The Belkin Wireless PDA Keyboard is a generic folding keyboard that uses Infra-Red to communicate with PalmOS or Windows PDAs.

Belkin Wireless PDA Keyboard packaging

Belkin Wireless PDA Keyboard packaging

It is delivered in a blister pack. The packaging and documentation mention the test machine, a Tungsten E, but refer to the Belkin Web site for the latest compatibility list - this was out of date and didn’t mention the E.

The keyboard is supplied with a small leaflet, with two pages per language, to get you started, and a CD-ROM containing drivers and a PDF manual. A carry case is not supplied, however PalmOne keyboards no longer come with a zipper case either. The single AAA battery needed is not included.

PalmOne Wireless (top), Belkin (middle) and original Stowaway/Palm keyboards

PalmOne Wireless (top), Belkin (middle) and original Stowaway/Palm keyboards

Folded, the keyboard is 135 x 90 x 20 mm, approximately the same size as the original Stowaway (AKA Palm) keyboard for the Vx, and the PalmOne Wireless Keyboard. However the original Stowaway keyboard, that folded like a ‘W’, is about half as thick again as the other two. Fitted with its stand and battery, the Belkin keyboard is the heavier of the three.

Stowaway/Palm (left), Belkin and PalmOne Wireless (right) keyboards with Tungsten E

Stowaway/Palm (left), Belkin and PalmOne Wireless (right) keyboards with Tungsten E

Clipped to the back of the Belkin keyboard is a stand to hold the PDA at a suitable viewing angle. Unlike most of its rivals, this separates completely from the keyboard.

A wire prop flips out from the back of the stand. It is not adjustable but I found it held the Palm at the ideal angle. The hinged plastic mechanism that limits the movement of the prop looks a little fragile, but seems to put up with the rough and tumble of mobile life well enough. Another wire bar folds down from the front of the stand to act as a shelf for the PDA to sit on. I was surprised by how securely the Palm sat on bar, with or without the standard flip cover folded behind it.

Tungsten on keyboard stand with metal mirror above

Tungsten on keyboard stand with metal mirror above

A metal mirror unfolds from the back of the stand and slides up above the PDA. This has to be angled to reflect the IR beam from the keyboard onto the Palm’s IR transducer.

The keyboard itself has a silver-coloured metal outer cover that gives the keyboard a substantial and quality feel. The outside of the hinge is protected by a metal guard, like the spine of a book. This protects the ribbon cable that connects the two halves of the keyboard near the top edge.

A slider at one end retracts two metal hooks that lock the keyboard closed. It can then be opened like a book. Being used to the PalmOne Wireless Keyboard I was immediately impressed by the row of numerical keys above the standard four rows. If you do a lot of work on spreadsheets or source code, easier access to the numeric and punctuation characters is a great help.

Installation of AAA battery and IR transducer to right

Installation of AAA battery and IR transducer to right

Before using the keyboard a single AAA battery needs to be fitted. The battery lies along the top edge of the left hand side of the keyboard and gives about 360 hours of usage. Pushing on the left end of the battery cover allows it to lift off easily. Inside, the battery compartment is well designed. At the right hand end of the battery compartment, near the hinge, is the IR transducer. A ruby-coloured window covers two IR transmitters angled back and up at about 45 degrees.

Between the transducer and the hinge is a small switch which is pushed down when the keyboard is closed, to switch off its electronics.

Keyboard layouts of PalmOne Wireless (top), Belkin and Stowaway/Palm (bottom)

Keyboard layouts of PalmOne Wireless (top), Belkin and Stowaway/Palm (bottom)

The keyboard has five rows, giving a total of 64 comfortably-sized keys on a 13 mm pitch. The top row of numerical keys are about two-thirds the size of the alphabetic keys but have the same width and pitch. They are comfortable and accurate to use, even for my fat fingers. Key travel is about 3mm.

The keys are black, with white symbols. Fifteen of the keys have extended third symbols displayed in orange. These are accessed by a dedicated orange [Fn] key to the left of the space bar.

Down the left hand side of the keyboard there are four small keys that reproduce the functions of the standard Palm hardware application buttons.

'T', 'G', 'H' and 'N' keys are slightly widened on Belkin Keyboard (bottom)

‘T’, ‘G’, ‘H’ and ‘N’ keys are slightly widened on Belkin Keyboard (bottom)

Unlike the various Palm keyboards the Belkin keyboard’s keys don’t overlap the hinge area to produce the same layout as a standard keyboard. Instead the ‘T’, ‘G’, ‘H’ and ‘N’ keys are slightly widened to give a straight gap above the hinge. As we will see this simplification of the hinge mechanism makes less of a compromise to the ease of typing than I had expected.

The manual warns about disabling other keyboard drivers before using the Belkin. So before installing the new driver I disabled and then deleted all other keyboard drivers in the Tungsten. I previously had a shareware soft keyboard and the PalmOne Wireless Keyboard driver installed. Driver installation was just a matter of selecting the PalmOS option from the supplied CD-ROM and then synching.

