There are several products out there that appeal directly to the nerd nation merely because of the extreme technology put into it. The Optimus Mini three is the precursor, and ‘beta test’ for the full Optimus Keyboard and gives you an insight into the world of OLEDs and what can be done with them. Lets have a look…
Size of the keyboard: 116 x 51.8 x 18mm
Size of keys: 32x32mm
OLED 20×20 mm @ 96×96 resolution (65k colour) with 3 frames per second. 160 degree viewing angle.
It’s a mini adventure
I popped open the shipping box, and I was generally excited. I’ve read a lot about the Optimus project, mainly the full 103 key keyboard, and the Mini three is a little taster of what’s to come. The retail box is quite obviously put together by a seasoned graphics designer who cares more about aesthetics rather than information. Far from a good thing, the front is interesting and the Mini three is shown in its full glory.
Once opened, you don’t really get a great deal of bits and bobs; the Optimus Mini itself and a straight-to-the-point manual that looks like it should contain a driver CD. Instead it lists humorous comments about how the Optimus isn’t going to enjoy a couple of minutes in the microwave or washing machine. You also get a nice 1 year warranty with the unit expected to last 3.
The Mini three is a simple(!) device which has three square buttons on the front in an extruded oval rectangle body. These three buttons have small OLED screens which have a 96×96 resolution. These screens can show anything that you like and the button press to do whatever you like. It’s the next stage up from the standard additional display such as the XSPC unit, or the Pertelian. The OLED’s are the next stage from TFT technology as they are made from organic components (hence the name – Organic Light Emitting Diode). Read more about OLEDs in our glossary here. While a TFT display requires a backlight, OLED’s shine their own light which means that they use less power (most of a laptops battery power goes to the backlight inverter).
The screens are full colour, and have a refresh rate of 3 fps which means they aren’t going to be much use for video but more than enough for a static button. The front of these buttons have a 5mm frame and they look similar to the screen on a mobile phone. The buttons are glossy and perfectly flat to prevent any visual distortion.
The Mini three connects to your PC via USB which makes compatibility universal and it even supports the Apple generation. The USB cord is silver and doesn’t really fit with the look of the main unit; it would have been nice to see a black cord instead. However, it is nice and flexible so positioning the unit shouldn’t be an issue.
Looking at the back of the unit you find two oddly shaped grey rubber pads that grip your desk nicely.
Wanting to find out a little more about the unit, I decided to take it apart. It was a pretty simple process; remove the bottom two rubber pads and take out the screws beneath.
Inside you find the three buttons are connected to the PCB via ribbon cables. The switches use the same method as most keyboards with a rubber cone which when depressed allows a metal contact to connect the metal spiral beneath. The buttons are held in with metal U-brackets in both the vertical and horizontal axis which stops the displays being wobbly.
The displays themselves are quite small, measuring 32x32mm. They are about 5mm thick and are fully self contained.
To stop the unit from feeling light and cheap, there are two metal bars at the top and the bottom of the unit which also helps it anchor itself into place.
Installing the Mini three is nice and easy. All you have to do is plug it in and Windows will detect the serial to USB adapter that the Mini three utilises.
Once you have the adaptor all ready, simply pop on to the Art.Lebedev site and download the latest copy of the Configurator; the Mini three will be instantly detected and you’re ready to play.
After downloading the latest version of the software and playing around for awhile with the different tools, Art.Lebedev brought out a new version and made several major improvements so obviously development is still continuing.
The Configurator is nice and simple featuring drag and drop functionality onto the separate screens. There are several plugins which allow you to display different information or do different tasks when clicked. If you find that the plugins supplied aren’t to your taste, you can easily import your own but you’ll need to learn a little C++ first.
The colour of the buttons are a little green biased and no matter what colour warmth you set in the Confugurator, the green tinge will stay. It’s a bit of a shame but new technology usually comes with downsides.
The screens refresh rate is quite noticeable and you can see the flicker if you move the unit or wave it around like a maniac. When using the media plugin, or the volume control, you can see how restrictive the refresh is. The unit feels a little sluggish especially when changing volume. The pictures of the unit have banding on the displays because of this refresh rate.
The unit would sporadically crash, and clicking the buttons fast would normally result in another crash. When the Mini three crashes, you have to close down the Configurator and unplug the Optimus and then doing the reverse. It’s a little annoying and probably insanely frustrating if you have modded this unit into your case as it would be plugged directly into the motherboard headers so unplugging wouldn’t be an easy process.
Since the update, you can use the Optimus as a Powerpoint remote allowing you to go to the Next, Previous and Next Nearest slide. The Mini three can now be your office presentation helper too.
A nice feature of the Configuration software are the different modes that it can be used in. For example, you have a global set which is shown when no other conditions are met (e.g when your not using an specific programs) then you have an idle mode which is displayed if you don’t use your computer for a while (essentially a screensaver). Then you can have a different set for an opened application. For example, the Configurator software comes with a Word set which shows New, Save and Open options when Word is open.
It’s a nice little feature which allows you to have a button set for any program that has your focus. However, I mainly used this unit to change songs and often opening a program would put a new set of buttons on and the next song button would become Save or New layer (in Photoshop). This got a little annoying after a while, but this feature is easily turned off, or customised to your personal environment.
You can set any button to do a certain shortcut. For example, I set up a set for Photoshop with each button doing an often repeated task such as New Layer, Repeat filter and Save. You can either just have the text of the shortcut (e.g. Ctrl+S) or your own text (e.g. Save). This text can then be combined with a picture of your choice.
To further increase the number of things that can be shown on the display, you can set up display sets when you press Ctrl, Shift, Alt, Alt+Shift and Ctrl+Shift giving you 18 different buttons for any particular mode (global, idle, in a program).
Incidentally, the font that the Optimus Mini three uses is remarkably close to a Mac type font. This goes to show that this is mainly focuses at Mac users. I.e. people who never play games and enjoy being Jehovah’s Witnesses for their choice of computer (/Wink).
Speaking of gaming, you can set the Optimus up to do any short cut, so its more than possible to use it to, say, fire all 10 Battlefield 2142 fighter missiles in one go. Of course you can set it to do anything you like, with an image of choice.
The media plugin play/pause buttons will show song information with both Winamp and Media Player out of the box with no program specific plugin required. The song name will slowly scroll across this button or stay stationary if the name isn’t too long.
Before the recent update, the Configurator would use ~10% processing power on a Celeron P4 2.80Ghz. Now however, it normally idles @ ~1% and shoots up a couple of percents when changing song or clicking a shortcut. It now only uses ~8mb of RAM which is reasonable considering what it’s doing. The Art.Lebedev team have obviously listened to their customers regarding the CPU usage.
After a weeks usage, the buttons soon were a little scratched (look at your mobile phone screen and you’ll see what I mean) and they were nice and smudged with all the finger grease. A little window cleaner and they were as good as new.
The Mini three is undeniably cool. Featuring three 96×96 full colour buttons, swish looks and easy installation/configuration. It crashes, has a less than perfect refresh rate and smudges easily, but I can’t bring myself to mark it down. I just deal with these problems to use the unit.
It destroys all of its other competition in the additional display market in both drivers and functionality areas. This is a very exciting look at what the full keyboard could be like…
|Useful, easy-to-use software|
I’d like to thank Art.Lebedev Studios for providing us with the display.
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