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Textware’s Fitaly 4 for Pocket PC

Review posted January 2008 Tanker Bob

Editor's Note, Sept. 2008: Read our review of Fitaly 5, the latest version.

How do you top yourself when you already have a masterpiece that almost rules the market?  That’s the question that faced Textware developers as they pondered how to upgrade Fitaly 3.5.  They already had the leading alternative input system on both the Windows Mobile and Palm operating systems with a huge and loyal following.  Impossible to top?  Not so—they managed to once again up the ante in the alternative keyboard world.

Textware founder Jean Ichbiah centered on expanding Fitaly’s slides and decided to add a sophisticated macro capability.  This involved delving deep into the Windows Mobile operating system.  For a nominal fee, Textware “rented” a Microsoft engineer to guide them in their quest for macro perfection and this made all the difference.  Microsoft freely shared any and all information that would help Textware achieve a powerful macro implementation.  The result appears as Fitaly 4.00.

Look Ma, No Palm!

While our previous Fitaly reviews have applied to both Windows Mobile and Palm, Fitaly 4.00 only works with Windows Mobile 2003SE and WM 5 devices.  Textware left the Palm OS platform after the release of the Palm TX in October of 2005.  Even though the Palm OS hasn’t had a major version update since the release of OS 5.0 in 2002, each new device has input system and other incompatibilities with its predecessors.

To make matters worse, Palm still (!) hasn’t released the details of its Dynamic Input Area (DIA) Application Program Interface (API) to developers and provides no help in that or other critical areas.  The most talented developers have had some success in “reverse engineering” the DIA, but this usually results in messy workarounds rather than clean code.  Textware grew tired of this game and, along with others, abandoned the Palm platform entirely.

The contrast between Palm and Microsoft developer support couldn’t be starker.  While developers get only deafening silence from Palm in key areas, Microsoft readily provides detailed help to third-party programmers.  According to Jean Ichbiah: “…it is a pleasure to work with Microsoft: For $XXX we could buy the assistance of a Microsoft engineer who turned out to be crucial. Then they made the support intervention free, arguing that it was a documentation bug!  What a quality company!”

Test Conditions

Tanker Bob tested Fitaly 4.00 on a Dell Axim X50v running Windows Mobile 2003SE at 624 MHz with a VGA screen and 64 MB of RAM.  I installed Fitaly into BIS, but its primary DLL loaded into RAM.  Most of the heavy text lifting took place in Phatware’s Phatnotes Professional 4.7.1.

The Key Points

Fitaly provides an alternate keyboard in the standard input panel (SIP).  The letter placements on the keyboard result from careful analysis of the English language.

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I held a great interest in ciphers and secret writing many years ago.  Letter frequencies and their combinations in the English language provide an interesting study in themselves.  Old linotype machine layouts were based on an assumed frequency that still commonly appears in modern usage lists.  However, the US Army cipher manual lists a different order.  Further study reveals that letter-use frequency varies a bit depending on the type and even the topic of writing or speaking.  Common writing and speech produces a different letter frequency than a straight list of dictionary words, though not greatly different.

Based on this analysis, I concluded years ago that Textware based the Fitaly keyboard on Army Field Manual 34-40-2, Basic Crypanalysis.  They selected the eight most commonly used letters—etnroais—which make up about 67% of the letters used in common words to occupy the center area of the keyboard.  Conversely, the least common—jkqxz—which constitute about 1% of English usage, fit around the outside corners.  Also, the arrangement puts the most common 2-letter combinations like ‘en’, ‘re’, ‘nt’, ‘th’, ‘on’, etc., together and close to center.  Common letter combinations remain the pattern as the keyboard moves out from the center.  This works well because the 18 most common 2-letter combinations (called diagraphs) account for 25% of all diagraphs commonly used in English.  The Army field manual goes on to list the most common trigraphs and tetragraphs in English usage as well.

Fitaly’s employment of this actual usage-based analysis (I later confirmed my conclusion with Mr. Ichbiah) results in the minimum hand movement to enter common words as well as a flow to those words.  The location of two large “space bars” on either side of center also contributes to rapid input.  The second row of letters from the top provides the product’s name—FITALY—in the same manner that the QWERTY keyboard derives its common name.  Mr. Ichbiah emphasized in his answer that the use of this method to locate the next likely letter next to its predecessor greatly contributes to minimizing hand movement and increasing input speed.  You can read a brief description of the philosophy here.  He recommended visualizing the words on the keyboards as you type them, which can enhance input speed.  A discussion of this technique appears here.

Does Size Matter?

In Fitaly’s case, a VGA screen provides additional keyboard size options.  Using the QVGA graphics, one can choose a small keyboard:

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While this furnishes a maximum of screen area above it for text to appear, it can provide an interesting targeting challenge for some of us without GPS-guided stylii.  As a compromise, Textware furnishes a medium keyboard that appears more practical for the rest of us:

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Though small, this layout proved useful in my testing.  In the end, I mostly used the normal sized keyboard.

The Rest of the Story…

Of course, the basic letters provide the core, but capitalization, punctuation, and special characters fill out our daily use.  These characters lurk just under the surface, a simple tap or slide away.  Note that all shifting keys stick for one character selection by default.  So, I tap Shift then a character or punctuation, and then the keyboard returns to its unshifted state.

