Seiko ThumBoard for the Handspring Visor
by Steven Roos for MaximumPDA.com

I have been eager to test a portable alternative to Graffiti for a long time. Since the recent influx of portable keyboards for the Handspring Visor, I have been trying to decide which one would work the best. I decided to look into the ThumBoard keyboard by Seiko Austin.

While I couldn't live without my Stowaway folding keyboard, I would like a smaller input alternative. Graffiti is fine for small notes, and the Stowaway is great for large papers, but neither seem to work well for average use. The one problem I have with the Stowaway is that it requires a solid surface to set it up on for reliable use. I have attempted to use the Stowaway on my lap without much success. This is where the Seiko ThumBoard comes in.


The Seiko ThumBoard for Handspring (Model TB6000).

The ThumBoard slides over the bottom of the Visor, so it does not require any surface or other setup. This allows the keyboard to be much more portable than other alternatives. However, the slide-on design means that the ThumBoard is not compatible with the Visor Prism or Edge. Visor Prism users should look to the Snap-N-Type keyboard for a similar solution, while Edge users appear to be out of luck. I hope to have a full review of the Snap-N-Type available soon.


The ThumBoard slides easily over the bottom of the Visor.

The Seiko ThumBoard comes nicely packaged with a simple, but descriptive, manual. The small user's guide describes, in English, French, and Spanish, everything you need to get started. The package also contains a single floppy disk with the ThumBoard driver. While I would have expected a CD-ROM, the floppy disk should work fine for most anyone. If, like me, you do not have a floppy disk drive, you may download the drivers from the Seiko Austin website (http://www.seiko-austin.com). This is actually the preferred solution, because the driver version provided on the floppy disk is listed as v1.0, while the most current version available as of this review is v1.2.

The small driver (under 20k) installs like any other Palm application. Make sure that any other drivers that use the hotsync connector or infared have been disabled. Originally, the Stowaway keyboard driver on my Visor conflicted with the ThumBoard driver, causing the Visor to attempt to hotsync when I tried to use the ThumBoard. However, since then, I have used both the ThumBoard and Stowaway while both drivers are enabled. Beaming is also unavailable while the ThumBoard is enabled.

The ThumBoard has many functions packed into a small space, so naturally the buttons are going to be small. I do not have particularly large hands, but I do have some trouble with pressing multiple buttons at one time. Unless you have particularly small hands, you will have to get used to the size of the keys. In addition, the keys closer to the sides of the keyboard, such as 1, Q, A, Z, 0, P, and the backspace key, are a little difficult to access. At times, I have found it to be more comfortable to hold the Visor and ThumBoard in one hand and type with the other.


Typing with the ThumBoard takes practice, but quickly becomes easier.

Another issue with the ThumBoard is the size of the Visor and the keyboard together. While the ThumBoard is very small, it still makes the Visor too large to fit in most cases. If you like to use a larger case, such as the Rhinoskin RhinoPak 2000, you may not encounter any problems. However, the ThumBoard is too large to fit in cases that fit the Visor tightly. Anticipating this, Seiko currently offers a free case that can accommodate the oversized Visor-ThumBoard combination with the purchase of every ThumBoard. The included coupon explains how to get the free case.

This neoprene case, while not exacly packed with features, protects the Visor-ThumBoard combination very well. However, the neoprene case is slightly large for the Visor, presumably because it is a "one size fits all" case that can accomidate any handheld. Ironically, the neoprene case holds the Stowaway keyboard quite well, allowing it to serve double-duty for users of both keyboards.


The neoprene ThumBoard case is simple, but functional.

I also have a few concerns about the layout of the keyboard. While the Keyboard is already quite packed, I would have appreciated a "shift" key on the right side of the keyboard. Additionally, some facility for typing internationl characters would be very useful. Currently, these characters are only available through the onscreen keyboard. This requuires the use of the stylus, which slows input drastically.

While I like the feel of the keyboard, the construction leaves a little to be desired. The ThumBoard is made from a black plastic. All the buttons are made of rubber, with their functions clearly labeled on them. While the ThumBoard does not feel flimsy or cheap, it does feel too light. I think a model constructed of some type of metal would be nice. Not only would it feel much more solid and strong; it would also make the ThumBoard heavier and would help alleviate the top-heavy feel of the ThumBoard-Visor combination. However, this would probably increase the cost of the ThumBoard substantially, making the ThumBoard much less of a bargain.


A close-up of the ThumBoard keyboard.

Some of the interface features could use some improvement also. For example, the "Shift" and "Function" keys cannot be held down to act as a modifier. I have encountered many instances where I would like to use a function many times in a row. This requires me to press the "Function" key every time I wanted to use the function. Seiko should offer an option to choose whether or not the key needs to be held down to function. Also, a caps-lock key is provided, but if you use a function key, the caps-lock is disabled. It would be a little more convenient if the caps-lock key remained enabled after using a function key. In addition, international characters and some symbols are not available on the keyboard itself. They must be accessed using the on-screen keyboard. This can be inconvenient if you use some of these odd characters frequently.

However, some features are extremely useful: such as the direction pad. This functions as the up and down buttons on the Visor itself and the left and right keys allow for other functions. In Wordsmith, the left and right keys allow you to scroll through categories. Many other keys double as functions like "New", "Done", and "OK". This makes it so you hardly ever need to use the stylus while using the ThumBoard. Additionally, the ThumBoard offers copy-and-paste functions.

After only a little practice, I was able to type on the ThumBoard faster than I could ever write using Graffiti. I have also begun to make fewer and fewer errors. I am quickly beginning to prefer using the ThumBoard instead of Graffiti for most anything longer than a quick note. In fact, a large portion of this review was typed using the ThumBoard.

With practice, typing on the ThumBoard gets faster, easier, and more accurate. Even if you have large hands, you should be able to get used to the small buttons. In addition, Seiko Austin is now offering a free case that fits the Visor-ThumBoard combination perfectly. Regrettably, the free case does not come in the package, but all you need to do is mail in the included coupon, the UPC from the package, your proof of purchase and $2.99 for shipping. I would recommend taking advantage of this offer, because I would advise against carrying the Visor-ThumBoard combination alone. This leaves the Visor's fragile screen unprotected and open to damage.

While the ThumBoard will not replace my beloved Stowaway keyboard any time soon, the ThumBoard is an excellent alternative to writing with Graffiti. With practice, it is much faster than Graffiti and does not wear or scratch the screen. While the ThumBoard does have its share of flaws, many of them could be fixed with an updated driver. The only issues that really stand out are the extremely small buttons and the incompatibility with many cases.

I would recommend the Seiko ThumBoard to anyone who is tired of Graffiti, but doesn't want a full sized keyboard. Just keep in mind that you wonít get the maximum efficiency straight out of the box. It takes a while to get used to the ThumBoard, but I think anyone looking for a portable keyboard, but donít want to pay $99.99 for a Stowaway, would find the ThumBoard to be an excellent solution.

Price: $29.99 (MSRP)

Availability:

The ThumBoard for Handspring Visor (and many other brands of PDAs) is available now from Seiko-Austin, Amazon.com, and other major retailers.

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Copyright 2002 by Steven Roos - All Rights Reserved
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