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.
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:
QWERTY –English and QWERTZ – German versions currently available.
The HID mode that permits “Out of the Box” Alphanumeric compatibility with many products including PCs, laptops and many PDAs using the HID technology.
HID profile for connecting to Human Interface Devices via Bluetooth, most common profile used for PDAs, smartphones, laptops, PCs etc.
SPP profile, serial port emulation via Bluetooth, used by all BlackBerry devices.
Duality gives this keyboard the widest available compatibility with Bluetooth enabled devices
Off / HID / SPP mode switch, with indicator light to show activity and connection.
Slim compact design.
Standard 5 row alphanumeric layout.
65 full-size keys plus ESC button. Keys have quality “Scissor action” for true touch typing feel.
Shortcuts and programmable keys for specific tasks
Fold-out stand for device
Twin AAA batteries for long life
Power On/Off button backed up by auto power off function.
Easy to use - fast and accurate – latest Bluetooth technology, no wires, fault free transmission.
User programmable shortcut and command keys for fast access to applications.
Rubber grip pads to prevent keyboard slipping when typing.
Slim leather carry case with magnetic closure.
Easy installation, no technical knowledge required
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)
Compliance: Bluetooth Core Spec, V1.2; Bluetooth HID & SPP profile
Frequency Range: 2.400 GHz - 2.4835 GHz (79 channels hopping)
Distance: Up to 10 m Antenna: Ceramic Chip Antenna
Profiles integrated: GAP, SDP, SPP, HID
Receive Sensitivity: -85 dBm
Radio Power: Class 2
285 x 98.5 x 13.5mm (11 3/16" x 3 13/16" x 1/2") opened
145 x 98.5 x 19.5mm (51 1/16" x 3 13/16" x 3/4") folded
Roughly 7 oz. including batteries
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:
Go to http://www.freedominput.mobi and download the driver to the BlackBerry. (There are separate versions of the driver for handhelds running OS v4.1 and v4.2. Users with devices running OS v4.3, like certain Pearl devices, are out of luck, as there isn't currently a driver for this OS.)
Turn on device Bluetooth, set keyboard to SPP mode, and pair the two devices as you would your phone and any other Bluetooth gadget. (It was all smooth sailing through this point. Easy, peasy, Japanesey.)
Register the software using an unlock code generated by the manufacturer's website based on your device ID--which the app displays after installing the driver--and the Unique Code printed on the back of your setup manual. (Here's where the problems came in. Definitely easier said than done.)
Connect the keyboard to your BlackBerry via the application. (This worked, but I had to modify the keystroke injection settings in my BlackBerry OS Core Applications.)
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.
Review Summary: Freedom Universal Bluetooth Keyboard
Barely larger than an average laptop keypad; great alternative to the tiny BlackBerry keyboard
Folds in half and slides into its case for portability; easily fits in a tote bag or jacket pocket
Works with dozens of BlackBerry and non-BlackBerry mobile devices
Nine customizable convenience keys provide quick access to your favorite apps and commands
Poor instructions mean you're on your own discovering much of the keyboard's functionality
Does not integrate well with some apps, meaning you'll still need to use your device keypad and navigation for certain features
Can only use the keyboard with two devices; only get two codes
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