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Man & Machine

Manufacturer:
Flexis Corp

The Price:

  • $70
The Pros:
  • Awesome portability
  • Nice feel to keys
  • Spill proof!

The Cons:
  • Fit is very tight for Palm III accessories
  • Driver software needs work

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FX100 Flexible Keyboard Review
By Robert Zach
1/28/2002


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.

Keyboard and Case 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.

Keyboard Rolled Up 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.

Keyboard and Palm Vx 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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But can you see while you type

rldunn @ 1/28/2002 4:01:08 PM #
The biggest question I'd like to see answered about this keyboard is how easy it is to position the PDA to see the screen while you type. I can touch-type very well, but I still need to see the screen for cursor movements, etc. Can the reviewer answer that?

RE: But can you see while you type
I.M. Anonymous @ 1/28/2002 4:23:42 PM #
and the realted problem is, that if you are going to be stuck with a cable to connect the keyboard with, you ought to be able to replace the cable with ones for other PDAs. Instead the keyboards are device specific.

RE: But can you see while you type
RobertZach @ 1/28/2002 5:04:01 PM #
Presumably the screen will be lying flat on the same surface as the keyboard. How easy is that to see? That's in the eye of the beholder (pun intended).

My opinion; I didn't find it to be a problem. Would it be better propped up - absolutely!

I don't think it's a show stopper for the intended purpose of this product - rugged portability for the must have keyboard moment.

RE: But can you see while you type
RobertZach @ 1/28/2002 5:06:59 PM #
"and the realted problem is, that if you are going to be stuck with a cable to connect the keyboard with, you ought to be able to replace the cable with ones for other PDAs. Instead the keyboards are device specific"

I agree with you on that one. It would be nice if I could just swap the cable for a different device but, then how would they sell more keyboards! Seriously, let's face it, that's why they spent the time and money developing it..to sell many of them.

I don't want to start an arguement over this but, ask the same question about the beloved Stowaway. How many versions are there of that keyboard? They want to sell keyboards. (my personal favorite BTW)

In fact, if the keyboard were "universal" the price would be MUCH higher, because they would sell fewer - maybe even out of reach to most.

Or Palm could just make a universal connector...Nah! Oh wait, they did that...sort of.

The positive side it makes a market for others like the makers of the "Universal Bridge". ;-)

-Rob

RE: But can you see while you type
tipds @ 1/28/2002 8:47:06 PM #
I disagree with what you say, Zach. If they made the keyboard "one size fits all", then anyone could use it. As it stands, they loose my purchase, because I have a Sony Clie. If they made it with a USB hub style, we could all connect our devices via the sync cradle. Besides, I may be missing your point, but I don't see how making the keyboard fit multiple types of units cuts into sales. I mean, if you have a Palm III, and you need a keyboard, you don't care if it's specifically for the Palm III or if it's universal. All you care is that it works...

Tip DS

RE: But can you see while you type
I.M. Anonymous @ 1/29/2002 1:11:18 AM #
Nonsense, I don't believe that putting the Palm flat on the table would be easy to type.
Let's get real guys.

RE: But can you see while you type
I.M. Anonymous @ 1/29/2002 3:31:52 PM #
Well I think we are forgetting one very important thing here...it's the cart before the horse game.

The PDA manufacturers made the PDA' first, then the keyboard came on the scene because the PDA companies didn't make exactly what the market wanted.

The keyboard manufacturer has no choice, the keyboard can't be universal, becasue there is no universal connector from the PDA manufacturer.

Talk to Sony and beg them to use the palm Universal Connector, then get eeryone else to do it and agree to keep it for years to come. Then, and only then, will you get a universal keyboard.


-Rob

RE: But can you see while you type
lipoffs @ 1/29/2002 3:48:22 PM #
I've been using the Flexis FX100 keyboard since the CES show and although I was a bit skeptical at first, I've actually grown to like the keyboard very much.

I found that when I first began to use it, I would tend to miss individual keys as I was typing, because the keys must be pressed in the center--if one strikes them off-center they often will not register. However, after I engaged the "key-click" feature on the driver, so that a sound is produced whenever the keys were pressed, I learned very quickly how to press the keys correctly. I can now type at about 45-50 WPM on this keyboard, after very little practice. It would be nice if one didn't have to engage the system sound in order to hear the key-clicks, and if the driver didn't lock the HotSync port. I'm sure that these improvements will be released over time; actually the initial release of this driver is far better than the original driver that came with the PPK, which was nearly unusable!