Tapping the sticky shift key produces capitals on-screen (can be changed in the options) plus additional punctuation:

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Tapping the ‘123’ key brings up the numeric keyboard along with symbols commonly associated with number operations:

 

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Shifting the numeric keyboard, which requires two taps from the starting arrangement, furnishes access to some seldom-used characters:

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The four keys below the Shift key also shift the display.  Each provides access to characters that use the particular symbols shown, plus other characters on the right side of the keyboard.  For example, tapping the umlaut key produces:

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Tapping the others displays other keyboard layouts such as the one below:

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You can easily see a pattern to the last circumflex accent and the symbols on the right side.  The angular nature of the key and the brackets go together well, helping me to remember where to get these characters.  The umlaut next to the circumflex accent key brings up the rest of the commonly used symbols.  It all works well, but that’s not all…

The four “accent” shift keys can themselves be shifted in appearance and function.  Tapping the arrow key in the left column changes the accents to arrow keys, the previous arrow key then changing to an accent.

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These arrow keys move the cursor in the text.  The two right keys move the cursor left or right, while the two left keys go to the beginning or end of the line.  Very convenient!

Sliding into Macro Power

So far in this review, all Fitaly’s functions have been accessed by tapping keys.  One may add slides to any key on the main keyboard, even the non-letter keys.  The user sets the latter with the Define Special button shown above.  The simplest slides just capitalize a letter.  More complex slide settings may produce words, phrases/sentences, Unicode characters, or sequences of commands, keys, or metakeys.  In Fitaly 4.00, there’s almost no limit to what you can do.  Also note that slides may be defined in eight directions per key.

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Using the Specials menu when creating macros brings up the listbox shown above.  This lists the categories of keys, metakeys, and actions possible for assignment.  Each category has numerous selections available at the next level.  If there’s a desirable category or function that Textware missed, I didn’t find it.  Macros may even be set to select text before acting on it.  For example, I created one macro to select the word before the cursor and capitalize it.

Let’s take an initial look at the ‘f’ key.  It has been set above to offer its own capitalization, two function keys, four words, and a web address—all on one slide.

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The above illustration shows the actions associated with slides on the Ctrl key in the macro slide/editor.  Note these macros are all assigned to the same slide direction.  That’s no problem, and here’s what happens on execution of the slide:

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See that the macro engine produces a small list menu with actions from which to choose.  So to copy selected text, I simply hold the stylus on the Ctrl key and slide it North (up), then lift the stylus when the command I wish to execute highlights.  So simple, yet so powerful.

Options

Fitaly 4.00 supports a number of customizations to its appearance and operation.  We’ve already seen that VGA users may select any of three keyboard sizes.  The behavior of the number/punctuation keypad may be set to have either the numbers or symbols take the entire key with the other accessed by sliding, or the diagonal key halves may function independently.  Sliding behavior may be completely controlled, including sliding distance or disabling slides altogether, on the Sliding tab.  The position of the side bar, type of numeric keypad (calculator or phone layout), and display change during shifting may be set from the Visual tab.  Whether Fitaly generates keys when you put your stylus down  (which is faster) or pick it up, as well as the startup input method, may be set on the Operations tab.

In The Wild

Fitaly 4.00 looks like version 3.5 on the surface (except for the extra keyboard sizes), yet its macro power clearly sets it apart from its predecessor.  The new macro capability provides full desktop windows-like text-handling capabilities and more.  Simple programs that work with text fields can be beefed up through Fitaly macros to be all that they can be.

Tanker Bob takes a lot of notes in his X50v.  I used a host of Fitaly macros to perform text manipulations on a daily basis.  This kept the notes neat and organized internally.  Combined with WM2003SE word suggestion capability, Fitaly 4.00 provides a formidable text-entry/manipulation engine.

Textware installs Fitaly 4.00 with only simple capitalization slide macros enabled.  However, they provide a comprehensive custom macro file for the user.  I illustrated some of those macros in this review.  Fitaly stores macros in text files, making them simple to edit, cut, and/or paste either on your handheld or on the desktop.  By strategically naming your macro files, you could develop an entire library of them for special purposes.  Or, like me, you could get greedy and just put all of them in one file for instant availability!

Of course, one cannot overlook the core text entry speed that Fitaly continues to provide.  Textware claims over 50 words per minute on their website.  They run a contest periodically where the top winner tapped 80 words per minute.  I’m not capable of anything close to those figures, but am easily able to take meeting notes with Fitaly.  Textware even offers a free practice program—Fitaly Letris—to help learn the keyboard.  The new macros speed the entry of common words and phrases, as well as make it easy to clean up the formatting during slow periods.

Beyond the basics of the keyboard, Fitaly 4.00 supports the entire range of Unicode characters.  One can even enter Russian or Japanese using the Unicode table included in, and accessible from, the slide/macro setup screen.  The manual also lists a large number of character codes necessary to customize Fitaly to your specific character usage.

Good program documentation has almost become a lost art in the software world these days.  However, a few masters still crank out thorough, informative, yet readable manuals.  Textware’s Fitaly documentation available online here has always been first class, and this round maintains their sterling reputation in that area.  Program support also excels.  Their forum software leaves something to be desired, but the support there will water your eyes.  Email support can be even faster.

Wrap-up

Fitaly 4.00 for Windows Mobile 2003SE and WM 5 adds another home run to the Textware team’s string of high quality software.  It continues their distinguished tradition of high-speed text input, and adds extremely powerful slide/macro and Unicode capability.  Even the most rudimentary text tasks and programs will be transformed through Fitaly’s macro system.  Best of all, all this power tames easily through list selections and common sense setting screens.  Retailing at $29, Fitaly 4.00 will be on sale for $25 until December 31, 2006.  Registered 3.5 users may upgrade to 4.00 for free.  This update vividly demonstrates why Fitaly has been the market leader in text input systems for years and will likely keep their crown for the foreseeable future.

Pros:
Rock solid stability
Highly optimized for blindingly fast and accurate “typing”
Slides make it very customizable
Powerful macro capabilities
Full Unicode support
Easy to use
Great documentation and support

Cons:
Doesn’t make my lunch…yet!

 

Web site: www.fitaly.com

Price: $29

 

 

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