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Patience, you know, is a wonderful trait. Especially so if it manifests in the character of someone who, after lending you a quite rare and interesting specimen of Newton hardware to be reviewed on your site, simply sits back and waits until said review is finished. Even though there would have been ample reason for nagging, considering that, almost to a day, the author-to-be received the specimen in question half a year before he finally found the time to start writing about it.
I do sincerely hope that the Motorola Marco which is currently traveling my way from Poland courtesy of the same someone will not moulder for such a long time on my to do list, and I just as sincerely apologize in advance if it will.

The FreeKey that I will now take the liberty of introducing to you was designed and manufactured around 1997 by Florian Biehler, head of
F. Biehler Systementwicklung, who also created the amazing FreeDock. The FreeKey’s electronic innards were developed and programmed by Martin Lindauer, then located in the picturesque German village Oberau near Garmisch in Bavaria.

Behind almost every image below lurks its high resolution counterpart. Just click on the images to see an enlarged version in a new browser window.

FreeKey packaging (click for a larger image)A sight that you are unlikely to come across very often these days is a FreeKey in its original packaging.
As you might have guessed by now, the FreeKey is about keys. More precisely, keyboard keys. It is a very convenient device to connect your Newton MessagePad 110, 120 or 130 to a PC or Macintosh type keyboard. As you will see later, it will work with other Newton models, too, but it won’t fit as snugly below them as it does below the models mentioned above.

Contents of box (click for a larger image)Opening the box reveals the FreeKey itself, a driver disk, some documentation and a stainless steel clasp whose job it is to keep the FreeKey attached to the Newton.

 User's manual (click for a larger image)Part of the documentation is the user’s manal, which you see here. Thanks to state of the art digital camera technology you can even read it if you click on the picture.

Brochure front side (click for a larger image)This little brochure provides some information on other Newton-related hardware items created and sold by the creators of the FreeKey.

Brochure back side (click for a larger image)The brochure’s back side (surprise!).

FreeKey unpacked (click for a larger image)The FreeKey unpacked.

FreeKey top side (click for a larger image)Apart from being a serial keyboard interface, the FreeKey is a battery holder for four standard AA size NiCd rechargeable batteries or alkalines. The red switch on the right-hand side controls if the batteries are charged while the AC adapter is connected. If it is in the bottom position as shown here, the batteries will not be charged. Sliding it to the top position will make the FreeKey charge with approximately 60 mA. The charge current is inversely proportional to the batteries’ charge state. Once they are fully charged, it is less than 1 mA, which allows keeping them in the FreeKey indefinitely without overcharging them.
Quite unfortunately the FreeKey is unable to determine whether the batteries you put in are of the rechargeable type, hence it will happily attempt charging alkalines and other non-rechargeable batteries. This is a severe and dangerous design flaw that it has in common with nine out of ten low-cost battery chargers. Trying to pump current into cells that were never intended to be charged will eventually make these cells very angry, and more often than not they will express their annoyance by exploding out of the blue. You don’t want to be nearby when this happens. Unfortunately the FreeKey’s manual doesn’t mention this problem at all.
The FreeKey will also charge rechargeables inside the Newton. With no AC adapter connected, new alkalines in the FreeKey and completely (1.1 Volt) discharged NiCad cells in the Newton the charge current starts at about 300 mA and decreases while the cells’ charge state increases. I am unsure of whether this can be considered a bug or a feature. If you want the FreeKey’s batteries to last as long as possible, you’d be well advised to remove the Newton’s rechargeable battery first. Non-rechargeable batteries, by the way, can be safely left in the Newton since the Newton’s hardware will prevent them from being charged.

FreeKey right side (click for a larger image)On its right side FreeKey has three connectors:

Top-left: 8-pin Mini-DIN. This is an extension of the Newton’s serial port and can be used for printing, faxing or whatever else you used to use your Newton’s serial port for before you plugged the FreeKey in.
Middle: 4-pin ADB. Through this connector FreeKey will talk to Macintosh keyboards.
Bottom-right: 5-pin DIN (DIN 41524). This is where you’d plug a PC keyboard in. Since their connectors are electrically identical (except for XT keyboards), you can also connect keyboards with the newer 6-pin Mini-DIN (PS/2, DIN 45322) connector and an appropriate adapter. Some FreeKeys came with a PS/2 jack instead of the 5-pin DIN one, allowing to plug in PS/2 PC keyboards directly.
Although there are adapters out there that would allow connecting a USB keyboard, the FreeKey will not work with this keyboard type.