I've actually not found it much of a problem to read the Palm while typing with the keyboard, although I agree it would be nice if there was a built-in stand that would change the angle. What I've actually found makes a big difference is using FlipHack to rotate the Palm's screen ninety degrees counterclockwise so that the screen can be placed closer to the keyboard. You can download this wonderful program (and the wonderful FlipDA) at http://www.byteswapped.com/palm/

You can also take a look at a more complete review of this keyboard and the PPK at http://sam.lipoff.org/palmpilot/hardware.html

Also, as regards to the debate whether keyboards should exist for PDAs . . . relax! =) Some people happen to find the benefits of portability, affordability, and battery-life outweigh the disadvantages of a small screen and limited processing power, and some people don't. It's a personal choice, but I happen to find that keyboards for my Palm Pilot are a great boon to the way I use it, but clearly it's not right for everyone. =)

RE: But can you see while you type
I.M. Anonymous @ 1/29/2002 4:18:49 PM #
The PDA manufacturers all use different types of connectors that make a "one-fits-all" impossible. Also, each connector has a different pin-connection configuration, so that makes it difficult as well. I think there are plans to have an adapter made in the future if possible though.

LM

RE: But can you see while you type
I.M. Anonymous @ 6/3/2002 8:46:56 AM #
A low tech solution to propping the PDA up: Contact (the "contact paper" company, more familiar for stick & peel shelf paper) makes a rubber-feeling shelf liner, sold in my local grocery store for $3.99 in a 5-foot length. A very small piece, wrapped around the FX100's case, makes a non-slip surface which will prop the PDA up quite nicely.
I'm a "bat-out-of-hell" typist, and after a few minutes felt pretty comfortable with the small size of the keyboard, tho I haven't liked other mini keyboards I've tried at all, and find the full-size keyboards on the market "rickety" feeling.
RE: But can you see while you type
I.M. Anonymous @ 6/11/2002 8:19:59 AM #
I keep my Palm on a calculator stand I found in my drawer to avoid spills, etc.

This would work for viewing the Palm.

if you ever need a keyboard you better get a laptop

I.M. Anonymous @ 1/28/2002 4:15:12 PM #
i never understood why portable keyboards are somewhat popular..If I ever need one I will buy a laptop. there
is an old saying: "Better the mouse's head that the lion's tail"

RE: if you ever need a keyboard you better get a laptop
rldunn @ 1/28/2002 4:52:44 PM #
I can stick my Stowaway and Clie in my pocket and no one can even tell I'm carrying anything. Try that with your laptop. Not to mention the fact that I can turn it on, type a whole email, send the email, and turn it back off before my laptop would even boot up.

RE: if you ever need a keyboard you better get a laptop
I.M. Anonymous @ 1/28/2002 5:24:14 PM #
I agree. If you are going to write a novel, get a laptop. You defeat the purpose of a PDA (light, portable, compact) with all of this keyboard-accessory nonsense.

Just say ''no'' to laptops
I.M. Anonymous @ 1/28/2002 5:46:57 PM #
A laptop is twice the size of a PDA + keyboard, twice the price, four times as heavy. No thanks. Get a PDA and a desktop. Thare's a good combination.

RE: if you ever need a keyboard you better get a laptop
I.M. Anonymous @ 1/28/2002 6:34:09 PM #
ha ha try to use that flexible keyboard on your lap...
sounds like a joke..
I myself use to have a keyboard (Go type) with my IIIe but after a while I realized that i needed a bigger case -or a separate case to carry both; and then a hard surface (table) to use it (and whenever I found a desk to setup my palm and keyboard, there was a PC available nearby).. not mentioning that I couldnt use it with my other palm (Vx)..
to make the story short, It looked like a laptop-wannabe or a poor man's laptop or a nintendo on steroids ha ha..
the PDA keyboard goes againts the PDA's nature (by definition), I'm sure some people are happy with it but personally I think its just a marketing thing, making us think we need it and of course it looks cool. Don't forget that Graffiti started the Palm OS / PDA revolution with the Palm Pilot 500.


