I am quite happy with the Sony Vaio U-70 running the Tablet OS and the handwriting recognition engine built into the Tablet is second to none. It does a remarkable job interpreting even my lousy handwriting and converting it into clean, readable text. But when I am faced with a heavy writing session I need my keyboard. I do a lot of writing and the keyboard is the only way to go for pounding out articles like this one. Entering the text is only part of the equation as I have to do a lot of editing and corrections for larger articles and reports that I write. Sometimes it’s necessary to move whole sections of text around inside the article and for that there is no better tool than a mouse. It is much easier to precisely select, move or replace chunks of prose with a mouse.
I have previously written how I incorporate the diminutive Sony U-70 into my daily workflow and I am still convinced it is the best computer for me. The news that Sony is going to bring an updated version of the U-70 to the US market is welcome and means we will likely see a lot more of the little workhorses in the near future. The Sony U-70 is so small and light it is easy to carry just about anywhere and it is so versatile it allows me to use it however the situation dictates. A lot of the writing I do takes place during unexpected blocks of free time that present themselves during the day, such as a cancelled meeting or better yet the meeting that finishes much earlier than anticipated. I might find myself with a half hour of time to spend working on a report that needs to get done so having the right tools with me is crucial.
I set out to identify and build the most portable fully functioning desktop I could and have settled on an arrangement I am very satisfied with. I started (of course) with the Sony U-70 and determined the components I needed to add were a good mobile keyboard with full-sized keys and a good portable mouse. Wireless components were a given so as to keep it simple and allow for very quick setup and breakdown of the whole system. If I can’t get going in just a minute or two it can prevent me from getting enough writing done during those shorter blocks of time I have to use.
I did a lot of research on what was available that might fit my needs and settled on the Billionton Bluetooth (CF) card, the Stowaway Bluetooth Keyboard and the Bluetake BT500 portable Bluetooth mouse. These three components take up almost no room in my bag yet provide a completely functioning desktop, all without wires or hassles. This also gives me the opportunity to use the Motorola v710 Bluetooth phone for high speed connectivity when WiFi is not available.
The only component I wish was integrated into the Sony U-70 is Bluetooth but since that is lacking I needed a good Bluetooth card. I originally had high hopes to use the Socket CF card since it is the only CF Bluetooth card that fits flush with the CF slot. It is very nice to have nothing sticking out of the top of the Sony but I found it did not work with the Stowaway keyboard. According to Socket the Stowaway doesn’t have a standard implementation of the Human Interface Device (HID) with the current drivers supplied by Stowaway. Both companies are aware of this and working on a solution but that doesn’t help me right now. The card I ended up using is the Billionton CF card. The Billionton was easy to setup and it just works like it should. I never have to think about the card- just pop it into the Sony and off it goes. I really like the Billionton for that reason and the mark of a good tool is one that does its job without you having to think about it.
At first glance the Billionton looks like a cheap device, kind of a tacky grey metal case with a cheesy blue/purple plastic top. Closer inspection shows it to be very solidly made, however, and it is obvious Billionton uses these materials to provide the best reliability/ cost ratio. The Billionton sticks out of the CF slot about a half inch, the only complaint I have about the card. It would be so nice if it sat flush in the slot but it is a small price to pay for such a stalwart worker. Inside the blue plastic top is an LED that flashes whenever data is transmitted in or out.
The Billionton runs on the Bluetooth standard version 1.1 which means it is not compatible with some newer devices unless they are backwards compatible. Almost all input devices are 1.1 so that is not really a problem. The Billionton comes with drivers for Windows based computers but I couldn’t find any drivers for Pocket PCs. The software must be installed prior to inserting the CF card into the device since the card is Plug n Play and needs the drivers installed first. Once installed the software creates the My Bluetooth Places folder where you can work with your devices in one central place. The installation was simple and straightforward. The last step of the installation process was quite nice as Billionton gives you the option to pair and configure each device you want to use via Bluetooth so once that is complete you come up ready to go with all your devices. The Billionton provides the following Bluetooth profiles:
- Audio gateway
- Serial port
- File transfer
- LAN access
- PIM sync
- Audio headset
- PIM transfer
This is a much more complete set of profiles than the Socket driver which does not support audio.
Using the Billionton
There is not much to say about actually using the Billionton. You pop it in and it just works with pretty much whatever devices you throw at it. It excels at handling multiple devices simultaneously without a hiccup. I regularly use a keyboard, mouse and my cell phone modem together without any trouble. Pairing a device to the Billionton is simple and can be instigated through the system tray icon. Once a device is paired you are good to go and you never have to re-pair the devices again. The Billionton works well, is fast, and even handles the DUN connection to my phone reliably. I am very happy with the performance of the Billionton and the size is the only complaint I have with the CF card.
Stowaway Bluetooth Keyboard
With the Bluetooth card in place the next component to add to build the portable desktop is the keyboard. This is undoubtedly the most important piece of the puzzle as any touch typist will tell you. The keyboard must have full-sized keys with a decent key travel to facilitate high typing speeds. In this particular case it must also be very small and portable or it won’t be easy to haul around. There is no question the Stowaway Bluetooth Keyboard is the smallest and lightest keyboard you can get that offers a full typing experience so this decision was the easiest to make.
Stowaway Keyboard Hardware
The Stowaway Bluetooth Keyboard is a marvel of engineering that is evident when you first take it out of its included black zipper case. The keyboard is a very small size when closed and the first impression is something so small could never provide a full typing tool. That impression is dead wrong. The keyboard has full-sized keys that exhibit good key travel and feels as solid as any keyboard. The device is powered by two AAA batteries that have a claimed operation life of a couple of months with light use. I have used the keyboard quite heavily and am still on the original pair of batteries that Stowaway provided with the keyboard so that estimated life is probably accurate.
