Roll Out the Keyboard

By Eric Grevstad | Posted June 23, 2006

Airport security attendants will ask you to take the notebook PC from your briefcase, but usually send other stuff through the X-ray machine with only a glance. If they see a rolled-up rubbery strip with a cord hanging from it, they'll assume it's the cuff of a blood pressure monitor (four out of four of our coworkers did). If they notice a Windows key on the strip, they'll just think that Microsoft is getting into everything these days.

The cord, however, is a USB cable, and the rolled-up object is a 109-key keyboard — Adesso's Flexible Full-Sized Keyboard, a seamless silicon peripheral suitable both for work in wet or dusty environments and as an easy-to-pack alternative to a cramped laptop keyboard. Available in either black or white for a thrifty $30, the Adesso shrugs off coffee spills, rough treatment and the skepticism of a reviewer prepared to dismiss it.

Where the Rubber Meets the Road
Taking 17.5 by 5 inches of desk space (Adesso offers a 14-inch, no-numeric-keypad model for the same price), the Flexible plugs into any Windows 98/Me/2000/XP system with a free USB port. An old-school PS/2 keyboard port works too, thanks to a supplied adapter; no software-driver shenanigans are required for either.

While not an especially ergonomic design, the keyboard reduces wrist strain by lying flat, with no tilt or slope from rear to front — and at only half an inch thick, it's about as flat as you can get. Set it up and come back to work the next morning, and you'll think for a second there's a giant Band-Aid stuck to your desk.

Apart from the funky grid of contact wires visible through the silicon, the layout is familiar, right down to Num Lock, Caps Lock, and Scroll Lock lights at the right edge. One quirk: Presumably because there's a limit to how big a key can be before failing to detect off-center touches, the Adesso has two short, side-by-side space bars instead of the usual one. Weirder still, it has two blank, do-nothing keys between the space bars and Alt keys, though the rest of the bottom row holds Ctrl and Windows keys as usual.

We noticed that the rubbery, gray-black surface of our test unit seemed a magnet for tiny specks and dust particles, which stuck better or proved harder to brush or blow off than specks on the slicker surface of a conventional plastic keyboard. But if that bothers you, head for the sink and wash the thing.

Rather than soak the Labs, Weather, & Sports Desk, we put the Adesso in a kitchen sink, plugged it into a laptop on the adjacent counter, and spilled a can of Diet Coke over the keyboard. It felt a little fizzy under our fingers, but typed a few paragraphs without missing a beat.

Then we turned on the faucet, rinsing the keyboard clean and shaking off some water before plunging it back into the sink, which filled to a depth of about an inch. (Adesso does concede that the Flexible should stick to shallow waters, rather than sinking to a depth of 50 meters like your sports watch.) Again, a few minutes of word processing, Alt-Tabbing among applications, and navigating the Windows menu showed no ill effects.

Patted dry with paper towels, the Flexible returned to desk duty with no sign of its brief swim — and no damage when we pounded it with our fists, toddler-on-piano style. Ditto for dropping the keyboard to the floor and walking on it, although the latter opened a jumble of Windows menus and switched Microsoft Word into track-document-changes mode.

Built for Comfort, But Not for Speed
OK, the Flexible lives up to its name, we hear you saying, but doesn't it feel awful to type on it? Short answer: No, or at least not as awful as we were expecting. The Adesso has a predictably soft, somewhat rubbery typing feel, but at least it has a typing feel — the keys give tactile feedback instead of feeling mushy, and after a day's practice we found ourselves tapping steadily along. We replaced our usual Logitech desktop keyboard with the Adesso for a week and, while we never felt like making the swap permanent, never felt too harshly deprived or punished either.

Tapping steadily along, however, doesn't mean touch-typing at maximum speed (in our prime we were clocked at 130 and can still reach 100 wpm, thanks). During Day 1 we made lots of errors; on Day 2 we slipped into a decent rhythm; on Day 3 our error rate actually crept up again as our eyes returned to their usual focus on the screen instead of unconsciously glancing at the keyboard regularly.

The errors were annoying but not fatal. A few were due to misjudging the layout, such as hitting the backslash when we wanted backspace or one of the blank keys instead of Alt. But most were due to the keys' needing a firmer strike than the swift brush of a fingertip that's become muscle memory for our fastest, near-simultaneous keypresses. Some of our thumb flicks were too light to trigger the space bar; Web addresses ending in .com registered as .co. Hunt-and-peckers, however, will experience no problems, and we think even low- to middling-speed touch typists will be satisfied with the Adesso.

Whether you'd tuck it into your briefcase as a hotel-room replacement for your laptop's keyboard will depend on how much you like the latter. Generally speaking, we think we'd stick with the keyboard of a full- or mid-sized notebook but be glad to pack the Flexible alongside a subnotebook or especially a handheld or micro-mini like the OQO or Sony Vaio UX. And if you've got a PC in any kind of shop floor or in an outdoor or hospital environment, it's likely to be the best $30 you've ever spent.

Adapted from hardwarecentral.com.

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