RE: if you ever need a keyboard you better get a laptop
I.M. Anonymous @ 1/28/2002 6:49:20 PM #
"If you are going to write a novel, get a laptop. "

Can't agree with this. Many novelists (judging from the few I know) like the palm-sized machines and folding keyboards becuase they can write virtually instantly when the inspiration hits them, or at the point of research. Sure, they use a larger machine, a laptop or desktop, to consolidate, reorganize, edit, etc. But lots of actual creative writing happens 'in the field' and that's where the Palm helps.

RE: if you ever need a keyboard you better get a laptop
I.M. Anonymous @ 1/28/2002 7:33:26 PM #
I can see both sides of this:

I have a (very capable) laptop but when I just want to type something quickly without, say, caring about formatting I reach for my PPK. In terms of sheer portability and ease of use, you just can't beat it.

OTOH its strange to have a peripheral for a PDA, which is really just a peripheral anyway (despite all the MS spin to the contrary).



RE: if you ever need a keyboard you better get a laptop
I.M. Anonymous @ 1/29/2002 12:36:01 AM #
I do most of my work laptop, and as a college student, when I'm in class typing notes, I'd rather have a PDA+Keyboard setup than be the guy who has to sit near the power outlet so my laptop doesn't die. There is no noisy cooling fan on my m505, and I can transfer my notes into MS Word on the laptop. Granted I can't play a DVD with my PDA, but there exists an inherent tradeoff. The PDA+Keyboard is a nice, friendly intermediary between full fuctionality and quick usability. Obviously there are short comings with all of the current keyboard offerings, but the main idea is that if you think a keyboard will help you do what you do, buy the one you think works the best. Isn't a PDA supposed to be about convienience anyway?

RE: if you ever need a keyboard you better get a laptop
robrecht @ 1/29/2002 10:29:49 AM #
I have a huge, heavy desktop replacement laptop and have shopped around for a super light subnotebook, but I have yet to find one with a keyboard that is as comfortable to use as my Palm folding keyboard.

Thanks, Robrecht
RE: if you ever need a keyboard you better get a laptop
I.M. Anonymous @ 1/29/2002 10:48:01 AM #
As a former student and current professional, I second that. I used the PPK in school a lot. In the work place, in a recent example, I managed to take great notes at an all-day meeting, beam them to one coworker right at the meeting when it was over, then download them and email them to my coworkers minutes after getting back to the office. While I could have used a laptop, it would have been much more intrusive, required finding an outlet, and I would have had to lug it to and from the meeting. Instead, I was able to go to the meeting on a moment's notice, get all the work done I needed, and then pack up and leave in seconds.

While the PPK and similar devices don't fill every need, I would say that for students and really mobile professionals, it's a back-saving indespensible tool.

But enough on keyboards in general; what was it like typing on this flexi thing? I like the idea, but the key travel and feel of the PPK is pretty good, and I'd hate to give that up.

RE: if you ever need a keyboard you better get a laptop
I.M. Anonymous @ 1/29/2002 3:57:21 PM #
"ha ha try to use that flexible keyboard on your lap..."

Actually, I have seen this keyboard, and you can place it on your leg
(even bent around your leg) and still type on it. So you don't necessarily
need a flat surface to type with it. Having a flat surface does make it easier, though.

This keyboard isn't ment to type a novel on. It is ment to make it much easier
to type emails, update your address books, or make it easier than using the
stylus.

LM

RE: if you ever need a keyboard you better get a laptop
I.M. Anonymous @ 1/29/2002 6:44:20 PM #
"It is ment to make it much easier to type emails, update your address books, or make it easier than using the stylus." ....

..so whats the point? I dont need to carry a keyboard + cable + case just to update my address book!!GMAB!; it probably takes me more time finding a place to setup the keyboard plus finding the correct angle to view the screen than a few handstrokes wiht the stylus..


Keyboard <> laptop.
I.M. Anonymous @ 1/31/2002 2:41:14 PM #
It may be a little late to chime in here, but here's my two bits.

