Sunday, February 26, 2012

Asus Transformer Ice Cream Sandwich and a Bluetooth Keyboard

Text input on a touchscreen device is a necessary but painfully evil problem. It is true there are a few on screen keyboards are better than others, high  praise akin to the improvement in soup with the addition of 1oz versus 4oz of rat poison. OS vendors  and device manufacturers are well aware of the problem, which results in a plethora of on screen keyboard choices, varying degrees of annoyance inducing autocomplete and text prediction engines, and hyper active haptic feedback complete with IBM selectric sound effects, and finally with the admission that the problem just cannot be solved,  most devices support bluetooth, usb or/and hardware keyboards.

When choosing which new device to purchase for everyday usage, you need to consider your needs carefully along with your budget. Last year, when in  need of a tablet for a development project, we took some time to consider the use cases and set up some sensible requirements.

  •  Recent Android OS
  •  External SD or microSD Storage 
  •  Keyboard Support
  •  Large Tough Screen 
  •  HDMI Out
  •  Capacitive Touch Screen
  •  Reasonably Priced
  •  Front and Rear Cameras
  •  No Contract

Google handed out the initial batch of Honeycomb Xoom tablets at their annual Google IO conference, making it the odds on favorite. Despite being Google's official Android development device, the Xoom version released for sale was far less attractive, being overly high priced and shipped knowingly with non functioning SD reader hardware/drivers. Briefly the Atrix was a possibility with their linux based webtop dock, but after a few too many complaints from friends, slow to non existent updates and Motorola was off the list.  

Acer and Asus had dueling 10 inch tabs with virtually identical specs. Acer's Iconia line offers full size usb ports, while Asus has a nifty if a bit pricey physical keyboard dock equipped with an extra battery "transform"ing it into a first class Android net/notebook with a ridiculously long time between required wall wart copulations.

Foolish nights investigating the many thousand variations on 6 or 7 Chinese designs wrapped in horrid iPad plastic cases, attached to flaky resistive touchscreens and oddball screen sizes with stale Marketless versions of Android. Low memory, low on storage, missing features, every corner cut twice, In a word cheap. The whole lot of them come off the list.

An unexpected sale knocking $99 off of any tablet forced a decision with the Asus Transformer (TF101) winning out in the end.

6 months and 4 timely over the air updates later, Ice Cream Sandwich in the last one, (thanks Asus), there are no regrets save one, purchasing the slate without the keyboard dock. But In a household with 5 Android devices and counting, the expense just wasn't justifiable for a single device keyboard and without impending trips away, the standard battery lasts long enough for my daily usage. However, as usage increased, the realization that a real keyboard was needed to fully utilize the technology productively. The on screen is fine for a quick chat or post but tedious for any sort of long form communication and you can forget coding.

Unlike the Acer and Xoom tablets, Asus has a proprietary connector for charging, data  USB, and docking. If you would like to attach a USB device, like say, a keyboard, an additional $40 USB adapter or the $150 keyboard dock is required, leaving Bluetooth as a real alternative.  

Once upon a time you could pick up a bluetooth keyboard for a song. But then someone figured out that ant Bluetooth  keyboard works on an iPad and therefore should cost near as much as Apple's keyboard. Look at this list from Staples

Apple Wireless Keyboard $69

Apple makes some mighty fine hardware, but pairing it with my droids feels like it would be wrong. Not ironically enjoyable wrong, like pairing Microsoft's mouse and keyboard with a linux box ( bonus achievement for plugging in a wired Xbox360 controller, another for doing so without actually owning a 360.) Truthfully this is one of the finest wireless keyboards ever available and you could do much, much worse.

Logitech Android Keyboard $69
Logitech has been making keyboards for nearly the entire history of consumer computing. Our Logitech Revue's keyboard is brilliant and would be perfect at home if not for its oddly named unifying wireless protocol. No usb port, no unifying adapter. Not to worry Logitech has you covered with a solid slim chicklet keyboard with Android specific keys and a clever case that does double duty as a stand when not holding the keyboard.

Microsoft Mobile Keyboard 6000 $89
They make plenty off money off Android devices they don't really need your $90, which is why you can find it online for around 40 or 50.
We'll pass without review.

Model specific Case and Keyboard Combos
For Transformer owners this option is fairly far off the table. Third party case and cover makers rightly assume if you bought a Transformer and want a keyboard you probably want the Asus keyboard dock eliminating the need for a cover. If you are a Xoom, Iconia,  Thrive, Kindle Fire, or iPad owner there is a plethora of folio style case/keyboard combos  available from $40 through $199. 

Various roll-up, fold-up or micro sized keyboards

If you are pretty sure you'll always be typing on a hard surface, a roll-up wireless silicone keyboard might be up your alley for $49 to $59.

The fold out portable keyboard has been with us since the early days of palm and pocket pc devices, and most still feel like they are breaking if not with every keystroke, then during the origami storage and unfolding rituals. pass.

The tiny remote sized keyboards might be great for texting but would be clumsy to  use on a table top and repetitive multi-modal shifting required for anything but the alphabet earns them a pass as well.

