Q-Pad for Palm Vx

Reviewed by: Howard Carson, send e-mail
Manufactured by: thinkDevice Co., go to the web site
Requires: Palm Vx (Q-Pad models are available for other PDAs)
MSRP: $69.99

I like Graffiti - the handwriting recognition language built into Palm OS. On the other hand, Graffiti has two important limitations - speed of use (how fast you can print letters) and cramped fingers which occur during extended use of the very thin stylus supplied with most PalmOS-based personal digital assistants (PDAs). On yet another hand, there are faster cursive recognition systems available as software add-ons for PalmOS. Unfortunately, none of the add-ons translate cursive into editable text (PDAs simply don't contain the massive processing horsepower needed for such a task), so the cursive remains in image format; almost useless in other words.

PDA owners gaze longingly at users of Research In Motion's (RIM) BlackBerry wireless device. The thumb keyboard on the BlackBerry is well-designed, requires only a few minutes to learn and makes ergonomic sense. Typing speed is limited only by your reflexes and eye-hand coordination. I WANT A THUMB KEYBOARD FOR MY SONY CLIE PEG-360! (Ed. Note: Sony released one subsequent to this review, but they're hard to find).

Enter the Q-Pad. It's a keyboard built into a slim leather case about the size of a typical flip-open PDA case. The case has a custom fitted Palm Vx attachment port and clamp. The upper section of the Q-Pad features a spring-loaded stand which props up a mounted PDA at a 40 degree angle. Q-Pad is also available for the Handspring Visor Edge. New Q-Pad models for other popular PDAs are scheduled for release during 2002.

The Q-Pad comes with a floppy disk which contains the software driver (PRC file) for the keyboard. Double clicking the PRC file will place it in the add-on dialog in the Palm Desktop. The PRC will install at the next HotSync. The PRC provides settings for the key repeat rate, repeat delay, on/off for the audible beep and a checkbox to enable and disable the Q-Pad. A 4-fold, half-page printed brochure is supplied as the User's Guide.

The best way to use Q-Pad is to place the PDA side on a desk or table and hold the keyboard side in both hands off the edge of the desk or table, using the keyboard with your thumbs. This technique doesn't work well at meetings however - you always need one hand free. The other solution is to place the whole Q-Pad flat on a desk or table and use one or both hands to type. When standing, hold the PDA side in one hand and type with the other.

After spending a week with the Q-Pad - a total of over 10 hours of use - I'm hooked on the product. Develop a Q-Pad with a good belt clip and a HotSync/re-charge port and I'll never go back to a plain PDA. The keyboard seems durable enough and has already withstood several drops. A bit of experimentation is required before you can consistently hit the Space key properly. When running the calculator, I generally use my fingers rather than the stylus to tap numbers and symbols directly on the main screen. This eventually mucks up the screen of course. Q-Pad's numeric keypad works well and prevents your screen from getting covered in fingerprints.

Cons: A few ergonomic flaws in the review unit: no backslash or tilde keys (both are important for technical notes); the open and close parenthesis are shifted with the 9 and 0 which in the Q-Pad layout are on opposite corners of the numeric keypad (which also means that open parenthesis is on the right while close is on the left - just the opposite of what they should be); keys labeled "AE" which have nothing to do with data entry (they're used for field shifts); the numeric keypad is too far to the left as a result of the location of the "AE" and tab keys. You have to remove the PDA from Q-Pad in order to HotSync or re-charge. Better docs please - there's no online help and the alleged 'User Guide' is completely basic: no mention anywhere that pressing "C" on the keyboard clears the calculator or that hitting the delete arrow clears entries; after much button pressing we discovered that "E" on the keypad accessed exponents and that "S" as well as "-" is used for negatives.

Pros: Once you get used to it, Q-Pad is much faster than Graffiti - after a week of regular use, I managed to clock 35 words per minute vs. 18 using Graffiti. If thinkDevice Co. comes up with a Q-Pad that also has a belt clip and a rear port for HotSyn/re-charge, it will have developed the perfect case/keyboard combo. Go for it - I'll take two please! We think the Q-Pad is a great idea. Look for improved Q-Pads for other Palm models soon. For now, Q-Pad is available for Palm Vx and Handspring Visor Edge. (Ed. Note: the Q-Pad models released after this review are a huge ergonomic improvement over the review unit). Recommended.

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