The whole point of making accessories for PDAs is that people can choose the solution that best suits their needs.

No, you don't need a keyboard for the small quick stuff like putting someone into your Address Book, or jotting down a few quick notes in Memo Pad. That's why they made Graffiti. But there are going to be situations where it's not as convenient to lug a laptop.

Note-taking is a good example. I regularly attend meetings where I need to take notes in brief spurts throughout the session, at a speed I can't reach with Graffiti. Since these eventually need to be attached to an email, pen-and-paper doesn't really work. I used to carry my laptop to these things, set it up next to a socket, boot it up, and start up the word processor; only to leave the laptop idle in stretches where I wasn't taking notes.

This lasted until one of the others in the group started bringing his Palm V and portable keyboard. There I am laboriously unloading the laptop and the power cables and the travel mouse (I hate IBM's thumb-pointer), connecting it all, and waiting for it to boot up, and before I'm halfway finished he's gone click, pull, slide, snap, and he's ready to go, taking up half the space and a fraction of the time as the laptop.

Well, damn, I said to myself, feeling mightily out-gadgeted. Here I am lugging this heavy laptop that just sits there for half the session, and he's accomplished the same purpose with this teeny lightweight convenient little thing of his.

So I bought both Palm and keyboard off him the second he got his m505. And never regretted it.

For what I need, it's just sooooo much easier to throw the folded PPK into my bag and go, instead of dismantling my laptop (which also serves as my home PC) and packing it. One second vs five mintues. Then, when I get there (this is an informal meeting) all I have to do is find the teeniest amount of flat space--a tray table, the coffee table, my notebook, the floor, the cat tree--pretty much anywhere. Desk, schmesk. Ten seconds later, I'm ready to go; and in between notes I can just turn the Palm off. I can't tell you how much more convenient and useful this combination is than the laptop, for this specific use. It works for me--and THAT's the whole point of a PDA.

--rueyeet who is too lazy to log in today.

too big...

acarrino @ 1/28/2002 4:07:11 PM #
this doesn't look like it packs up that small. You can get the PPK for the same price, and it is more compact...It also holds the palm at a good angle for typing.

RE: too big...
I.M. Anonymous @ 1/28/2002 6:32:59 PM #
You're missing the point. It isn't designed to be small. It's designed to be indestructible.

Are there Palm-specific keys?

I.M. Anonymous @ 1/28/2002 5:58:01 PM #
I'd like to know a few more details about how you like using the keyboard with your palm. For example:
1) are there Palm-specific keys on the keyboard? (e.g., application keys, a Find key, a shortcut key, etc.)
2) how often do you have to go back and forth between the keyboard and using a stylus? Often enough to get irritating?
3) how big is the keyboard when rolled up in the case? (HxWxD please) How does the size compare to the Stowaway?
Thanks for letting me pester you :)

RE: Are there Palm-specific keys?
RobertZach @ 1/28/2002 7:50:31 PM #
All excellent questions! And it's no bother.

The keyboard has a "FN" button. The 1,2,3,4 keys have launch the Address, Memo Pad, Calendar, and ToDo respectively.

The A, F, and K keys also have "FN" modifiers. They are "folder" (not sure what this does), Find, and Keyboard (makes sense).

The ENTER key and SPACE key also host "OK" adn "NEW" functions.

Lastly, the + hosts a contrast function and there is also an individual key for the command shortcut.

These are important details, and I'm glad you asked.

From the manufacturer's site:
"The keyboard is soft and pliable that can be bent or rolled up and stuffed in your pocket. It's lightweight (2.4 oz), measures 4mm X 85mm X 250mm or 5/32" X 3 5/16" X 9 13/16"."

As tight as I can roll it...the keyboard is 1.25" in diameter.

RE: Are there Palm-specific keys?
I.M. Anonymous @ 1/28/2002 8:07:05 PM #
Also, can you give an idea on how much it weighs compared to the folding keyboard and the GoType??

My guess is that it is much lighter than both...

Thanx

RE: Are there Palm-specific keys?
I.M. Anonymous @ 1/29/2002 10:26:13 AM #
thanks for the answers, Robert!

The ultimate feature needed

I.M. Anonymous @ 1/29/2002 12:30:34 AM #

I really like this thing! Would love to replace my GoType for this. Here is what I think would make the thing flawless though.

