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Honey, I Shrunk The Keyboard


As the use of wireless phones for e-mail and other text messaging has grown, buyers have faced a tough choice. They could choose a small handset and put up with triple-tapping the phone keypad to enter text. Or they could go for a Treo or BlackBerry and get a keyboard and, along with it, a much larger and heavier device. Now there are a couple of new products that try to bridge the gap by squeezing a keyboard into the confines of a traditional phone handset design.

The Nokia (NOK) 6820 ($200 after a $150 rebate with activation from AT&T Wireless Services (AWE)) is a tiny, 3.6-oz. handset with the bells and whistles typical of a high-end phone. My only complaint about it for voice use is that while the rectangular phone keys look good, the nearly flat surface makes them harder to use than raised buttons.

But the phone becomes more interesting when you lift the keypad. The unit pivots on two arms that straddle the screen to lie flat, revealing a true keyboard -- split in half with the screen in the middle. Now you can write e-mail. Lots of practice with palmOne's (PLMO) Treo 600 and Research in Motion BlackBerrys has made me a good thumb typist, but the split keyboard took some getting used to. It has much larger keys than a Treo or BlackBerry, and this turns out to be a mixed blessing. Big keys are nice, but the keyboard is 6 inches wide, making keys on the extreme left and right hard to reach.

BUTTONS AND MENUS POSE ANOTHER ISSUE. You control the phone's menus and options with two buttons and a mini-joystick, whose changing functions are described on labels at the bottom of the screen. These work fine with the keyboard closed, but become a bit awkward when the phone is opened and the display rotates 90 degrees. You can use the Nokia as a phone with the keyboard open if you use a headset, but it is clumsy. Following the lead of Treo and BlackBerry and putting number keys in a standard four-row arrangement within the keyboard, instead of in a row across the top, would help. So would lighting the keys.

The Voq Professional Phone (available in Europe this summer) is a first try at a handset by Sierra Wireless (SWIR), a Vancouver maker of radio modules for laptops and handhelds. It's an ugly but interesting bar-type phone built on Microsoft (MSFT) Windows Smartphone software. Smartphones handle e-mail messages well, and Sierra has added its own VoqMail program to provide access to corporate mail. The importance of text makes this phone scream for a keyboard.

The solution: A hinge on the left side allows the keypad to flip open, revealing a keyboard spread across the back of the dial pad and the lower part of the handset. Having the full weight of the handset over the right half of the opened keyboard creates some balance problems while the user is typing. But the two halves are much closer together than on the Nokia, and better key spacing and rounded buttons make typing easier, although lighted keys would be nice. The basic phone buttons, including the mini-joystick, remain accessible when the keyboard is open, making it much easier to combine voice and data functions on the Voq, say entering an appointment while chatting.

Customers of Telus Mobility in Canada will soon get another option: an LG Electronics handset with technology from Digit Wireless that puts little alphabetic keys between the buttons of a standard phone keypad. It's not as natural as a regular text keyboard, but it's more efficient than triple-tapping the phone keys.

None of these products is close to a perfect solution for data entry. As someone who uses a phone more for e-mail than voice, I'm willing to accept a bigger handset for better performance, so I'm sticking with my Treo. But these are useful experiments that promise better things to come.

For a collection of past columns and online-only reviews of technology products, click here By Stephen H. Wildstrom


Steve Ballmer, Power Forward
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