.
Auxilliary keyboards can big a big help, but if PDA trends continue, they may eventually become unnecessary. The newest Pocket PCs feature more processing power than the desktop computers of a few years ago, and brute-force computation can enable handwriting and speech recognition. In addition to a kind of shorthand like Palm's Graffiti, Pocket PCs come with handwriting recognition that I found almost usable -- and usually I can barely read my own handwriting. IBM is offering speech recognition for command and control that's bundled with the Compaq iPAQ. And with further increases in processing power and memory, full-fledged speech recognition for dictation should become possible.
Currently, Palms lag far behind in processor power, but that should change next year with a new generation of brains based on the same Intel StrongARM chips used by Pocket PCs.
For more information:
Think Outside: www.thinkoutside.com
Fellowes: www.fellowes.com Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. Follow his Flash Product Reviews, only on BW Online