FreeKey left side (click for a larger image)The left side provides a jack for the Newton’s AC adapter and a little blue button that controls both the FreeKey and the Newton. Pressing this button twice will turn the FreeKey off. The manual is slightly ambiguous as to what will happen on pressing the button once. I’m under the impression that this depends on whether the FreeKey is switched on when you press the button. If it is, the Newton will be switched on. If it isn’t, both the FreeKey and the Newton will be switched on, and the FreeKey will be reset.

FreeKey bottom side (click for a larger image)Assembling FreeKey is a matter of seconds. All that’s required is putting it upside-down into its stainless steel clasp. If you plan to use FreeKey with batteries, it is a good idea to put them in first. Again, make sure that what you put in are rechargeable Nickel-Cadmium batteries. Unless you can guarantee that no AC adapter will ever be connected to the FreeKey while the red switch is in the “charge” position, never put in anything else!

Newton in FreeKey clip (click for a larger image)Finally, the Newton is fitted into its steel clasp and the FreeKey’s AC and serial cable are plugged into their respective jacks.

FreeKey clip top side 1 (click for a larger image)The manual isn’t sufficiently clear on whether the top end of the clasp should be below the Newton as shown here...

FreeKey clip top side 2 (click for a larger image)...or clipped over the edge as shown here. This version holds the whole structure steadier, but is more likely to scratch your Newton if you don’t take sufficient care during assembly.

FreeKey installed (click for a larger image)Ready for the first test. The FreeKey almost disappears under the Newton.

Newton in portrait mode (click for a larger image)With the FreeKey beneath it, the Newton rests at an angle that does in fact improve readability...

Newton in landscape mode  (click for a larger image)...for as long as you are using it (the Newton, not the readability) in portrait mode. In landscape mode, however, which is much more suited for text entry, this angle becomes a drawback.

Newton with orange (click for a larger image)Ah, well, during all these years I have always known that studying for almost half a decade to qualify as an electronics engineer would eventually pay off...

Newton with walnut (click for a larger image)...even if, after one comes up with as ingenious a solution as the one shown above, one’s offspring quite unexpectedly expresses a firm desire to get her hands on your household’s remaining vitamin supply.

 FreeKey with Newton 2100 (click for a larger image)As I mentioned above, the FreeKey works fine with other Newton models, although it will not fit as snugly beneath them as it does beneath the models it was originally intended for. What most people would probably use it with today if it was still available (which quite unfortunately it is not) is a MessagePad 2000 or 2100.
The keyboard shown in this picture, by the way, is not only proof that PC type keyboards work just as fine as their Mac counterparts. It is also one of the most amazing pieces of hardware I have ever owned. It originally came with a logic analyzer and was probably never intended to see more than a couple of key taps per day. Ever since I replaced its special connector with a standard PC type connector way back at the time when IBM AT computers with 80286 processors were state of the art, it has accompanied me through all my digital life, more often than not enduring thousands of key taps per day. If all hardware out there was like this keyboard, life would be paradise, and keyboard manufacturers would be extinct.

FreeKey with OMP (click for a larger image)All Newtons with Newton OS 2.0 or later (MessagePads 120 with ROM upgrade, 130, 2000 and 2100) will recognize the FreeKey out of the box because they support scan mode. Scan mode means that the keyboard only notifies the Newton of which row and column the pressed key was in; the actual key mapping is left to the Newton. In scan mode the Newton will automatically register the FreeKey as a keyboard if it (the FreeKey) is already plugged in when you turn it (the Newton) on. Hence for scan mode to work, the Newton must be powered off before it is connected to the FreeKey. Automatic recognition will not work if the FreeKey is used with a Newton 2000 or 2100 through a SER-001. In this case you will have to reset the FreeKey before the Newton recognizes the keyboard.
Older Newton models, like the Original MessagePad shown in this picture, only support ASCII mode (American S tandard Code for Information Interchange, erroneously referred to as ASCI mode in the manual). ASCII mode means that the keyboard itself takes care of the key mapping and tells the Newton which key was pressed. OS 1.x Newtons will stubbornly refuse any communication with the FreeKey unless you install the
FreeKey package from the included floppy disk.

Virus warning (click for a larger image)If there was one thing that I found mildly surprising while working on this review, it was what my trusty companion McAfee VirusScan presented me with on inserting the aforementioned floppy disk.
It had been a long time since I had last heard of this particular fellow, which was discovered around Christmas 1990 and is known to infect a drive’s boot record.
Since not all previous owners of this particular FreeKey are known, the source of this infection will remain a mystery. But what better proof can there be that money spent on current virus scan software is money spent well.

FreeKey package in Extras (click for larger image)After installation the FreeKey package is accessible through a nicely designed icon in the Newton’s Extra’s folder.