Generic Bluetooth Keyboards
You might expect there to be a sea of choices under this heading, but once you lop off the high end close to or more expensive than the Asus dock, the list gets paired down quite a bit to a few wireless standard pc keyboards that use bluetooth, a few mac keyboard clones, and a very few generic tablet\iPad.

With the full size PC keyboards, although your fingers might find them comfy and homey, they do not travel very well.  The mac clones are of questionable quality yet priced at nearly the same cost as Apple's  aluminum beauty, better off spending the extra $19. So our test bench is graced with something from the generic tablet  / iPad category from a manufacturer familiar with tablets, designers of many a case, aCase.

$39 Acase(TM) Ultra Slim Bluetooth Keyboard Stand for Any Tablet PC / SmartPhone
Slim and sexy, the smoke grey folio cover closes with large magnetic tabs that when open attract to form a sturdy enough stand to support nearly any tablet or phone in either orientation. The all black interior and width might fool you into thinking it was made for the Asus Transformer. When closed up, it is so thin that even in its packaging it was delivered in a priority mail envelope. Placed on a flat surface the keys seem to rise up from the surface lending comparisons of a supermodel draped over one of David Coverdale's sports cars not entirely unjustified.  When was the last time a keyboard could make that claim?   

Android 3.x devices and higher work fairly seamlessly with nearly any HID Bluetooth keyboard as does iOS. Testing with our newly Ice Cream Sandwiched Transformer, setup was a breeze. Turn on Bluetooth from the status bar, search for devices, select, enter the number on the keyboard and you are paired and ready to go. After 10 minutes of inactivity the keyboard goes to sleep, Android's Bluetooth status notification turns grey, touch a key too wake it back up and the status bar indicator lights blue. As a nice touch if you are currently editing text when the keyboard nods off, the onscreen keyboard pops up, when you wake up the bluetooth keyboard, the on screen keys hide automagically. A small but delightful thing.

Layout and Keys
Very much in the vane of other folio style keyboard cases, with a single piece of silicon covering all the keys, providing both the spring for the keys, as well as keeping dust and the occasional splashes of carbonated beverage from invading its innards. The keys feels spongy to type on but are spaced well and after a while your fingers get used to the odd way each button travels when depressed.  The qwerty layout is complete with F1 through F12, del and backspace, and arrow keys. Noticeably absent were pgup, pgdn, home, end, and damn it all, the right hand shift key. Clearly marketed toward iPad customers, the fn, control, alt/option and command keys are to the left of the space bar. An Apple Home/Back rectangle button lurks ominously in the top right corner and function as a Home button in Android.

Android Function Key Mappings
f6 Search works like a dedicated hard search button, within an app with search capability it shifts focus to the search box.
f7 Previous Track,
f8 Play/Pause
f9 Next Track
f10 Mute
f11 Volume +
f12 Volume -
All of the media keys work perfectly and will not interrupt your current app or activity.

Through sheer rote testing, we have found a few more hidden shortcuts for Android as well that are universally available even while within any app.
Command P    opens Google Music App and shows current playlist. (does not start playing)
Command C    opens Contacts App, or the People app in Ice Cream Sandwich.
Command A    opens the Calculator Application
Command L    opens the Google Calendar
Command M  opens Google Maps
Command B   opens the Browser.

and Hey, what do you know...
Command UpArrow is PgUp
Command DownArrow is PgDn
Esc = Back
The control and alt keys appear to not function in any apps, (current vim is a bit of a challenge without control.) The habit of shift arrow highlight, ctrl-c and ctrl-v is a tough one to break even after the third time watching your text be replaced with a "c" followed by the futile attempts to undo adding "z","z","z" and realizing that block of text is now also gone into the aether.

OK  here is where the Acase falls a bit short. comfortable enough to type on, it has a rather annoying habit of randomly repeating keys. Admittedly, re-editing occasional double esses is still miles less frustrating than the every other word correcting the onscreen hoists on you. All hail the arrow keys which make quick work of these edits. It should be noted that on at least one occasion, possibly due to a low battery, there was a mad dash to try and stop the keyboard from backspacing over an hour of work, flipping of the keyboard's power switch ended this writer's newest nightmare. So far at least, after a good charging, that issue has yet to recur. Too soon to gauge the battery life, but the ever so helpful manual claims:
Maximum working time:25 days
Uninterrupted Working time:90 hours
Standby Time: 100 days
Not bad from a 4 hour usb drip charge.

The rest of the manual is dedicated to pairing with your iPad. The box however, is quick to point out just how device agnostic it is, and I quote:
"The case with slim and lightweight
also functional to folding into a stand,
such  as iPad, iphone 4 and majorities of tablet PC can be using this keyboard,
the main material of Silicone, thickness within 1.35cm,
"ULTRA SLIM, light and easy to carry
even vacating more space"

Add in the extra points for engrish hilarity, the utility of editing and working with a whole page of text at a time unobstructed, a very nicely angled stand, Android 4's elegant integration,  subtract the annoying repeating and slightly spongy keys, and Acase still manages to squeak out a buy recommendation, well worth the $39, especially if you have multiple smart devices around the house.

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