Gone are the days when all you needed on a mobile device was a numeric keypad and a T9 dictionary. Text entry on the move is an integral part of the mobile lifestyle these days, and there are a few of us hardcore keyboard fans who don’t feel a touchscreen keyboard provides the required level of precision or feedback. That’s especially true for a mobile computer like the Pandora, and since the Pandora was designed not just as a computer, but as a hacker’s machine, we users put even more demands on the keyboards of our devices. Here I’ll examine a select few solutions to the now age-old problem of typing and (separately) coding on the move.
[ This is a guest article from Levi ! ]
The devices fall into a few different categories – pocketable and non-pocketable, built-in and accessory, thumb typing and ten-fingered. Perhaps we’ll find something that can improve the Pandora, or could suggest an improvement ready for a future Pandora sequel. Let’s find out!
Perhaps the granddaddy of the portable keyboard computer are the Psion Organisers, specifically the Series 3 and Series 5. The Series 3 and variants achieved much of what the Series 5 did, but had a less remarkable keyboard. The Series 5 I have is slightly larger than the Pandora in all dimensions except it’s a little thinner.
Both machines came with PDA software preinstalled, in the case of the Series 5 the standard utilities (address book, calendar, note taker, calculator etc.) as well as some office apps (word processor, spreadsheet, simple database).
It’s possible to code on the devices, in a fairly simple Pascal/BASIC-like language called OPL, and it was also possible to cross-compile native applications for them, in a C++ variant for the Series 5 and in C for the Series 3.
Open the Series 5 up and an extending hinge offers the keyboard towards you. A plastic tab on the underside of the keyboard almost touches the surface as the keyboard extends, which helps to reduce flex when using it on a desk (actually, the keyboard is so solidly constructed that it tends to want to pivot about the front of the base rather than actually flex, but the feeling is much the same).
The keyboard has a very light action, and a key size pretty close to my EeePC 900 (see later) which makes touch-typing possible, but the home keys are not marked and trying if I try to fit all of my fingers on the home keys at once, it’s a little uncomfortable. In practice, I tended to hunt-and-peck using a couple of fingers when typing on it on a desk.
On the other hand, when using it handheld you can thumb-type just like on the Pandora. As it’s wider than the Pandora there’s less overlap between the thumbs, with all keys falling under the remit of either left or right thumbs but rarely both, and it’s possible to use it for quite extended periods with experiencing stress or pain with hand gymastics kept to a minimum perhaps except from when trying to type a quick word in caps, as it only has a single left shift which ties up your left hand, requiring you to span the device with your right hand to do a shift+A for example (or alternatively, to support the device entirely in your left hand). On the other hand, it does feature a caps lock feature, enabled through a slightly awkward fn+tab stroke, which is perhaps the better way to capitalise words.
In terms of layout, all the major bases are covered, though it’s missing some symbols you might need for Linux (pipe and back-tick most notably). It is possible to install a port of Linux on these devices, though with only 4MB RAM on the cheapest unit and an 18MHz ARM processor, it’s not possible to achieve a lot with it. More usefully, it was possible to install a terminal emulator and hook it up to a mobile phone (usually via IRDA, back when phones commonly had that) and dial through to a more powerful machine where you could do remote admin fairly straightforwardly. Personally I didn’t run Linux back when I last used this though, so I can’t report on how you’d simulate the missing keys.
The only accessory keyboard in this round-up is my Think Outside folding portable bluetooth keyboard. When closed, it’s about the same size as the Pandora, but thinner.
It’s the only pocketable device that permits easy ten-fingered typing, as it unfolds to double it’s closed width when opened via a slightly nifty sliding hinge mechanism which keeps it’s feet in the middle of the unit. Unfortunately this leaves the left and right of the keyboard unsupported which leads to rather rickety and noisy operation.
In terms of layout, it only has three rows of keys which results in the number keys only being accessible via one of the two function keys. Most punctuation is found on pretty standard US-layout keys, but symbols including coding symbols are mostly located on the rather busy top row. Effectively the numeric keys are collapsed to the top row with the numbers being accessible with a top row key plus the left function key and the shifted symbols being right function key plus a top row key.
In use it feels like a fairly standard pre-chiclet style laptop keyboard with an acceptable amount of travel and a reliable action. Keys register at the bottom of their travel, unlike some professional keyboards, but in common with all of the keyboards tested here (and all laptop keyboards I can remember using).
It’s a standard bluetooth keyboard, so it even works with the Pandora, although so far in testing I’ve needed to disable and reenable bluetooth on the Pandora before I can make it reconnect, and on a couple of occasions have even needed to reregister it before I can get a connection. I’m tempted to blame the Pandora/Ångström for this, as it often contradicts itself, claiming for example that it’s already connected, but the only cause of action from there being to connect.
Another annoyance with the Pandora is this is a US-layout keyboard. It mostly works without changing the keyboard layout, but if you need to access any of the coding brackets or even the exclamation mark, you’ll need to switch layouts using slaeshjag’s Keyboard Layout tool (on the repo). While this works, you’ll need to switch back to the Pandora internal layout before you can access all the symbols on the Pandora’s keyboard.
If this were to stay connected more reliably (I suspect it’s disconnecting to save power) it may be worth finding the space for to take with me when carrying my Pandora on a longer trip, and finding good triple-A batteries to power it, but as is I can’t really recommend this as a Pandora accessory.
In the front-pocket-pocketable category we have Blackberry style phones, in this case my now ancient Nokia E61 and E71. These are very definitely thumb typing devices, as there’s simply not enough space to fit more than a pair of thumbs on these keyboards.