Instead of having just the cable to connect to the PDA. Instead wrap the cable in a small moldable coil that is wrapped with a rubber kind of coting. You know, like the desk laps that you can position to wherever you want and they stay there...

Then you could have 2 tab like coils made of the same stuff that you can bend and mold to act as stabalizers for the PDA.

You could position the pda upright in front of the keyboard and adjust it to as far as the length will allow.

As long as the material was thin and sturdy it wouldn't add much volume or weight to it.


I bet it would be super comfortable to use then since you could adjust the PDA distance and angel to you liking.



RE: The ultimate feature needed
I.M. Anonymous @ 1/29/2002 11:40:51 AM #
I looked at the flexible keyboards a couple of months ago when I was shopping for a KB for my Palm IIIxe. Although the design intrigued me, I finally ended up with a GoType Pro. The price is what sold me---direct from Landware's site it was only $39.95 plus shipping, and includes the TakeNote word processor and a thesaurus (packaged as the "author's bundle"). Can't beat it for the price, and as someone who's always struggled with Graffiti, I can touch-type 50 wpm on the GoType with near 100% accuracy.

FYI---I don't work for LandWare; just wanted to make folks aware of an affordable alternative in the KB realm.

B5-sized WinCE vs. Palm PDA w/ Keyboard

I.M. Anonymous @ 1/29/2002 1:50:25 AM #
If people really need typing lots with Palm, they would choose laptop or b5-sized WinCE becoz document conversion is another concern.

Palm PDA should be designed mainly for people working off the desk often. This leads to a conclusion that they won't be able to put such a portable keyboard on a desk. If they can, is it worth?

Some may have Palm PDA even normally work in the office. This situation I assume they should have a personal computer at all time with their jobs. Hence they can type more comfortable with the usual keyboard than such a small one. Then the data can be sync. immediately.

My final comment is that when we use Palm PDA, we need for the speed but not for more trouble/inconveniences.

HE330 landscape solution?

I.M. Anonymous @ 1/29/2002 10:22:23 AM #
Maybe this would work for HE330 users that want to type in landscape mode. What do you think?


RE: HE330 landscape solution?
I.M. Anonymous @ 1/29/2002 11:27:11 AM #
Sure, but only because it offers no place to rest the handheld.

RE: HE330 landscape solution?
I.M. Anonymous @ 1/30/2002 2:39:58 AM #
I make this solution. In Moscow, Russia we can see
this adapter:
http://www.palmclub.ru/club/pilotovka10.shtml

it works with all keyboards Palm III compartible.

WBR
smallcat (Alexander Motichev)

What about T615c?

ethan @ 2/1/2002 4:32:09 PM #
What devices is this compatible with? Is it able to work with Clié s? Hopefully my new T615C? PLease help me out here.

RE: What about T615c?
Ed @ 2/1/2002 4:37:18 PM #
As the review says:
> They produce keyboards with connectors for the Palm V, m100, and III series,
> as well as the Handspring Visor and Compaq iPAQ. 

Sorry, at this point there are no keyboards that will work with the T series. A Think Outside spokesperson told me recently that the company is currently working on a version of its folding keyboard that will work with the entire T series. This should be available "in late 2nd Quarter of this year".

www.palminfocenter.com/view_Story.asp?ID=2859

---
News Editor

There goes my Patent

I.M. Anonymous @ 2/11/2002 1:06:48 PM #
Darn!

I was just thinking the same thing - this is the best kind of Palm keyboard possible. The connector to the Palm unit is the only "hard" piece of electronics, while the keyboard is flexible.

Awesome...keep it up guys.

debate over Palm vs. notebook-

I.M. Anonymous @ 4/26/2002 3:28:57 PM #
I think it's kinda useless to debate the merits between the Palm, Palm plus keyboard, notebook, etc. They're all basically different points on a scale of portability. Whatever works best for someone may or may not work for others.

As for this keyboard, I was initially very intrigued with the idea. But it seems that unless you need the durability of this unit, the folding keyboards work better. You more or less need a flat surface with both, and both are very compact which is nice.
But you can type faster on the folding keyboard.

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