Review: FrogPad USB
Requirements: Mac with USB, Mac OS 9 or Mac OS X
Its manufacturers bill the FrogPad as the keyboard of the future. Classrooms will be filled with students happily typing away on one, and PDA users who need an effective method of text entry, versus a stylus or thumb pad, would choose one, too.
That’s a lot of hype for one device to live up to. Unfortunately, it fails, however admirably, on all counts.
It’s really quite a simple device, at first glance: a small, cute, green pad roughly the size of my Visor Edge, with 15 keyboard-sized keys, a space key, and four command keys. But the FrogPad grows more complicated when one tries to do the obvious and, well, use it. The keys you will most frequently use are immediately available for access, and the keys you’ll use less frequently require hitting Fn. In addition, punctuation marks are all accessible via another meta key, and a variety of keyboard functions (Home, End, Delete, etc.) by hitting a third. One of the function keys doubles as a Shift key, another as the Space key.
When the FrogPad arrived in the mail, I immediately plugged it in and started running through a few of the exercises listed in the manual. The training CD is Windows-only, and I no longer own an IBM-compatible PC at all, so proper training was out of the question. At the same time, I taught myself QWERTY typing in the second grade with only part-time assistance of software, and I know a lot more about computers 12 years later, so it seemed like I ought to be able to pull all of this off.
As I said, I’m a quite experienced QWERTY typist, and I can transcribe at roughly 100 words per minute. I did not expect a speed increase, and it is not possible, the manual insists, for me to exceed about 40 WPM.
What they don’t tell you is that if you’re lucky you might reach 40 WPM, but either my pinkies and thumbs are not sufficiently developed despite all these years of typing…or the layout just doesn’t make sense. I found that after a week and a half of typing exclusively with the FrogPad, I was reaching at best 15 words per minute, and much of that involved looking at the keyboard while I was typing. (For comparison’s sake, I reached 15 WPM typing in Dvorak layout in three days, without relabeling my key caps.)
Now, in the FrogPad’s defense, I might have spent more time mastering it if I hadn’t needed to return the unit to Corporateville, USA, but in my own defense, I might also have lost my sanity had I continued using it for another week or two. Not to mention that I might never have been able to type again on a QWERTY keyboard.
I’m not sure what kind of market the FrogPad seeks. If I, an experienced computer user and writer (i.e., routine typist) who has learned to type at reasonable proficiency in two different keyboard layouts, struggle with 15 WPM after a pretty substantial incubation period, then how do they expect third-graders to learn to use it? And the PDA user who uses one—why use it and not T9 predictive input or Graffiti?
I just can’t see any significant advantages to using the FrogPad over any other keyboard or text-input system. RH or LH Dvorak layouts seem like a better and faster way of entering text into a computer, if someone needs to use one hand. The PDA example still strikes me as pretty artificial, as the FrogPad seems a bit larger than a keyboard-less PDA like the HP iPAQ 4150.
There were several snafus with the execution as well: it’s a significant hassle to produce the chord for the command key, and that information is not even included in the manual; the training CD, as I said, was Windows-only; occasionally, the keyboard would stop responding, something I’ve never caught my USB keyboard doing.
I’ll admit that I enjoyed the novelty of something like the FrogPad, but at the price they want for the USB model—much less the Bluetooth model, at $195—I’ll pass, and try one-handed Dvorak again, thank you very much. It reminded me a little too much of one of my favorite songs, Donald Fagen’s sarcastic indictment of techno-idealism:
On that train,
All graphite and glitter,
Undersea by rail,
Ninety minutes from New York to Paris,
Well, by ’76 we’ll be A-OK.
What a glorious world it would be,
What a wonderful time to be free
What a glorious world it could be
What a wonderful time to be free.
Donald Fagen, “IGY,” The Nightfly