blue and green FrogPads
FrogPad
FrogPads come in blue and, of course green.
By Columnist
msnbc.com
updated 6/13/2005 2:13:48 PM ET 2005-06-13T18:13:48

I know I’m supposed to begin each review session without a point of view, but I really wanted to like this device. In demonstrations, it seemed to be a clever, small one-handed portable keyboard; it sounded like a great idea. I especially liked the newest model, which connects via Bluetooth instead of a USB cord. 

What I forgot to take into account was that this device has a learning curve. And despite diligent learning and practice sessions, I could never type as fast on a FrogPad as I can on a regular keyboard. More about this in a moment.

FrogPad (whether the USB or Bluetooth model) is a mobile keypad with 20 full-size keys designed to be used with a PDA, Pocket PC, smart phone, laptop or other mobile device. (You could obviously use it with a desktop computer as well.) Because it requires only one hand, the idea is that you can hold documents or other items in one hand while while entering information with the other.

FrogPad's unique key layout is based on putting the letters that are used the most front and center. Fifteen letters that are used 86 percent of the time by English language typists are placed in the most efficient locations on the keyboard, surrounded by five function keys including the traditional "space" and "enter."  The overall layout supposedly uses the natural drumming motion of the hand to further optimize performance.

The ergonomics are said to significantly shorten learning time compared with the traditional QWERTY layout. FrogPad’s Web site claims that university studies find new users can reach 40 words per minute in 10 hours versus the 56 needed with QWERTY. They conclude that since over 75 percent of all users do not touch type but use a “hunt and peck” approach, the FrogPad presents an opportunity for faster keyboard input. The technology is also versatile: FrogPads can be used in either a right or left-handed mode (separate models) and with any international language set.

The wireless FrogPad I got to play is about the size of an thick index card (5.60 by 3.73 by 0.66 inches) and seemed very sturdy and well-made. The battery inside is rechargeable, but through a USB connection (and I thought I could get away with one less cable).

The wireless model uses the Bluetooth HID profile to connect with other devices.  Despite warnings that additional software might have to be installed, FrogPad connected with ease to two smart phones on hand and my OQO mini-laptop. It has a wireless operating range of 10 feet or so.

So far, so good. Learning to use the FrogPad was another story. 

I spent the obligatory 10 hours playing with the device, poring over the manual and everything I could find on the included CD. I even tried typing a column for MSNBC. Forgetaboutit! I got good enough not to have to look at the keys all the time but I could go no faster than 8 to 12 word per minute. I was great at typing gibberish, but I don’t need a $149.99 Bluetooth FrogPad for that.

I remembered seeing experts (ringers?) typing away at lightning speeds at the FrogPad booth at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. What was I doing wrong? I was crushed.

Don’t just take my word for it
After delaying the inevitable for months, I informed my editor that I had tried to master the device but I couldn’t do it. She had a great idea — suggesting we engage another tester, preferably younger and sharper than me — to see how well they could do at FrogPad typing after a short learning period.

I chose 28-year-old Steve Berman, a friend of a friend. Steve is also a researcher at a Fortune 500 computer firm, so he's no stranger to technology. I gave him one week to see what he thought.

It wasn't just me.

“Alas, try as I might, I was unable to master the damn thing," Steve wrote. "I spent somewhere around five hours trying to use the thing, and although I am able to type on it without looking at the keys, I can only type about 10 words per minutes (as compared to 60 on a QWERTY keyboard)."

Steve also had more setup problems than I did, and needed to uninstall and reinstall drivers a few times on his IBM T series ThinkPad laptop before getting it to work.

While there is a typing tutor program specifically for the FrogPad, Steve concluded (as I suspect many will) that $30 for a one-month subscription was a lot to pay, and used a freeware typing tutor, Bruce’s Unusual Typing Wizard, instead.

"It would really help if the FrogPad folks would package a good training tool with their hardware," Steve said.

Finally, Steve said he wasn't "entirely sure what the point is. The literature presents it as an ergonomic alternative to the QWERTY keyboard, and I suppose that people with carpal-tunnel issues may appreciate the reduced finger movement the FrogPad affords.  I could also imagine it would be useful for people who have use of only one of their hands, but for the rest of us, I just don’t see typing on it as my only keyboard. Even for entering text on a PDA, I would rather use one of those fold-out QWERTY keyboards than the FrogPad.  I imagine a programmer would find it especially frustrating, as entering punctuation and symbols is particularly cumbersome.”

So, I'm not alone. And while it is true that there is definitely an audience out there for a one-handed keyboard, you should keep in mind the length of time needed to get up to speed. I think for someone to master the FrogPad he or she will need dozens of hours rather than the 10 or so that are recommended — particularly if the student is already proficient at using a QWERTY keyboard.

FrogPad’s manual reminded me that it probably took an entire semester in junior high school to learn how to type 40 words a minute on a standard keyboard. In that case, it would probably take me at least as long to get good on a FrogPad. 

You might have better luck. I’ve seen people type very quickly on a FrogPad with no errors. If you can spend the time and get good at it, I still believe FrogPad could be a great alternative to any full QWERTY keyboard for portable devices.

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