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Alphasmart Pro Review


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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

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 low.

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).

The Features

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 total.

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 file.

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 computer.

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 handy Alphasmart.

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.

Alphasmart 3000 Computer Interface

Uploading Files

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.

Alphasmart 3000, back view

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 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.

So how do you get one? Of course, you can go directly to 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.

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