The layout is fine for typing messages, though again numbers must be accessed by chording with a shift key (although it has sticky shift keys which make life easier on such a small device). Common punctuation marks have their own dedicated keys which in some ways mimic the standard 101 key layout, with the full-stop/period key living next to the comma which in turn lives next to the M. They are also grid layout keyboards with Q, A and Z being aligned with each other in a column, but I never found this to be a distraction personally.
Many punctuation marks must be accessed via the Chr key however, which brings up a menu consisting of a multi-page grid of characters, from simple brackets to hyphens, all the way up to the pipe character and international currency symbols. Especially having to access brackets via the Chr menu slows down longer writing, but for SMS messages and short notes it can hardly be bettered.
Sadly, it’s less than ideal for coding. While it’s fair to say these phones are not really designed for coding, it is possible to install language runtimes on them as smartphones, and I’ve tried (and crashed) the Python interpreter on them in the past. Entering code is rather laborious with almost all syntax characters requiring you to scroll through the Chr grid of characters, and certainly not for the feint hearted (or sensible).
This leaves the portable computers in this round-up; the back-pocket-pocketable Pandora and the definitely-not-pocketable (but still fairly svelte for a laptop) Eee PC 901.
This Eee PC is an old 9 inch screen model, making the device over twice the size of the Pandora, but it’s still pretty easy to sling in a bag and take with you. At close to 21 cm the keyboard is slightly more than twice as wide as the Pandora’s. It also has a lot more keys than the Pandora’s 44 – 59 by my count, ignoring the arrow keys and the dedicated F-keys that the Pandora doesn’t have.
It actually feels as if it has slightly less travel than the Think Outside keyboard, but it also has significantly smaller keys. That said it’s still possible to touch-type on it provided you don’t have the largest hands.
Layout is pretty standard for a laptop keyboard (UK layout in my instance) with a full six rows allocating full buttons for letters, numbers and the function keys. My only complaint with it when using the Linux shell is that the pipe symbol can only be accessed through the distinctly uncomfortable combination of left-shift, the function key and the Z key which is adjacent to both. I’ve no idea why using right-shift doesn’t work though – this may be a bug in my keyboard layout.
Other than that niggle, it’s a fine keyboard for knocking out anything from the shortest script to the longest opus, once you adapt to the smaller keys than on a standard laptop.
And so on to the Pandora.
In size the keyboard lies somewhere between that of the Psion Series 5 and the keyboard phones. As such, it’s definitely designed for thumb typing. Having shift on the left trigger makes writing messages a breeze compared to the other thumb typing keyboards though, and (if like me) you were never taught to touch type and figured out typing for yourself, you’ll likely be almost as quick at typing on it as on one of the fuller keyboards.
In terms of action while the keys activate at the bottom of their throw, that they’re rubber means they still have a little ‘squish’ left after their activation. Provided I push them hard enough to collapse their supports they always register, even if I immediately let them. And despite being made of rubber, they do not recall previous rubber keyboards thanks probably to their hard caps. This results in a pleasant, confident action.
The keyboard is too small for touch-typing and the home keys are not marked. Even if you try to type with your fingers rather than your thumbs, you’ll likely find the action a little more stiff than on touch-type keyboards, and you’ll lose access to the wonderful trigger shift.
It has a unique key offset, with each subsequent row being half a key offset from the row above, unlike the other offset keyboards, as well as standard PC keyboards which have a third of a key offset. In terms of layout, I find the numeric keys set above the gaming controls a little awkward to use being so close to the hinge, and I always have to think twice when looking for any of the symbols up there.
Perhaps this reflects on the fact I’ve not done too much coding on my six-month old Pandora, though I spend a fair amount of time in the shell, and like the fact the slashes, pipe symbol and ticks all seem logically, if unconventionally placed.
In typing the first draft of this piece on my Pandora, I’ve found the keyboard to be more than capable, though I have found a little pain in my thumbs results from typing for more than an hour. I suspect this is due to stretching for the middle set of keys from about R to N which don’t naturally fall into the domain of either hand and need to be stretched for. The fact the bottom of the device is much thicker than the bottom of my Series 5MX means it gets in the way a bit more when stretching. I suspect from the feeling that this is something I would adapt to somewhat after a lot more typing, however.
So for the professional author, it’ll at least take some getting used to, but as a pocketable take-anywhere device with pretty outstanding battery life. For the coder it has all the keys you might need, mostly conveniently placed (braces, tilde, hat, star and ampersand being over the compressed number keys notwithstanding).
I’ve heard complaints about the fact they’re glossy, and convex. I find the convex dome helps you hit the keys more centrally (while they do register an off-centre strike it’s not quite as reliable an action). The glossy plastic actually provides a lot more grip than the solid matt keycaps on some of the other devices, and I don’t personally object to the feeling.
To conclude, unless the Pandora were (or a future refinement is) signficantly wider, it will always need to have a keyboard suitable for thumb typing. If a future Pandora were to have a full touch-type capable keyboard it would need to be much wider, based on my experience with my Eee PC 901, but it’s possible to build a device that’s only a little wider but supports finger typing using a couple of fingers from each hand.
As Pandora owners we should be content we own a device with a keyboard which is as reliable as they get and has all the buttons you’ll ever need. If you’re looking for an accessory keyboard for your Pandora I’d recommend a USB one over a Bluetooth one (provided you also pack a USB hub or OTG cable).