Reg review It's the $64m question for smart-phone designers: where do you put the keyboard? Some, like Nokia, have dispensed with it altogether, falling back on the standard texting-centric numeric pad - or fitted it laterally inside the casing, a la the Communicator. Others have stretched their devices to accommodate a larger QWERTY pad, Blackberry-fashion.
When Sierra Wireless began showing off its Voq Pro handset, around about a year ago, it had one of the most novel solutions to this problem that I'd seen so far. The bottom third of the candy bar handset folds open right to left to reveal a rather good hard, calculator-style alphanumeric key lay-out: QWERTY with a separate numeric row above it - no need for a number-shift key here, I'm very pleased to say - and plenty of symbol characters just an Alt-key press away.
There's one major drawback: the keyboard's asymmetrically relative to the screen. With half of the keys poking out beyond the body of the handset, the Voq Pro keyboard isn't a good device for single-finger usage. It's rather uncomfortable to hold in your left hand and type with your right index finger. Swapping the phone from hand to the other is better, but still doesn't feel quite right - typing keys on the left-hand half seems somehow disassociated with what's going on on the screen. It's much better, however, when used for two-thumb typing, and here it almost rivals the various Blackberries and the Treo 600 family.
Having spent some time with a production Voq Pro rather than briefly playing with a prototype a year ago, I found that my impression of the handset's keyboard hadn't changed much. What has changed in the intervening 12 months is the number of alternative keyboard mechanisms that have come out of other handset makers' design departments. Nokia has shipped the 6820 with a more symmetrical keyboard, Sony Ericsson has equipped the P900 series with a small but serviceable QWERTY layout, RIM has its phone-sized 7100 series out and Siemens is about to ship the SK65 with is rotating keyboard.
All of them, like the Voq Pro before them, cram a working QWERTY layout into a standard candy bar form-factor, but they've made a better job of it. In short, the Voq Pro has been out-evolved already.
It's not helped by its retro styling. The Voq Pro is a large handset fashioned from straight lines, angles and a shallow curves. It looks and feels like a handset circa 1994 not 2004, an impression reinforced by the metallised plastic material from which it's made. There's no camera, though the phone ships with MMS software. And while an infrared port is provided in top of the device, the absence of Bluetooth is a big drawback.
So too is the memory card slot. While the opportunity to boost the Voq Pro's 32MB internal memory - just under 25MB of which is available to the user for both RAM and storage - is clearly a good thing, the design of the card slot leaves a lot to be desired. Located on the left-hand side of the handset, the slot sits amid a tight curve between the narrowest part of the handset and the thickest. The result is you've got only half the width of the card to push against. Worse, you have to push the card so far in before it engages the locking mechanism, it takes an age to get in or to release it for removal. Indeed, I had to push my card in with a flat-bladed screwdriver to extract it.