The keyboard is so small in large part to the decision the designers made to eliminate the top row of keys. The only way you can access the keys that are normally found on the number row key is to use the keys on the QWERTY row with one of two function (Fn) keys on the Stowaway. All keys on a normal keyboard are accessible on the Stowaway but I have to admit I would gladly accept the device being a little bit wider if they would include the number row. It is the only complaint I have with the keyboard but it is a pretty big one.
The Stowaway has a clever device stand for holding the Sony (or other device) in an upright viewing position while typing. The stand is built using a flimsy plastic and while it holds the Sony with no problems it doesn’t feel as stable as I would like. You can tell it is designed to hold smaller phones or PDAs which is the intended audience for the Stowaway so I don’t fault them for that. The stand is detachable from the keyboard proper so you can position the screen wherever you want for easy viewing while typing.
Using the Stowaway Keyboard
The Stowaway is very simple to open and operate making it a real joy to whip out whenever the typing urge hits. The process to open it is a three step one- pull up the stand from the device, push the button on the left side of the keyboard to open it, and slide it open. It clicks into place when fully opened and the whole process just takes a few seconds. The keyboard extends out from the base on both sides which feels a little strange at first. You would expect the keyboard to sit completely flush with the table but it extends out from the base on both sides an inch or two. This phenomenon doesn’t impact two handed touch typing but would probably create problems for people who type with two fingers. Hitting a key on the far edges of the keyboard will cause it to rock slightly without a hand on the opposite side of the keyboard for counter-balance. This should be changed in future versions of the keyboard, in my opinion. Pairing the keyboard with the Sony was simple- hitting the CTRL key and both Fn keys simultaneously puts the Stowaway in pairing mode and the Billionton picked it up right away. I assigned a passkey to it, typed it into the keyboard and that was that. Once pairing is completed the simple act of opening and closing the keyboard turns it on and off respectively. One thing that I was happy to see, or rather not see, was a lag for typed letters to appear on the screen. The response of the keyboard is instant, just like any other keyboard. Once your typing session is done you hit the close button on the upper edge of the keyboard and it just folds back up into its tiny "walking" form.
All in all I really like typing on the Stowaway. It is so small it will fit in a shirt pocket, is very thin and light so it is easy to carry anywhere. It has become an important part in my mobile arsenal. If it only had a number row. I hope Stowaway is listening and addresses that shortcoming.
Bluetake BT500 Bluetooth Mouse
The last component to constitute my portable desktop is the mouse. The requirements for the mouse are simple- wireless, small and comfortable in the hand during prolonged use. I did a lot of online research and settled on the Bluetake BT500 Bluetooth Mouse which looked like it would meet all the requirements I had. It turned out to be an excellent choice as the BT500 exceeds all of my requirements. The mouse is very small making it easy to stick in the corner of my gadget bag, while still fitting comfortably in the hand during use.
Bluetake Mouse Hardware
It is a three button mouse with the middle button residing in the scroll wheel. The scroll wheel lights up when the mouse is pairing with another device which is a nice touch. The mouse operates on two AAA batteries which lasts for some time of heavy use. I prefer replaceable batteries in the mouse over rechargeable because the last thing I want to carry with me on trips is another charger. It is much easier to carry a few AAA batteries for swapping when needed. The BT500 is sold in two versions, one with and one without a USB dongle. This was nice for me because I don’t need the dongle so I probably saved $10 this way. The Bluetake required no drivers for Windows XP so there was no installation needed. I just paired it to the Sony and off I went.
Using the BT500 Mouse
Using the Bluetake mouse is pain-free. Pairing is initiated by pressing a special pairing button on the bottom of the mouse which causes the scroll wheel to light up with a blue light for visual confirmation of the pairing process. Once paired with the Sony I have never had to re-pair it again. The mouse buttons have nice solid clicks and the scroll wheel has just the right amount of resistance for accurate scrolling. The optical mouse is comfortable in the hand and it works well on almost any surface. I like using this mouse so much I use it all the time, even at home when the Sony is docked. It’s just that pleasant to use. Other than a slight lag linking to the Sony after a Hibernation the Bluetake is everything I wanted in a wireless portable mouse.
Putting it all together
The entire portable desktop configuration I have outlined is very small and light. The whole setup weighs less than 1.5 pounds total and is very small in size. The gadget bag I use to carry it around is consequently very small and yet still has room for a bunch of other stuff, like my camera. The Billionton does not have to be removed from the Sony to fit in either of the two Sony cases I use which makes it convenient to handle. I can go from gadget bag to full production in less than 30 seconds. That is incredible when you realize I have a full production setup with PC, keyboard, mouse, and cell phone modem when needed. I can use all three peripherals at the same time with no ill effects and no slowdowns which is the way it should work. All in all this setup is just sweet! The only real complaints I have are the lack of the number row keys on the Stowaway keyboard and the flimsy device stand. Those are not deal killers, however, as the utility far outweighs the inconvenience.
This desktop configuration is perfect not just for the Sony U-70 or upcoming U-750P but will work well with other UPCs like the OQO. In fact, the OQO has integrated Bluetooth so you only need a mouse and keyboard.
The three Bluetooth devices (phone excluded) can be purchased for the approximate prices listed (affiliate links):
Additional photos of the terrific trio: