by Ilya Gavrichenkov
10/06/2006 | 05:51 PM
Our site usually pays special attention to high-performance hardware for computer enthusiasts in the first place. However sometimes we veer away from this path and take a close look at devices that may hardly affect the system performance in any way, but may certainly be very interesting thanks to their original design or unexpected functionality.
Today we are going to tell you about a device like that: a new Optimus mini three keyboard designed by Artemiy Lebedev studio. If you have never come across this device, then I could briefly describe it as another USB gadget for your PC. However, unlike different gadgets currently available in the market such as USB ash-trays, heaters, vacuums, and the like, Optimus mini three can boast very distinct functionality. It is a small additional interactive three-key keyboard that not only allows programming these keys for different needs depending on the applications running on your PC, but can also display all sorts of useful information on these keys. So, each of the keys is equipped with its own small OLED display. As a result, Optimus three mini can be used as a tool panel, remote control unit, or status indicator (and display time or system status data) with static and animated images.
I have to stress that we are especially excited about the review of Optimus mini three solution as it was developed by our fellow countrymen from Russia :) Artemiy Lebedev Studio is the most well-known (and also the most expensive) Russian web-design studio that has recently started working on some industrial designs also. Optimus mini three seems to have been developed by this particular division. And of course, their primary focus when working on this product was on the idea and design implementation. Therefore, this solution has every chance to win the hearts of many computer users out there.
To tell you the truth, the first project this studio worked on that hasn’t been yet implemented in real life is the fully-functional 101-key computer keyboard with OLED screens inside all the keys. Actually there is nothing principally new about this approach. Different keyboard designers have been trying to introduce something like that since the last century. However, it was Artemiy Lebedev’s studio that were the first ones to suggest using high-quality multi-color screens inside the keys instead of dual-color indicators. I hope that the engineers will finally resolve the issue with the wiring location for the OLED screens for all 101 keys and this solution finally appears in stores. And no matter what the price is going to be, really.
So, Optimus mini three is a sort of a trial solution. However, it has every chance to become a commercial success. The thing is that it is not juts a funky gadget. It is a meaningful device that can be helpful in many cases. So, it will definitely find its user. And this number of users will definitely be quite high. Right now the device is selling for $160, and since it has already received very warm welcome and has been selling well, it is a clear indication of the potential success.
Well, let’s take a closer look at Optimus mini three keyboard and what the user will actually get with it.
Optimus mini three keyboard is shipped in a small carton box and is accompanied with a small card.
The card reads that the detailed user guide and all the necessary software is available for download on a special web-site: optimus.artlebedev.com. So, before you can start using Optimus mini three you have to get online and download Optimus mini Configurator software.
As for the specification of this keyboard, it is 116x52x18mm big, and as you can see, its size is comparable to that of a regular cell phone for instance. It has three square keys 32x32mm big. The screens inside these keys are based on organic LEDs (OLEDs) and have visible area of 20x20mm. The supported resolution is 96x96 pixels, viewing angle equals 160o and each screen can reproduce up to 65,536 colors.
Optimus mini three can be connected to the computer via USB interface. It is compatible with USB 2.0 as well as USB 1.0 ports. The USB cable of the keyboard is 1.5m long, so you can use Optimus mini three at a certain distance from your PC.
Note that you need a system running Microsoft Windows to be able to use this keyboard. Right now it doesn’t support any other OS’s, as the drivers for these haven’t been finished yet.
The keyboard is available in two colors at this time: matt black and silver. We got hold of the first one. The casing as well as the transparent covers of the keys are plastic that feels very nice to the touch. However, unfortunately, the keys get dirty real quick and can be very easily scratched. Therefore, you should treat your Optimus mini three nicely.
The key strokes are very soft without any clicking or bouncing sounds. However, the key strokes do not lock well enough: if you hit the side of the key, the keyboard will not read it at all, because the keys in this case do not get pressed but simply get angled sideways. So, when you work with this keyboard you should aim for the center of the key at all times.
There are two rubber pads glued to the bottom of the Optimus mini three keyboard. They ensure that the keyboard will sit tightly on the desk and will not slide around.
All in all, the solution looks very nice and appealing. It is evident that not only engineers but also professional designers contributed to it. As a result, this keyboard looks very professional and is very different from all other USB gadgets manufactured from cheap Chinese plastic.
Now let’s take a closer look at the peculiarities and functionality of this keyboard. Optimus mini three can be installed easily without any problems. Once you install Optimus mini Configurator software and connect the device to the USB port on your system it will be detected by your OS. However, the Device Manager will recognize this keyboard in a very specific way: it will be displayed as Prolific2 USB-to-Serial Bridge.
It means that Optimus mini three is actually not a USB device at all: it works via the serial RS232 interface. Of course, it makes programming the keys a lot easier, but at the same time it results in a few drawbacks that will be immediately noticed by most users. The major drawback is the use of slow interface for keyboard-to-system communication that affects the keyboard performance noticeably. The keyboard response time to the events taking place on the PC is quite high. For example, Optimus mini three should switch between the key layouts together with the applications on the computer, however in reality the layouts change about 2-3 seconds later.
