Problem - Need Of A Totally Portable Electronic Keyboard
I work quite a bit at writing. Writing these web pages, for example.
Occasionally writing articles, short stories, and a couple of
Novels. But I don't always
feel like sitting for hours at my desktop to get it done.
I've tried a laptop, and while I find it indispensable for supplementing my
astronomy hobby, I haven't found it that useful as a portable writing device.
So I've experimented with a few portable electronic keyboards in an effort to
find a more portable, easy to use writing utility. On this page I describe
my experience with an Alphasmart 3000, purchased used off of EBay..
Alphasmart 3000, the Basics
At left you see an image of my Alphasmart 3000 portable word processor
keyboard. Like the Alphasmart Pro, it
has a pretty standard looking keyboard, with a few special keys added for the
Alphasmart functions. For example, the key next to the space bar that has a
clover symbol is used to precede Alphasmart instructions, such as page up and
down, left most character, and rightmost character.
I'll describe the best features of the Alphasmart 3000 word processor, but
you may first want to know the big gotcha. The main sacrifice for the
incredible portability of the Alphasmart is the limited LCD screen. The display
is a mere 4 lines of 40 characters. Seemingly much too miniscule to do any
real work. But then when you try it and get used to it, you'll find it adequate
for more work than you thought.
As with my Alphasmart Pro, I purchased the Alphasmart 3000 used. Alphasmart
has gone on to newer models, but at the time I bought it the 3000 model was
not long out of manufacture. Many of the features are exactly the same as those
of the Alphasmart Pro, but there are some significant improvements.
What is it?
If you're not familiar with the Alphasmart, it is a portable word processor
with a full-sized keyboard, and 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 three AA
batteries. In addition to all its light weight and portability, it is very
tough. Translation -- a near perfect portable word processor.
The three AA batteries can supply up to 700 hours of use, and 500 hours of
use is common. You can check the status of the batteries with the
cntl-alphasmartkey-b sequence. And even if you get the low battery
indicator, you can still upload your files because the unit will be temporarily
powered from the USB cable. You cannot edit files when the USB cable is
inserted, but you can at least save your work even if the batteries are
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 and their
couple of hours of battery performance, their weight, and their delicate
construction (just drop one and see).
While the editing features of the older Alphasmart Pro are limited, the
Alphasmart 3000 gives enough to let you insert and delete text, cut and paste
text within a file, and even cut from one file and paste into another. The unit
is always in an insert mode. Anything you type goes into the current
document, and you can delete characters with a backspace key.
Like the Alphasmart Pro, the Alphasmart has 8 file keys that let you
select which file you want to view or work on. The Alphasmart Pro has different
memory amounts available for the different file keys, from about 16 pages of
content down to 4 pages of content. The total memory of the Alphasmart Pro is
enough for only about 66 pages. In contrast, the Alphasmart 3000 allows the
same storage capacity for each file and can store up to about 100 pages of text
With the Alphasmart 3000 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
3000 model also has a find function that lets you search through a
The 3000 model as mentioned also has a cut and paste feature that
uses similar key sequences to most word processors you may be familiar with.
With the ability to insert and delete text, cut and paste, and move quickly
around within a document, the unit is handy for making notes and drafts of
papers, articles, or book chapters. The Alphasmart 3000 even has a spell
checker available as a selectable applet, though this is likely an
operation best performed after a document has been uploaded to your
Another feature included in the model 3000 that is missing on my older
Alphasmart Pro is the ability to download files from the computer into the
Alphasmart. This feature requires a program (available for PC or Mac from
Alphasmart) that handles the communication. Load the program into your computer
and then you can move a file to the Alphasmart 3000 for working on it in a
super portable way.
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A Clever File Management System
The filing system of the Alphasmart is beautiful in its simplicity. There
are eight file keys. Touch a file key and you are immediately into the file of
your choice. In fact, you are even positioned in the file wherever you were the
last time you had the file opened.
Memory layout in the Alphasmart 3000 is rigidly divided among the 8 files.
Each file can hold about 12.5 pages, for a total capacity of 100 pages.
Simultaneously pressing the clover-shaped Alphasmart key and the "I"
key displays the current file's memory status by showing the number of pages in
the currently selected file, and the remaining capacity.
If you're working on a file and decide to quit, just turn off the power
switch (the on/off button on the upper left of the keyboard). No need to close
or save the file, just turn of the unit. The file will be automatically saved.
When you later turn the unit back on, you'll be delivered to the same place in
the same file as when you turned off the unit.
The filing system is very handy when you get used to it. You can put notes
about a school assignment or article in one file, and write the desired
document in another. A touch of a file key will flip you to the note file at the place last viewed, and another touch of a file key will return you to the
place in your document where you left off.
For my articles and stories, I generally use the TEX document formatter
language (did I hear a groan?). So in one of the files I have a list of my TEX
commands and macros that I can quickly refer to. I can then flip back to my
document to enter the desired command and keep working. By using the TEX markup
language in this way, I'm actually creating fully formatted documents in my
I also use the Alphasmart 3000 to create HTML web pages . In an Alphasmart
file I have a few HTML-isms, such as a table prototype. With this I can be
working on an HTML document in one file, then flip to the HTML-isms file to cut
a particular HTML control sequence, then flip back and paste it into my
document. Later I upload the new HTML page and add the finishing touches.
When I finish a draft and have the opportunity, I can easily upload my
documents to my computer. While the older Alphasmart Pro used a cable that
plugged into the computer PS/2 keyboard port, the Alphasmart 3000 ships files
through either a PS/2 port or a USB port. The simple schemes used work with
just about any computer. While certainly designed to support Windows and Apple
computers, I successfully use the Alphasmart 3000 with my Linux system with
no additional effort.
When connected to either the PS/2 or USB port, I open up an editor on the
computer, then push the Send key on my Alphasmart. The Alphasmart
delivers the currently opened document through the USB interface like a super
fast typist. On the view of the top edge of the Alphasmart shown at left, the
left-most port is a USB port, and the right-most port is a PS/2 port.
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.
As seen on the above image, the back side of the Alphasmart 3000 has a few
instructions for how to ship files to your computer, and a handy chart of a few
of the handiest editing commands (see the blowup). While there are even more
commands in the manual, this handy chart, conveniently placed on the back of
the Alphasmart, gives some of the most useful commands.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that I would definitely recommend an Alphasmart 3000 to
anyone who must write on the go. With its light weight and hundreds of hours of
battery life in only three AA batteries, the portability could hardly be
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.
So how do you get one? Of course, you can go directly to Alphasmart.com and buy whatever the newest
version is. You can also shop at places like Amazon for new Alphasmart
models. Be prepared to pay upwards of $150 for a new model.
Another 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 $50 to $100, and that's a
more justifiable price. You can usually find a fairly recent model at eBay.