FreeKey package started (click for larger image)Launching it presents one with the smallest dialog I have ever seen on a Newton. Which makes perfect sense, because you will want as much screen real estate as possible for entering and editing your text.
While the checkbox is checked, the Newton’s serial port is connected to the keyboard. In that case you can’t use the FreeKey’s external Mini-DIN connector, and the Newton cannot be switched off.

The FreeKey allows toggling between scan and ASCII mode by pressing one of the following key combinations:

{Strg} + {Alt} + {F1}: Switch to ASCII mode
{Strg} + {Alt} + {F2}: Switch it to scan mode

The benefit of this feature, however, is nonexistent unless you plan to use both a 1.x and a 2.x OS Newton without switching the FreeKey off while unplugging one and plugging the other one in. While being used in ASCII mode the FreeKey will, regardless of whether it is driven by a PC or a Mac keyboard, produce strange and unexpected results on any Newton running OS 2.0 or later. Some keys won’t do anything and some, if pressed once, will fill the Newton screen with heaps of weird characters you never typed. The same can happen if you try to use a Newton running an OS earlier than 2.0 in scan mode.

By default, i. e. after a reset or after it is switched on, the FreeKey is in ASCII mode, hence for it to work with Newtons running OS 2.0 or later, you need to press {Strg} + {Alt} + {F2} once before the keyboard will work as expected.

Apart from switching between ASCII and scan mode, some more things can be controlled through the external keyboard:

{Strg} + {Alt} + {A}: Switch to the American keyboard layout
{Strg} + {Alt} + {D}: Switch to the German keyboard layout

What the user’s manual omits to mention is that this will only work in ASCII mode, hence only users of 1.x OS Newtons will have a chance to avail themselves of this really useful feature. In scan mode, the keyboard layout is determined by the language of the Newton OS. In other words, if you have e. g. an American Newton, the keyboard layout will be American regardless of your keyboard’s locale.

Two other fairly useful key combinations are

{Strg} + {Alt} + {Space}: Power the Newton on
{Strg} + {Alt} + {X}: Power the FreeKey off

According to the user’s manual {TAB}, {DEL}, {INS} and the cursor keys will not work in ASCII mode. This is almost true. “Almost” because I found that the cursor left and right keys worked just fine in that mode. While {TAB} and all four cursor keys worked in scan mode, I wasn’t able to make {DEL} or {INS} work in either mode regardless of whether I was using a Mac or a PC keyboard.

To conclude yet another way-too-long page, I would like to finish with a personal valuation.
Without any doubt the FreeKey is a very ingenious device. It is in the same league as the amazing
FreeDock that I recently had the pleasure to review. Apart from that, it goes without saying that as a collector’s item it is a must-have. Insofar it was well worth the 129 German Mark (about 70 Euros or 92 USD with today’s exchange rate) that it used to sell for, and in all likeliness many a Newtoneer would gladly part with more than that today if it was still available.
The FreeKey’s actual value, though, strongly depends on the demands the user makes on it, and, to a certain degree, on the user’s text entry skills.
If all you need is write a few paragraphs now and then, and if you have problems with the speed or the accuracy of the Newton’s handwriting recognition, the FreeKey would be a good investment. After all, PC keyboards are all over the place, and Macintosh keyboards, albeit not as frequent, are readily available, too.
If, however, you happen to be a touch typist who needs to enter huge amounts of text in as little time as possible, the FreeKey probably wouldn’t help you very much. Apart from the minor flaw that the Newton, if used in landscape mode, is positioned at a disadvantageous angle unless you carry an orange or a walnut around with you, there is one issue with all Newtons that makes really fast text entry impossible regardless of the way utilized: The Newton’s annoying habit of saving the whole note after each new character typed. This isn’t much of a problem immediately after a new note is started, but it takes longer and longer as the note increases in length. On Newton 1x0 models the result is that after typing about half a screenful of text there is an annoying delay between tapping on the keyboard and seeing the text appear on the screen, which makes it impossible to continue with any speed worth mentioning. With my own touch typing skills (which I think are below average, as touch typists go) it takes less than a minute of full speed typing on my PC keyboard until I need to start a new note.
I would gladly trade all the special key combinations the FreeKey offers for one that opens a new note and places the cursor at its beginning, which would allow to continue typing at full speed without the necessity for time-consuming pen taps.

Notwithstanding the above, I must admit that I would very much like my own FreeKey. After all, I am not only a touch typist. I am also a collector...

Dead links? Questions? Anything unclear? Any syntactical or grammatical errors in this description? Feel free to tell me about it. Yes, really. Don’t be polite, be helpful. If you’re not being helpful, how am I supposed to improve my English!

Nothing like that? This page really helped you? Wow! What a perfect reason to sign my guest book...

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