If there’s one thing I miss from the old pre-touchscreen phones we used to have, it’s physical keyboards. Physical QWERTY keyboards, to be exact. From the Nokia 6800 series, to the Communicators, the E70 and all the way to the N900, I’ve always loved their typing speed and power, especially with regards to terminal usage where special characters are essential. Sadly, after Nokia’s betrayal and the subsequent flop with the N950, the market wasn’t looking that good. There were mostly a couple of Android phones, but I’ve never been a fan of the OS.
That’s when Jolla released news of their phone. With an I²C extension interface builtin and Jolla strongly hyping the Other Half concept, I was certain there would be an official keyboard TOH. After launch and no actual functional TOHs of any kind, it was apparent there would be no such thing. Cue more sadness.
A wild TOHKBD appears!
There were hobbyists working on the OH concept though. Dirk van Leersum (dirkvl) had created many different OHs and even opened a small web store to sell them. He worked in collaboration with Kimmo Lindholm (kimmoli), a prolific Sailfish software developer and OH tinkerer. After creating some cool OHs like the TOHOLED, they — joined by designer Andrew Zhilin (wazd) — revealed their most ambitious project yet: the TOHKBD. (In reality it was called TOHKBD2, because they had an earlier prototype with a very limited production run, but here I will just refer to it as the TOHKDB.)
The announcement was met with a lot of enthusiasm both from others and myself, and the Kickstarter campaign was financed in the same evening, eventually collecting over 300% of the original goal. Even Jolla themselves chipped in, offering a discount on the phone with every TOHKBD purchase. It was a time of great anticipation.
And now, after n months of waiting, it’s finally here. I’ve had it for a few days now, with enough usage to be able to say something about it.
The TOHKBD arrived in a small, unassuming box that fit right in my mailbox — no going to the post office, yay! The package only contained the keyboard part and the Other Half. No instructions whatsoever, but I’m guessing everyone that bought it was knowledgeable enough to snap the OH on the phone and the keyboard on that.
Hardware joys and issues
The keyboard consists of two parts that are magnetically attached: the OH with the EEPROM and NFC sticker, and the keyboard which connects to the OH with pogo pins when it’s in the correct position. The build feels quite sturdy for being 3D printed and the rough surface of the printed parts is quite nice, offering a good grip of the phone. The surface does scratch easily and gets scratched also by the keyboards pogo pins when you slide it open and closed. What it looks like after some wear and tear remains to be seen.
When the keyboard is in place, the phone is quite bulky. It’s about as thick as the N900 was, but since the screen is larger, it feels a lot bigger overall. This doesn’t bother me — I used to have a Communicator at one point, and I had an XL battery for my N900, which made it even thicker. The TOHKBD fits my pocket just fine. And if you’re short on space, you can take the keyboard part off and carry it separately.
The backplate on my TOHKBD is by LastuCase and is really nice. It’s made from dead and dried Finnish wood (kelo), polished and coated. It also gives a good grip. I only wish the shape was rectangular instead of this timeglass-ish one. But in the end it’s not a big deal.
The keypad itself is injection molded and feels quite like the one on the N900. The layout really feels like it was designed for power users. Aside from the QWERTY, you get a full number/F-row, all the special characters you usually need, a tab, two controls and shifts, delete, insert, home, end, alt, esc, two sym keys and even a four direction arrowpad with page up and page down. The keys are pretty well sized even for a person with big thumbs like me but they have still managed to fit in an astounding amount of keys. Well done there!
The keypad is also where the most HW issues I have heard are. The most common complaint is that some keys are tougher to press than others. Worse, for those keys the tactile feedback lies: you hear and feel the click but nothing happens. Quite fortunately the keys seem to soften a bit after some use. On my keyboard the keys ‘w’, ‘r’, ‘l’ and ‘c’ were causing the most trouble, but after a couple of days all of them are perfectly usable, with only ‘l’ giving slight trouble. The most frustrating are the left shift and the left and right arrows, which I really have to focus on to use. I’m hoping they will improve over time too. To sum up my HW experience: in the first days I was really slow at typing and it felt like the keyboard was really hard to use; when typing this paragraph, I’m almost back to the speed I had with my old N900 and certainly faster than I was with the virtual keyboard. All in all I’m quite satisfied with the result.
As an additional coolness factor, the TOHKBD team added cool backlighting to the keyboard. It’s not totally even but it’s good enough. There’s also a separate caps lock LED, which is really useful, and a curiosity they call the “selfie LED” (a bright light below the tabulator, also doubles as a flashlight).
Software is the icing on the cake
When I got my TOHKBD, the software was already approved by Jolla QA, so I was able to install it by just snapping on the OH. This was good UX, no fiddling with 3rd party repos or RPMs, just installed it like any official TOH ambience. I had to reboot the phone after that though to hide the virtual keyboard when the QWERTY is open, but no big deal. This has been fixed in the latest software version, so no reboot is required.
The software includes a settings app which has a lot of configuration settings. You can customize all the F-key shortcuts, set the backlight delays and the lux level to trigger it, repeat delay and speed among other things. I like the way I could make it match my own usage. Kimmoli is really working hard on the software side, fixing bugs and adding features. The first update came days after I got the keyboard and more are already in the QA queue. Great work, kimmoli!
The only gripe I have with the SW side is that currently the layout is fixed as English QWERTY and cannot be changed. This is something the TOHKBD team cannot control, as it requires an OS update from Jolla. Rumors say it is not coming in the next update (1.1.7), but we will have to wait and see. In any case, so far the SW exprience has been stellar.
The TOHKBD is a really special product. It is a great display of what a few passionate people and the community around them can accomplish if given the right tools. To think what kind of innovations we would have if the most popular Androids and iPhones had the same kind of data interfaces. This is why companies should embrace and not shun their communities.
As for the TOHKBD, it is overall a really great achievement for such a small production for a niche phone. Not only that, it is for the most part a pleasure to use. Dirkvl, kimmoli & wazd, good job guys. A+ would buy again.
The entirety of this review was written using the TOHKBD.