However attempting to use the new keyboard immediately led to application after application freezing. I lost no data, but constant soft resets were required. I also found that the Palm was running the battery down very fast if the keyboard driver was left enabled while the Palm was switched off.

Eventually I found that when I had cleared the ZLauncher trash-bin the PalmOne Wireless Keyboard driver had not been deleted. In fact, ZLauncher was unable to delete the driver, even though it was disabled, and I had to use the native Palm OS5 user interface in order to delete the program. This cured all the problems.

Back of stand, showing fragile looking support, mirror in folded position

Back of stand, showing fragile looking support, mirror in folded position

To use the keyboard unclip and unfold the stand and place the PDA on it. It is more stable than it looks. I do much of my typing on one of those lap-trays that has a bean-bag underneath. Despite the tray being left at all kinds of angles the Palm has yet to fall off the stand.

Once the PDA is on the stand the metal mirror needs to be angled to reflect the infra-red between the keyboard and PDA. This can be a little fiddly to start with but soon becomes second nature to set up.

Next open the keyboard and position it in front of the PDA. Switch on the Palm and, if not already enabled, go to the Belkin Wireless Keyboard application and enable the keyboard. Then with the cursor in a text field, hit both shift keys on the keyboard. If the keyboard and PDA can successfully communicate a red IR icon will appear in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen.

Belkin Keyboard Utility showing red IR icon in corner

Belkin Keyboard Utility showing red IR icon in corner

If the red IR icon doesn’t appear then it is necessary to adjust the angle of the mirror and the position of the keyboard and press the two shifts again, until communication is achieved. This sounds more time consuming than it really is. Once you are used to the relative positions of the keyboard, stand and mirror, it only takes a second or two.

Incidentally I discovered that the set up was much easier if the Palm was upside down on the stand. The Palm’s transducer is then right next to the keyboard’s transmitter. The Belkin manual refers to a ‘Screen Rotation’ drop-down in the keyboard application’s main screen, and this is shown in the screen shots. Unfortunately this option is only available on certain PDAs, where the OS implements a screen rotation option. I searched all the obvious sites but couldn’t find a third-party OS5 screen rotation utility.

Once set up, the keyboard is a joy to type on. The key’s are a good size and touch-typing is easy. The keys are sprung with metal springs and have a positive action but don’t make too much noise - important if used in meetings, or when the family are watching television. The split space-bar falls naturally under both thumbs.

At first I thought that the straight gap between the two halves of the keyboard and the widened keys would make touch typing difficult and initially I found that I kept typing ‘N’s instead of ‘B’s. This puzzled me, until I realised that I was attempting to type ‘B’s with my right hand instead of my left. When I corrected my typing style I found touch-typing was easy and natural on this keyboard.

Holding down the orange [Fn] key on the left of the space-bar selects extended functions from some of the keys. In addition an [S] icon appears at the bottom right of the screen. The extended functions include:

  • Page up and down
  • Screen rotation (where implemented)
  • Backlight/Brightness (but see below)
  • OK, Done, New, Cancel, Delete
  • UK Sterling Pound and Euro signs (on this European version)
  • Graffiti shortcut symbol (but see below)
  • Apps, Menu, Calculator and Search (on the application keys)
  • Faceboard
  • PDA off

Selecting the backlight toggle function on the Tungsten E brought up the screen brightness slider as expected. However hitting [Fn][Done] on the keyboard to close the dialog hung the Palm and a warm reset was needed.

I was also unable to get the shortcut extended function to work in any application. It displays the shortcut character but the Palm doesn’t see it as being special in any way, so shortcuts are not expanded. Entering the shortcut with Graffiti under the same conditions worked fine.

On a couple of occasions while editing with peditPro I found that pedit was unable to display its full screen dialogs. For example I would hit ESC J and the application would appear to freeze. However hitting any key pedit was prompting for executed the relevant action. So it appears that pedit thinks that the dialog has been displayed and is waiting for input as normal. It should be noted, though, that pedit tends to only officially support PalmOne-branded hardware.

I also found an incompatibility with funSMS 5. It could not communicate with a phone via IR while the Belkin keyboard was enabled. This is not a problem I have experienced with the PalmOne Wireless keyboard driver.

The [Fn][Menu] key is very useful - it pops up the menus and then the cursor keys and [Enter] can be used to select menu items. I would have preferred that the [Menu] option had been on one of the main alphabetic keys where it would be easier to access for touch typists.

The European FaceBoard dialog

The European FaceBoard dialog

Pressing [Fn] and the left space-bar pops up a dialog called the ‘FaceBoard’ which maps the alphabetic keys to extended characters. Characters can be entered from the keyboard, or by clicking on the dialog with the stylus. On this European version of the keyboard all the keys map to accented characters. The US version maps some keys to ‘Smiley’ faces, useful for e-mail and text messaging - giving the dialog its name.

The Belkin Wireless PDA Keyboard is approximately £28.