By Roger Hibbert
(April 14, 2003)
Does Graffiti make you groan? Does Jot give you the jitters? If you're sick of trying to eke out messages via the frustratingly tiny keyboards on Palms and Pocket PCs, help is a download away. We found three virtual keyboards that will make typing easier, faster, and almost a pleasure. Best of all, none of them cost more than $25, and one is absolutely free. So take a look at these keyboards--and get the words out of your head and into your handheld.
| ||Textware Solutions Fitaly|
|One of the main ailments of Palm and Pocket PC keyboards is that they have the QWERTY layout designed for touch-typing. While this is familiar to users of full-sized keyboards, it makes typing on a handheld a slow process, especially since you must use the tip of your stylus to press each key. Fitaly's ergonomic keyboard is designed to end frustration and expedite typing.
The layout of the Fitaly keyboard is based on the frequency of the letters used in the English language, with the most-common letters in the middle and the least common in the top and bottom rows and corners. In fact, Fitaly gets its name from the second row, much like QWERTY gets its name from the upper-left keys of a traditional keyboard. With a quick tap on the side icons, you can move around the text or bring up a myriad of characters and symbols.
The Fitaly keyboard takes some getting used to, but it's no worse than the hunt-and-peck process on a QWERTY keyboard. Once you're familiar with the layout, you can accelerate your typing considerably. Plus, Fitaly suggests words as you type, increasing your writing speed even more (unfortunately, you can't turn off this feature).
Price: Free to try; $25 to buy
Compatibility: Palm and Pocket PC; more details of the specific products are available on the Textware's Web site.
| ||ExIdeas MessagEase|
MessagEase from ExIdeas is another program that changes the layout of the keyboard. But instead of simply switching the letters based on frequency of use as Fitaly does, MessagEase reduces the number of keys to 11 total--including Shift and the spacebar. To accommodate all 26 letters in the alphabet, MessagEase uses a novel system of tapping and sliding the stylus across the different keys, giving each key as many as seven different functions.
The MessagEase keyboard is a nine-box grid, with two function buttons at the bottom. The nine most commonly used letters occupy the center of each box. The box perimeters are populated with less frequently used letters and commonly used symbols such as an apostrophe, a comma, or a period. This dual or multiple use of the same space accelerates typing by cutting down the distance your stylus must move in order to write out a word.
Like Textware Solutions' Fitaly, MessagEase requires a bit of learning. As intuitive as the interface is, it takes a while to memorize the locations of the letters and symbols. Beyond that, you must also train yourself to swipe, slide, or tap, depending on which character you want to produce.
Compatibility: Palm OS only; see ExIdeas's Web site for compatibility info for specific models.
| ||Spb Full Screen Keyboard|
If you'd prefer not to learn a new keyboard layout, Spb Full Screen Keyboard may be the best bet. The application does what its name implies, covering the whole screen of your Pocket PC and letting you type with your thumbs, rather than a character at a time with your stylus. And because it uses the familiar QWERTY layout, there is little to learn before using the product.
The keyboard integrates into your writing-selection menu at the lower-right corner of your Pocket PC's display. When you select it from the menu, it pops up, filling the screen. A narrow strip at the top serves as a text-viewing area. Words scroll to the left when the area is filled, and when you are finished typing, the text is inserted into the app you were using when you launched the program.
Spb actually resembles a typewriter's keyboard more than a computer's, with many of the letter keys doubling as symbol keys. But unlike the MessagEase and Fitaly keyboards, Spb makes only the major symbols--such as brackets, punctuation, and some mathematical symbols--available, limiting the app as an all-around writing tool. Fortunately, you can customize the keyboard with various skins; you can find several with an extended set of symbols on the company's Web site, which also has directions on how to create your own skins.
Price: Free to try; $9.95 to buy
Compatibility: Pocket PC only; for more information, see Spb's Web site.
Roger Hibbert is an associate editor for CNET Reviews. Have questions or comments for him? Let us know.