Man & Machine
*Maximum Rating is FIVE (5) InfoPalms
FX100 Flexible Keyboard Review
By Robert Zach
This product looked very intriguing when PIC first broke the story. I have heard the concept of flexible PDA keyboards bantered about for almost two years (I was privy to a company who had a product in development and was working on a patent), and now it's finally here. The question is, how well does it work?
Man & Machine distributes this keyboard for a Korean Manufacturer, Flexis. They produce keyboards with connectors for the Palm V, m100, and III series, as well as the Handspring Visor and Compaq iPAQ. My review is of the Palm III series type.
As you can see the here, the product consists of the keyboard and a soft carry case. The manufacturer describes this case as made of "wetsuit material" (It is soft and stretchy - I don't know if it insulates!). The keyboard itself is made of silicon with a membrane sandwiched in between. If you've ever taken the keypad out of a cell phone you will be familiar with the type of contacts on the silicon and the membrane like material. This is very similar to how this keyboard functions.
I was quite pleasantly surprised by the acceptable level of tactile feedback this keyboard produced. Unlike a cell phone, the keys have a fairly long "throw" - that is, the stroke of the key when depressed. Now don't expect it to feel like a laptop, but it is not a mashing process - it's as "key clickable" as silicon can be.
Obviously the unique feature of this keyboard is that it can be rolled (not folded - that may damage the internal membrane). I found that the keyboard folded quite easily, while still laying very flat - it didn't seem to suffer from "memory" (it unrolled flat again). The keyboard then can be neatly tucked into the provided "wetsuit" case. It would be nice if the dongle was retractable or something like that (maybe that's coming! - see below). I did find that the connection point from the cable to the keyboard made the case fit very snug. But this really is a non-issue for me.
In order to use the keyboard, a 6K driver must be installed. I found the keyboard very easy to type on and simple to use. But the software is where the product could use some help. I could not access the original floppy that the product shipped with, and the driver was not downloadable from the Man & Machine website. I wrote to Flexis and got an immediate response - they e-mailed the most recent driver (they did have a download link on the corporate site, but surprisingly it was broken - it's fixed as of this writing). The driver is very basic - it allows the enabling/disabling of the driver, enabling/disabling of key-click sound, and QWERTY and DVORAK selection (this keyboard is QWERTY).
The largest problem with the driver, aside from a lack of features, is that it locks the serial port. Unlike other venders, the driver does not recognize the device upon attachment. So, in order to HotSync the driver must be manually disabled and manually re-enabled to use again. The other disappointing item is lack of pointer support for the cursor keys. I trust that these things will come with future enhancements to the driver - just like they did with the Stowaway.
As you can see in this last picture, I hooked this Palm III version up to my Palm m505. Worked like a charm, thanks to the Universal Bridge I recently reviewed. Also, if you look closely at the keyboard there is an "i" in the upper right hand corner. There is no support for that key; it is there for "future web support".
One more item to mention is a finding on the Flexis homepage. The site lists a FX201 product. The site says it will be an "Upgraded Flexible & Portable Keyboard for Mobile Computing." I wonder what they have in store next?
If you want the ultimate portable, non-breakable, hostile environment keyboard for your Palm - this is it!
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