When my ZDNet colleague James Kendrick wrote about his Top 5 portable writing systems for getting work done (hands on) earlier this month, I was struck by the fact that he had missed mine. No system suits everybody, of course, but I'm a writer, and I thought my system beat most of his. So what is it?
My current lightweight portable writing system consists of an 8-inch Windows tablet, a Microsoft Universal Mobile Keyboard, and a Microsoft Arc Touch Bluetooth Mouse. No, we agree it's not as good as a Surface Pro or similar device, or even an Asus Transformer T-100, but it's cheap, small and light. And although it's in three pieces, not every piece has to go in the same bag or pocket: you can distribute the load around a coat or jacket.
You can take your pick of cheap Windows tablets with 7-inch, 8-inch or even 10-inch screens. I bought (and reviewed) a £99 Bush My-Tablet from Argos, which isn't perfect but turned out to be much better than similarly-priced Android tablets. For me, its huge advantage over rival systems is that it runs full Microsoft Word, which I use daily on my desktop PC. In fact, it came with a year's free subscription to Office 365, which makes £99/$99 or whatever an even better price if you need it.
The obvious response was to write a blog post about why my system was better. However, I was beaten to the punch - again - by another James Kendrick post: Microsoft Universal Mobile Keyboard is the best in class (review). Unprompted by me, he'd bought one, and loved it. "I rarely recommend a device but have no problem doing so with the Microsoft keyboard. It's not just good for typing, it's a real writer's keyboard," he said.
Not sure I like it quite that much, but it's the best truly mobile keyboard I've used so far... and I suspect I'll prefer it to Microsoft's new foldable keyboard, due for release on 20 July.
Microsoft Universal Mobile Keyboard
The MUMK's main claim to fame is that it works with different devices. There's a sliding switch on the top right that enables you to select Windows, Android or Apple iPad/iPhone. There's even a special Command key for Apple users. I found it worked perfectly with Windows devices, including a Surface Pro 2. (This is too thick to fit the slot in the MUMK's stand, but it has its own....)
It also worked well with other devices once it had paired. However, it fell in love with the Windows MyTablet, so switching wasn't always instant. For example, the first time I opened it up to sync with an Android tablet, I wondered why it wouldn't work: I found it had silently switched on the Windows tablet that was still in my bag.
The MUMK doesn't just open up, it comes apart: you can detach the lid, which is magnetically attached to the keyboard. This is really useful because you can raise the height of the tablet (eg by standing it on a few books) while using the keyboard on a table or even on your lap.
The keys are just a bit too small for my fat fingers, so I found it hard to type very quickly. It dropped my typing speed by about a third. However, you do get used to it after a few days, and I still find it much faster than typing with an on-screen keyboard. It also has the advantage that you're not losing any valuable screen space.
While I'd prefer wider keys, there's obviously a trade off: wider keys would result in a wider and less portable keyboard. Users with smaller hands will find this less of a problem, as will people who use Microsoft Word's autocorrect features. (I usually have them turned off, but they're a boon with this keyboard.)
Microsoft Arc Touch Bluetooth Mouse
The MUMK's ideal travelling companion is the Microsoft Arc Touch Bluetooth Mouse. This is a very clever bit of design, because it's quite a big mouse that folds flat for travelling. Installing two AAA batteries and snapping it into its arc shape turns it on, after which it connects via Bluetooth to your active device.
If your device doesn't have Bluetooth, the ATBM comes with a tiny USB plug-in Bluetooth connector that provides one. If you don't want to have this plugged in all the time, it attaches magnetically to the underside of the mouse for carriage.
The ATBM has large left and right panels for clicking, divided by an odd-looking touch-sensitive strip that does the same things as a scroll wheel. Brushing the strip provides up and down scrolling, accompanied by faint clicking noises that mimic a mouse-wheel. (If you don't like the sound, you can turn it off.)
In use, the touch-strip is a bit slower and less accurate than a real wheelie-mouse, but it has enabled Microsoft to produce a fold-flat mouse with no moving mechanical parts. In other words, it's good for travelling with a tablet or laptop, but you wouldn't buy one for your desktop PC.
Whether you actually need a travel mouse is an interesting point, for two reasons. First, many programs - especially Microsoft Office programs - can be operated using keyboard shortcuts. That's great if you know enough of them.
Second, tablets and many laptops now have touch-sensitive screens. The problem with tablets with 8-inch or smaller screens is that it's really hard to hit icons and other Windows features with your fingers: they're just too tiny. Further than that, it's often easier to use the mouse to move the cursor to a particular point on the screen, and for other options, such as right-click menus.
The Microsoft Universal Mobile Keyboard and Arc Touch Bluetooth Mouse are relatively expensive at $79.95/£73.82 and $69.95/£65.40 respectively. However, they are usually available at good discounts (eg £94.81 the pair on Amazon), and they are not unreasonably priced if you write for a living. They can help you make use of travelling time that would otherwise be wasted. Indeed, I wrote half of this post on a commuter train, and I'd have finished it sooner if the journey had been longer....