Bye-Bye BlackBerry Thumb
Since you're reading this review on CrackBerry.com, you're very likely familiar with the condition commonly referred to as "BlackBerry Thumb." For this reason, I won't get into too much detail, but BlackBerry Thumb comes about after excessive use of the tiny keyboard found on a wide variety of RIM devices and other smartphones. As a rule of "thumb," the more frequently you respond to e-mail or send messages using that tiny keyboard, the more prone to the condition you are.
What's the best way to avoid BlackBerry thumb, you ask? Well, reducing the amount of typing you're doing is probably your best bet. If that's not an option, or at least one you're willing to consider, increasing the size of your keyboard is sure to help. Constant use of any keyboard can potentially lead to hand and wrist pain, possibly even to carpal tunnel syndrome over time, but if you need to type frequently, you're much better off with a larger keyboard.
In comes the Freedom Universal Keyboard from Freedom Input Ltd, which is available in the ShopCrackBerry.com for $99.95. The keyboard connects to your BlackBerry via Bluetooth and makes for a great way to handle inbox maintenance and rapid messaging. It's about the size of an average laptop keyboard and is a great alternative to the small keyboard found on your device.
Should you rush to the CrackBerry shop right now to get one? Is the Freedom Universal Keyboard for you? Check out the following review to find out. (Note: To help ensure an accurate evaluation, I typed this entire review on my BlackBerry Curve 8320 using the Freedom Universal Bluetooth Keyboard.)
But first, some product info and specs from the manufacturer:
Compatible with over 200 devices that have Bluetooth connectivity and supporting operating systems BlackBerry OS 4.0 or higher; Symbian (Series 60) v6 / v7 / v8 / v9; Palm OS 5; Windows Mobile 03 PPC; Windows Mobile 05 PPC; Windows Mobile 03 Smartphone Edition,; Windows Mobile 05 Smartphone Edition; Windows XP*; Windows 2000*; Mac OS X Tiger*; Linux* (*Using HID mode)
Product ranges included: Acer, Asus, Audiovox, BenQ, BlackBerry, Dell, Dopod, E-Ten, Fujitsu, Hewlett Packard, HTC,i-Do, Mac, Motorola, Nokia, Qtek, Palm, Panasonic, PC, Samsung, Sendo, Siemens, Sony Ericsson.
I was very anxious to get my hands on the Freedom Universal Keyboard. I'm a true CrackBerry addict, and I've got tons of accessories for my devices. However, I'd never picked up a Bluetooth keypad. So my experience with the Freedom Universal Keyboard was my first with such a gadget.
Though the setup instructions that came with the device were less than stellar (see the Setup section below) it took me only five minutes of using the keyboard to realize just how valuable it could be to power users. After responding to just a few messages, I literally smiled and said out loud "Wow, this could really save you a !@#$load of time."
The keyboard is almost as large as my ThinkPad's keyboard--it's about three-quarters of an inch skinnier and half-an-inch shorter from top to bottom. Like any new keyboard, it took me a little while to get used to the slightly different key size and placement, but once I did, I was banging out e-mail on my BlackBerry faster than ever before. And that's a bold statement--I take pride in how rapidly I can type on my RIM smartphone.
I also quickly realized, however, that the break in the middle of the keyboard's space bar--its folding closure makes such a break necessary--and the fact that the right Shift key is much smaller than a Shift key on a traditional keyboard would cause some issues for me. These are the two keys that took me the longest to get used to and I'm still struggling a bit with the tiny Shift key.
To get the Freedom Universal Keyboard connected to your device you need to perform a minimum of three steps. Depending on whether you choose to download the associated software driver over the air (OTA) or to your PC, you'll need to follow a slightly different process. I installed my driver OTA, and my process was as follows:
You might think all of this sounds fairly straightforward, and you'd be right. However, the keyword in there is "sounds."
