Taking notes on a conference with smartphone and Bluetooth keyboard

Tips on how to write easier on an Android phone

This month I’ve attended the Craft Conference. Last time I used my laptop to take notes, but this time, I tried a new setup to save some space in my backpack: an Android smartphone with a Bluetooth keyboard.

There are many apps available to take notes in the Android ecosystem. I chose Google Documents because it works offline and synchronizes content with my Drive account which I already have. On top of that it has two ergonomic features that I really like:

  • Bullet point lists can be created by starting a line with a dash (-) and hitting the spacebar.
  • I can insert a photo quickly anywhere in case there’s an illustration in the presentation I would like to capture.

However, using the virtual keyboard can be a bottleneck in typing regardless of the chosen app. At some sessions, I only took a few quick notes in which case it’s okay. But in many cases, I wanted to quickly write anything that comes to mind.

For this reason, I bought a Bluetooth keyboard. There are many models to choose from. I recommend checking the reviews in case you are planning to buy one to see which one fits your needs. I have an Ewent EW3162 which is lightweight and has a similar size what a 13.3” laptop’s keyboard has.

I quickly tried it before the conference: I could easily pair it with my phone, and taking notes on it is just amazing compared to the virtual keyboard. Yay! All I had to wait a few days to try it on the conference… where I faced a few surprises.

Make sure that the screen does not turn off

Screen lock is great for typical usage. After all, it conserves energy. However, when you use a physical keyboard it’s quite inconvenient to unlock the phone when it’s not in your hands.

There are a couple alternatives to deal with this. Your best bet is to use the Smart Lock functionality to suppress locking when the Bluetooth keyboard is connected. It allows the screen to turn off after a while, but the device can be unlocked by hitting space on the keyboard. You can also unlock it by swiping on the screen, there’s no need for patterns and the usual mechanisms.

On downside is that after unlocking the device, the app might start in portrait mode, and based on its current orientation, it might turn the screen into landscape mode. I prefer landscape mode while typing, and put my phone on the desk, or something almost completely horizontal surface. Because of this, when I unlock the phone, the app shows up 90 degrees rotated, in portrait mode.

Unfortunately, I did not find a built-in way to force landscape layout on my phone, so I’ve installed the Rotation Control app from the store, which allows exactly this.

As an alternative to all of this, you might temporarily disable screen lock in the Settings, or install one of the many No Screen Off apps from store which allows toggling screen locking. This is potentially less secure than the Smart Lock: if you lose your phone unlocked, others might easily access your data. Anyway, if you are to use it, make sure to re-enable the screen lock afterward.

Make sure that the virtual keyboard does not get in the way

By default, the virtual keyboard is active even if you connect a physical one. Being visible is not more than a small inconvenience, because the virtual keyboard fades out once you start typing. However, it also gives the same autocorrect functionality, which does more harm than good. Many times I experienced that it makes the whole system slower, and if I typed too fast sometimes it inserted the same word multiple times. Also, while my big fingers make me clumsy at the virtual keyboard, I am much more accurate at a physical one, so usually all the autocorrect could do for me is to occasionally replace some valid words with “better” alternatives.

Virtual keyboard blocks the screen

Digging on the Internet I found that most virtual keyboards come with a setting where one can disable this behavior. I have SwiftKey installed on my phone, but I had no luck with it: I could disable auto correct for the virtual keyboard part, but it still kicked in when I used the physical keyboard.

Because I am otherwise satisfied with SwiftKey, I decided to try an alternative virtual keyboard I can switch to when I use the physical keyboard. So, I installed the Null Keyboard from the Android Store. With multiple keyboards installed, you can select which one to use once you focus on a text input.

Null keyboard

Leverage Multi-Window support

From version 7.0 Android can display more than one app at the same time. I rarely use this feature because the virtual keyboard requires a great portion of the screen, hiding both windows. However, with a physical keyboard this feature can be easily used for some quick googling:

Null keyboard

Summary

Compared to a laptop, this setup is not only smaller, but also has less power consumption thus lasts longer. While my laptop usually barely stands an 8-hour conference, I still had my phone above 40% power level after a whole day. The keyboard is powered by AAA batteries that can supply multiple days of typing, but I bring an additional pack of them along with a phone charging cable and a powerbank just to be on the safe side.

Top-view of the setup

To make it more comfortable, I have a plastic clipboard which serves as a stand for the phone and the keyboard. The clip at the top of the clipboard serves as a small pad that slightly rotates the display in my direction, making it easier to read. (Of course, buying one of the phone cases that is big enough to hold a keyboard would also be an option.) I recommend trying this setup to make the most ouf of your next conf.

Side-view of the setup

21 May 2019