Like many of you, I have a laptop in addition to my desktop. I use my
laptop for controlling a web cam used for astrophotography, for processing
some of the resulting images, and some web browsing. I thought I'd use it
for writing articles, books, web pages, etc. But I've found that it really
isn't a device that you can comfortably have on your lap. It's not a device
that can run a long time on batteries -- a few hours is all I get.
In short, it might be called a laptop, but sitting with that computer on
my lap is neither convenient or comfortable. But if you write either as a
hobby or as a professional, there is a class of electronic keyboard devices
that may serve you much better than a laptop.
At left you see an image of my Alphasmart Pro. You can see that is has a
pretty standard looking keyboard, with a few special keys added for the
Alphasmart functions. the key next to the space bar that has a clover symbol is
used to precede Alphasmart instructions, such as page up and down.
To be so portable, the main sacrifice is the limited LCD screen. The one on
this older model is a bit difficult to read, but the newer screens are
bigger and much easier to see.
I purchased my Alphasmart used a few years ago. My model is the
Alphasmart Pro. It's an older model, followed by the model 2000, the 3000, and
the Neo. The newer models have some features my model doesn't have, and I'll
discuss those in a bit.
Many of the features are the same, particular the basic system design. So I
think you can get some insight about the Alphasmart models from this review.
What is it?
The Alphasmart is a portable keyboard with a simple but effective file
system that allows you to take notes or compose drafts of whatever you want to
write. It is durable, simple, light weight, and operates hundreds of hours on a
couple of AA batteries. It has a 4 line 40 character per line display.
This all adds up to a clever device that is portable in a way you cannot
imagine if you've primarily been working with conventional laptops.
The editing features of my old model are limited. The unit is always in an
insert mode. Anything you type goes into the current document. But you
can delete characters with a backspace key. When finished with a document, you
can upload it to your computer and then delete the entire file to free up
You can easily move around a document with up, down, left, and right cursor
keys. You can quickly get to the beginning or end of a document. You can move up
and down by a screen (4 lines) using page key sequences. And you can
move to the beginning or end of a line quickly.
The version I have does not have cut and paste or text search capabilities.
Still, with the ability to insert and delete text and move quickly around
within a document, the unit is handy for notes and drafts of papers, articles,
or book chapters.
A Clever File Management System
The filing system of the Alphasmart is beautiful in its simplicity. There are eight function keys n my old model, which translates to eight files. Touch a function key and you are immediately into the file of your choice.
Memory layout in my Alphasmart Pro is rigidly divided among the 8 files.
File 1 can hold up to about 16 pages of text. Files 2 through 6 can hold about
8 pages each. Files 6 and 7 hold about 6 pages, and file 8 holds about 4
If you are working with the file 1 and switch to file 2, you'll be returned
back to precisely where you were in file 1 when you move back to it.
In fact, if you're working on a file and decide to quit, just turn off the
power switch located on the back of the unit. No need to close or save the file, just turn of the unit. The
file will be automatically saved.
And when you turn the unit back on, you'll be taken not only back to the
file you were working on, but to precisely the place in the file where you left
off. Super convenient.
I made considerable use of the filing system design when I was taking some
humanities courses awhile back. I'd take notes in a file, annotating where in a
document a particular subject was discussed. Then when I began writing a paper
for an assignment, I could begin the paper in a different file, and
conveniently switch back and forth between paper and notes. Since the switch
would always positioned me to the last access point in the respective file, it
made paper presentation a snap.
When you are finished with a draft and have the opportunity, you can easily
upload your documents to your computer. The simple scheme used works with just
about any computer.
With my Alphasmart Pro, the scheme is a keyboard cable with a Y connector
that allows me to connect the Alphasmart without disconnecting my regular
keyboard. There are two such plugs, one for a PC and one for a MacIntosh.
When connected, I open up an editor on the computer, then push the
Send key on my Alphasmart. The Alphasmart delivers the document through
the keyboard interface like a super fast typist.
As you can see on the side view of the Alphasmart, the left most port is a
dc power plug. You can run the unit from an optional power supply, but with
a hundred hours plus usage from a pair of AA batteries, what's the point?
Newer versions can use an IR receiver unit through the keyboard interface so
you don't even have to connect the Alphasmart -- just open the editor and hit
the Send key. If your computer is not IR ready, you can use a USB
connector to connect the Alphasmart to your computer.
What's My Old Pro Model Missing?
Newer models, as you'd expect, have more memory. Some of that memory is used to provide more document space, and some is used to add spell checking and thesaurus support. The newest model also has find/replace and cut/paste editing capability. Just about all models newer than my old Pro can also download as well as upload files.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that I would definitely recommend an Alphasmart to anyone
who must write on the go. With hundreds of hours of battery life in only a
couple of AA batteries (three batteries in the newest unit), the portability
could hardly be better.
With the file system used by the Alphasmart, it is best suited for the
single user. Each file is accessible to the last point accessed, making
this a handy tool for a user to work from an outline or list of notes in
one of the files, or to work simultaneously on several articles.
The down side is the cost. A new Alphasmart is in the $220 range. When
laptops were in the $2000 to $3000 range, $220 was quite a bargain, if portable
writing is your primary requirement. But now that laptops run from $500 and
have vastly more capability (but not more portability), the cost is harder to
One option is to do as I did, and purchase a used unit. If you get an
older model you can be up and running for more like $100 to $150, and that's a
more justifiable price. You can usually find a fairly recent model at eBay.
Though I've lamented that currently I can't download files as well as
upload, I'm finding that downloading seems seldom to be a requirement. In
your case, that might not be true, but if you go with any newer model than
the Pro, you can get the download feature.