When I first visited the company's site for my unlock code, I had to download an additional PDF guide to find out how to tweak a browser setting that was keeping the site from registering my information. After I finally got the unlock code, I had issues entering it into the registration field within the app to unlock the program because you need to set your blackberry's keyboard to Number Lock (ALT + Left Shift)--at least if you're using a BlackBerry Curve. Until you do so, you can tap your keys until your thumbs bleed and it won't register a single keystroke. Because neither the instruction manual nor user guide said anything about the necessary number lock, I spent 10 minutes or so closing out the app and reopening it to see if it would register my keystrokes. I even uninsured the driver and re-downloaded it before I finally tried locking the numbers and successfully unlocked the app.
Next you need to connect the keyboard to your BlackBerry by checking a box on the application's main screen. I had no issue with this via Curve, after tweaking my keystroke injection permissions as suggested in the instructions. (Note: If your device is connected to a BlackBerry Enterprise Server [BES], you'll likely experience additional issues due to your organization's security policies. Consult your IT administrator for more information.)
Next on the list: Programming the convenience keys. This process was—thankfully--rather simple because it was intuitive. You simply launch the application, scroll down, and use drop down menus to which programs or tasks you want to correspond with each of the nine available key combos. Programming the convenience keys was easy, but again, specific instructions on how to do so weren't included in the setup instructions or user manual and they really should have been.
Finally, the company only provides you with two registration codes so you cannot use the keyboard with more than two devices. This is a major turnoff for me, as I'm often using different handhelds, and the value of the keyboard is greatly reduced because I can only use it with two devices.
Form and Function
The general form factor of the Freedom Universal Keyboard is impressive. As mentioned above, it's just a bit smaller than an average notebook computer's keypad, and it has all the keys you'd expect or need.
When opened, the top left panel of the keyboard hides a removable tray to hold your device while you type. The folding tray slides easily in and out, and the two AAA batteries that power the keyboard slide into another slot on the top right side. You can lock the keyboard open by sliding a thin piece of plastic in place above the slot for the removable device tray. And there are tiny rubber nubs on the keyboard's reverse side to reduce slippage.
The keys themselves feel sturdy and comfortable to the touch, but the whole unit feels a bit flimsy overall. Though I didn't try, I don't think the keyboard could take much of a beating before coming apart or malfunctioning, so owners would be wise to be gentle with it. Because the keyboard's not exactly built-to-last, the $100 price tag is a bit steep. (Freedom Input does, however, provide a one-year warranty.)
In addition to the nine customizable convenience keys mentioned above, the keyboard has four more shortcuts that are preset to access your messaging app, contacts, tasks and calendar. And a number of other common keyboard shortcuts are also available, like using CTRL + C to copy text and CTRL+ V to paste it. However, I still haven't figured out a way to highlight text in a message or on a Web page, so I'm not sure of the value of such commands.
Because many applications require specific keys for some functions and the keyboard was not designed with specialized apps in mind, it doesn't work particular well with certain programs. For instance, if you try to surf the Web using the keyboard for navigation, you'll find that you can't click on links or images or even scroll through lists of links. You also can't scroll rapidly through a long section of text in a document without repeatedly tapping the Down Arrow key. And you can't use the standard calculator app that comes preinstalled on most BlackBerry devices, because it doesn't recognize the keyboard's input. You also cannot check or unclear boxes on the Manage Connections screen. (It's possible there are ways to use the keyboard to click links or employ the calculator, etc., but I tried everything I could think of and nothing worked. And as was expected by this point, the instruction manual wasn't any help.)
The Bottom Line
The Freedom Universal Bluetooth Keyboard is an invaluable tool for power users on the go who don't necessarily have access to a notebook computer or don't have the time to whip out and fire up a laptop. The gadget makes typing long or frequent messages simple, and it's sure to reduce thumb and hand strain. However, it should be used solely as a tool for messaging and should not be counted on to jump from application to application or to control a browser while surfing the Web.