There are a few other frustrating drawbacks that I have to bring up here. For instance, the keyboard produces some strange sound during work. Although Optimus mini three should be a completely noiseless solution, it is constantly producing some high-pitch whistling noise that may be generated by the internal voltage converter required for OLED displays. We had a chance to play with a few keyboard samples, as all of them produced this whistling noise. In other words, this is a massive issue with these devices, to our regret.
However, Optimus mini three can also boast a few really great features that cannot be left out. For instance, I was really impressed with the quality of bright OLED screens in the keys. The screens are very bright, they can display undistorted image at all angles and boast pretty decent resolution to display graphics as well as text.
The drawback of these OLED screens is their relatively low refresh rate, which is only 3fps. It is definitely not enough to watch any movies or videos on the keyboard. Moreover, when the image displayed on the key needs to be refreshed or changed you can notice very unpleasant flicker of the OLED screen. Luckily, there is no need to refresh the entire picture all the time: only a part of it can be changed if necessary. If the software developers working on Optimus mini three take note of this peculiarity, they will be able to eliminate most of the flicker effect and make the low refresh rate not so noticeable for the user.
You can catch the flicker if you take a picture of the keyboard
with low exposure
As for the hardware stuffing of the Optimus mini three keyboard, it is built on the programmable PIC18F8722 microcontroller. This chip works at 40MHz frequency, features 3.8KB of RAM and has 128KB of integrated flash-memory where the managing software is located.
The keyboard assembly is of very high quality, which is not surprising at all, actually, as Artemiy Lebedev’s Studio pays special attention to production quality. The keyboards are manufactured in Taiwan, however the partner names haven’t been disclosed yet.
The functionality of this keyboard is directly connected with Optimus mini Configurator that not only offers the basic functions but also allows adding user plugins to accommodate specific user needs. Thanks to this software the keys of Optimus mini three display the info that is directly related or not to the currently running application. Besides, Optimus mini Configurator coordinates the mini keyboard with the main keyboard, so that you could use Ctrl, Alt and Shift keys as well as their combinations to change the layout of the Optimus mini three keyboard at any time.
The developers imply that the functionality of their Optimus mini three keyboard should increase thanks to different software plugins created by third-party software developers. Therefore, Optimus mini three designers offer detailed description of the interface alongside with the implementation examples. This is the theory. And the reality is that third-party developers are not rushing to expand the functionality of Optimus mini three keyboard at this time. That is why all it can do right now is exactly what is provided by the standard plugin set included with Optimus mini Configurator.
Frankly speaking, there are not that many plugins available right now, and the functionality of the existing ones certainly leaves much to be desired. The current standard plugins can do the following:
All these plugins can be assigned to any applications installed onto the PC. The Optimus Configurator software allows implementing it without any hassle. Of course, it allows using Optimus mini three keyboard more efficiently.
Moreover, this utility allows setting global parameters for the keyboard, so that you could change the OLED functionality according to your needs and preferences.
All in all, the Optimus mini Configurator provides great means for personalization of Optimus mini three. However, some of the potential of this great keyboard remains untouched because the current plugin sets are not extensive enough. Although we hope that they will enlarge the supported plugin list significantly in the near future, especially with the plugins from third-party developers. Moreover, the Artemiy Lebedev’s Studio is also working on enhancing the Optimus mini Configurator software.
However, the software developers have enough work already even without these additional enhancements. Besides the goals already mentioned above, they are also working on increasing the stability of the Optimus mini Configurator. The thing is that this utility suffers from numerous problems these days. First of all, it is relatively unstable. The current version 1.26 has a few bugs that result into General protection fault and cause the keyboard to freeze. Unfortunately, we faced these issues quite a few times during our test session.
Moreover, Optimus mini Configurator turned out to be pretty resource hungry tool. It ate up to 10% of the CPU power on our test notebook computer equipped with Core 2 Duo T2400 CPU, which is quite a lot for a software tool working in the background mode, I should say.
Today we did our best to share with you our impressions and experiences from working with Optimus mini three keyboard from Artemiy Lebedev’s Studio. Summing up I have to say that our impressions turned out pretty ambiguous. On the one hand, Optimus mini three is a very interesting, beautiful and useful USB gadget. It can be used for a lot of different tasks and theoretically features unlimited functionality thanks to flexible software. Besides, this keyboard is designed greatly and looks good. I believe the use of OLED displays inside the keys is a nice solution.
Unfortunately, despite all the positive emotions we had from this product and the pride we feel for our fellow Russians, we cannot forget about the drawbacks and bugs that we discovered during our tests. The hardware solution turned out pretty slow and it generates some strange whistling noise during work. But the biggest problem with Optimus mini three is the software. The current version of Optimus mini Configurator boasts very scarce features that are much less impressive than what they promised us before the launch in the marketing and promo materials. Moreover, the software is not free from frustrating bugs and loads the entire system pretty heavily. Luckily, the software issues may be resolved in the upcoming Configurator versions, which we hope will happen soon. We also hope that the third-party developers will support this product as well.
In conclusion I would like to say that Optimus mini three should be regarded as the first try before they roll out a fully-functional 101-key Optimus keyboard where each key will feature a small OLED display. Of course, Artemiy Lebedev’s Studio will take note of all our comments and remarks and hopefully the review of their next offspring turns out much more positive.