Whether you’re willing to admit it or not, that tiny smartphone in your pocket will likely replace much of your daily computing activities, if it hasn’t already. It’s just as likely that same smartphone is an Apple iPhone, or perhaps even their non-cellular iPod Touch model, a veritable cornucopia of both useful (and useless) Apps and software solutions, many of which are dIOI-838Koing their best to replace yesterday’s tech with a wide range of productivity enhancing/killing options, and it was only a matter of time before they spread their addictiveness to your prime home computing experience.
Asus made headlines by introducing their unique hybrid PC/keyboard, the EeeKeyboard, last year, and while that may have been a fully-integrated computer, CompExpert wants in on the action, and has imported Korean-manufacturer Omnio’s intriguing WOW-Keys keyboard for anxious fans looking to get a taste of this digital convergence without having to drop a good amount of change to do it. It promises to merge PC/Mac s with Apple’s iPhone/iPod Touch platform with a full-sized QWERTY keyboard that’s opted to replace its numeric keyboard with a 30-pin connector for docking your iPhone or iPod Touch devices, and it’s got the molded cradle bay to prove it. It may promise a Prometheus-like solution for your unified touchscreen desires, the result is closer to Frankenstein’s monster.
While not listed as a compact design, it manages to pack nearly every major Windows-centric button on its smaller 16” length frame, and sports a molded taper (opposed to movable tabs) that permanently inclines it upward at nearly 1” towards the top. The build is extremely solid and feels like a professional-grade construction throughout, though the docking cradle could have used a softer material than hard plastic. The only physical non-keyboard buttons are the switch (to alternate between iPhone/PC), as well as individual buttons for screen-lock and Play/Pause (iPhone-only). Smurf-colored blue lights indicate if your keyboard is tuned to the iPhone or PC, as well as if the Caps/Scroll lock is turned on.
A caveat for those who may have seen pictures of the WOW-Keys floating around online – the extra USB port that appears on the top-right corner isn’t available in the US version of the keyboard, and has been replaced with an empty hole covered by what appears to be a QR code sticker. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to connect to any additional software and is just that, a sticker.
The WOW-Keys keyboard utilizes scissor-switch style keys for comfortable strokes that allow for some truly blistering typing speeds, not unlike what you’d find in most laptops or high-end desktop keyboards (Logitech lovers should feel right at home here). The key layout is modeled after most Windows-style keyboards, meaning you’ll have access to most non-QWERTY functions like Pause, Print Screen, Insert, Delete, Page Up/Down, End, etc. When cradled, you’ll have access to your iPhone’s music functions (play, pause, mute, next/back track) or brining up your music library (that’s on the device), as well as home, search, virtual keyboard, as well as being able to turn the display on/off with the touch of a button.
I’m a sucker for keyboards with soft-stroke keys that respond to my aggressive typing style, which usually regulates me to the cheapest-of-cheap (i.e. easily replaceable) options. Generally, typing on the WOW-Keys was a pleasant experience, though there are several areas which any serious typist should know about before deciding to invest in one, even as a secondary option. While most of my keystrokes registered, occasionally many did not, and this happened so frequently that I have to assume that it’s faulty design to blame. Also, by allocating nearly 5.5” of its 16” length to cradling the iPhone, many of the keyboard’s most critical non-QWERTY keys have been scrunched or omitted altogether. Most egregiously is the new Backspace key, which has been shrunken to the point of near-uselessness; it’s now the exact same size as nearly every other key (half its original size), meaning you’ll probably be hitting its neighboring Home key (adjacent to its left) to the point of frustration. The same could be said, to a lesser degree, of the tiny Spacebar at the bottom, and is nearly 1/3 the size of a regular Spacebar.
What’s likely to be the biggest interest-killing thing about the WOW-Keys is that, apart from offering a nifty docking cradle (that also charges and syncs your device with iTunes), it really doesn’t do anything else. Yes, you’ll have limited control over some of your iPhone’s audio features and input text (see more on this below), but only when it’s tethered to your local PC. Many of its biggest promises to “merge” the multi-touch capabilities of your iPhone to your PC require separate Apps that aren’t connected with the keyboard whatsoever, such as mouse/number-key programs, all of which can be used without the need of a docking keyboard. True, having a docking bay may offer some proximity comfort, but practically all of the added ‘benefits’ could be handled easier – and better – with a standard USB keyboard that won’t cost you nearly as much. CompuExpert is marketing this thing as an iPhone keyboard first, but in reality it’s a PC keyboard first, with very little enhancements for the iPhone experience.
I will say that the friendly CompuExpert rep did say that Omnio is working on their own propriety Apps for the keyboard, but even she didn’t know when they’d be available (a few months, she said), and recommended a number of third-party solutions. While I won’t name them here, many were fine-to-mediocre, and not all were free to use. As the keyboard doesn’t come with any instructions or advice on using some of its ‘merged’ function, I suspect many will feel lost in this digital wilderness.
Perhaps my single biggest gripe with the WOW-Keys isn’t that it doesn’t offer any fundamental changes or services to either the standard keyboard or iPhone experience (truth be told, it limits both), but with its tethered USB cable. Practically every complaint I have with it (minus its micro-Backspace key, which is just terrible) could have been forgiven had the design opted for a detachable mini-USB cable and built-in lithium battery source, rather than holding it prisoner with cables.
Imagine being able to use a sophisticated, touchscreen-equipped keyboard to (wirelessly) control your home media center, complete with gestures and /or anything those clever App developers could come up with. Anyone who’s struggled to use any of the myriad of Google TV’s insipid control options know that the world is crying out for a merged scheme like this. Another missed opportunity is being able to use the keyboard with just the iPhone itself, wirelessly, without having to tether it to a powered USB slot or cable. Incredibly, the product manufacturer actually lists using the WOW-Keys with an iPhone solo by plugging it into “an external battery pack or power” source. Come on guys, who really keeps an external power source handy just for their keyboard?
I was genuinely excited to give Omnio’s WOW-Keys keyboard a chance, as the idea of merging a keyboard with all of the potential of Apple’s ubiquitous iPhone/iPod Touch platform was too good to pass up. Unfortunately, my excitement waned as soon as I saw the tethered USB cable, and only went further down as I used it. Its soft scissor-style keys may be comfy to the touch, but they’re not always responsive, and diminutive keys like Back and Space mean you’ll commit more errors than you’d like. But most egregious is the fact that the keyboard doesn’t really add anything to the experience, other than a handy docking bay to keep your iDevice charged, as it relies on additional Apps that can be used without it. Perhaps we’ll see a truly connected keyboard in the future, but you’ll want to save your money until then.