Game Over Online ~ Stowaway Portable Keyboard

GameOver Game Reviews - Stowaway Portable Keyboard (c) Think Outside, Reviewed by - Fwiffo

Game & Publisher Stowaway Portable Keyboard (c) Think Outside
System Requirements Pocket PC / Palm OS
Overall Rating 95%
Date Published Monday, January 7th, 2002 at 05:18 PM

Divider Left By: Fwiffo Divider Right

Reviewer's Note: The Stowaway Portable Keyboard is compatible with a variety of Pocket PC and Palm OS devices. We used a Compaq iPaq Pocket PC for the sake of this review.

Earlier this year, Intel bought Xircom and acquired the REX line of PDAs. These credit-card sized PDAs were excellent at displaying information like phone numbers, but inadequate for more complex tasks like viewing web pages or the Achilles heel of all PDAs, inputting mass amounts of information. The REX faced a quick demise under Intel's stewardship but Intel, Xircom and the REX's creator, Franklin, probably didn't have Think Outside's Stowaway with them. If you ever thought creating a document in your PDA would be a painful chore and you used excuses like your PDA had a limited screen size, or the handwriting recognition just didn't click for you, you no longer have an excuse with this accessory.

Stowaway is a keyboard accessory that enables PDAs, from Handspring's Visor to the HP Jornada, to effectively turn your PDA into a mini-notebook. For this article, we'll be looking at Think Outside's product for the Compaq iPaq PDA. Its design is actually quite innovative and elegant in itself. It features four panes that fold a full-sized keyboard into something that is hardly slightly thicker and larger, dimension-wise, than a mini diary. If you have deep pockets, you can easily fit it inside and it can definitely be carried around in a purse, briefcase or jacket. Setting up the Stowaway takes little more than two steps: releasing a latch that opens up the four panes and sliding the keys together from both sides. Your PDA is held up much like how a book is held up with a bookstand, but the connector is specific for your PDA only. That means you can't interchange Palm with iPaq keyboards or vice versa. Compared to the other parts of the product, I found this part a bit flimsy as I was always concerned whether my PDA would slip off since the only thing holding it in place are the connecting pins from PDA to the keyboard. I'm happy to report that incident never happened and holistically speaking, the Stowaway is a solid product both in its folded and unfolded positions. It is made of durable plastic that has the feel of metal.

Within this casing, the Stowaway is a full-sized keyboard using the QWERTY standard. It features 19mm spacing, which is just as big as desktop computers and easier to type than even some sub or mini notebooks. Touch and response feel is subjective to each person but I can tell you that the Stowaway allows for some pretty quick typing and the keys don't take too much effort to strike, accommodating for extended periods of use. Once you get the unfolding and folding process down pat, you can set up your Stowaway just about anywhere, but it works best on a flat surface, preferably a solid one too. The middle part of the Stowaway gives way slightly when you type hard if it is placed on your lap or even on a light magazine. However, on other surfaces, it works admirably. Unlike RIM-like thumb-based keyboards, I found myself weary of whipping this out on the subway or train, opting to use other methods of input instead. It simply isn't worth the hassle to jot down a quick note, but for longer e-mails or composing lengthy pieces of writing, the Stowaway is a timesaver.

If you use your PDA as your primary e-mail client and you spend more time composing e-mail on it than on your PC, a Stowaway is absolutely invaluable. Moreover, if your PDA is in any way shape or form the replacement for your notebook, the Stowaway keyboard provides a great docking station for your PDA. For the iPaq version, you get a connector to help keep your PDA on A/C power and inkwells at the top left / right corners of the keyboard for your styli. The Stowaway also accommodates expansion sleeves as well.

Usage of the keyboard requires a quick installation of a small piece of software less than one hundred kilobytes. The driver is loaded like a program and it integrates seamlessly with the Pocket PC operating system. It works with Pocket PC 2002 too and Think Outside will be releasing a small adapter to help convert existing Stowaway keyboard users to accommodate the new iPaq 38xx series. Existing users and those who have upgraded to the new operating system will have no trouble using the supplied software. Stowaway can be enabled or disabled on the fly and you can hot dock it anytime you want. There are options to configure the keyboard repeat rates, repeat delay and even a little box to test them just like Windows. Admittedly, Think Outside could have stopped there but they have also added things we expect from keyboards like the Start key, which in the iPaq version brings up the Pocket PC Start menu. A Today key brings up the all-important Today screen for the Pocket PC. Furthermore, they have included launch keys to applications like Word or Excel with the use of a 'Fn' button similar to how notebooks cope with fewer keyboard real estate. You can, in fact, configure these to whatever applications you have in mind too by using 'Fn + 1' key to emulate something akin to F1 on your keyboard. With support like this, the Pocket PC operating system almost seems like Windows on your desktop. All the hotkeys like 'CTRL-A' to select everything are faithfully re-created and you have to wonder whether the Pocket PC operating system was designed with Stowaway in mind.

That probably represents my impressions of the Stowaway. It could have done just the bare bones issue of being a keyboard accessory but Think Outside went much further than that. This extra effort gives a professional polish on the product and the notion that whoever designed this product must obviously have been a user or, at least, went into the minds of PDA users. It is an excellent product for those people who consider the PDA one of their primary utilities. For people who may need to input more than a paragraph or two of information, this seems to be one of the quickest ways to get that data into your PDA. As far as entertainment purposes go, I couldn't find titles that support the keyboard. Perhaps one day there will be a copy of Sega's Typing of the Dead for the PDA. But the Stowaway was still handy for typing the increasingly lengthy and cryptic registration keys that I get for games. It also helped, as it does with other applications, any portions of the game that required text to be written. The naming of characters, entering into the high score table and sorting out save games, were made easier. Hopefully, subsequent versions of the Stowaway software will let us emulate the Notes button on the PDA itself, to facilitate gaming, rather than launch the Notes software directly. However, these are just minor quibbles about what amounts to an outstanding product. If you are even a casual follower of PDAs, you will undoubtedly have come across critical acclaims for the Stowaway keyboard. This praise is definitely well deserved.


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