1999 – Imagine something smaller, lighter, and far less expensive than an iBook. Imagine writing on a keyboard with no Mac attached. That’s one way of looking at the AlphaSmart 2000, the device I’m writing this review on.
The AlphaSmart has a full-sized keyboard, eight memory partitions to store your writing (you can have up to 8 different writing projects available at all times), and runs for weeks (120-300 hours of writing) on three AA batteries.
Unlike PowerBooks and most portable computers, there’s no hinged screen. If you remember the Tandy Model 100, you have some idea what the AlphaSmart is like.
But it’s a lot lighter and far less costly than that old journalist’s workhorse. It’s a friendly blue, shaped to fit the lap comfortably, and has a four line, 40 character display.
The key action is quite comfortable, and using the AlphaSmart is a breeze. When you’re done writing, you can connect it to your Mac’s ADB port (or a PC’s keyboard port), make sure your favorite word processor is in the foreground, open your file, press the Send button, and watch the AlphaSmart type your text into your word processor, text editor, etc.
Update: The AlphaSmart 3000, introduced in January 2000, came in a Bondi blue translucent case and was the first AlphaSmart with USB. The AlphaSmart Dana (June 2002) is a full-fledged Palm OS device, and the Dana Wireless (2003) adds 802.11 WiFi to the mix.
It’s a very clever design.
Not much wider than the standard typing keys on your keyboard, the AlphaSmart measures 12.4″ wide, 9.3″ deep, and is only 1.9″ thick. The two pound keyboard is rugged, so you won’t feel uncomfortable toting it around.
The function keys across the top of the keyboard save files 1-8, print, and even spell check. The arrow keys aid navigation, as do Home and End keys.
You can even connect the AlphaSmart to a Mac and use it like a regular keyboard, although you’d probably miss the numeric keypad and other special keys.
The supertwist LCD display is not backlit, displaying dark blue text on a green-gray background. It’s quite legible in even modest lighting.
The text is composed of monospaced characters 7 pixels tall. If you’re an old timer, you’ll know that means some compromises in text display – characters with descenders (y, g, j, p, q) appear higher than they should. [The 2004 AlphaSmart Neo was the first to use proportional type.]
It’s not as attractive as the Mac’s nicely formed characters, but for basic text entry, it suffices.
There really isn’t much in the way of software. It handles up to 8 text files, can search for a work or phrase, has basic spell check, and can send files to your computer.
The eight text files come in different sizes. Gile 1 can be up to 16 pages long, the next four up to 8 pages, the next two up to 6 pages, and the last file 4 pages. Total storage capacity is 128 KB/64 pages.
The AlphaSmart has an extended character set with accents, copyright symbols, and more.
The spell checker does show one drawback of a firmware-based device: You can’t add words to the dictionary.
Other than that, it provides all the power you need in a portable text processor.
Little Room for Improvement
As friendly as the AlphaSmart 2000 is with its curved edges, there are a few things that could make it more attractive – starting with USB. Of course, now that USB is standard on all Macs and most PCs, it’s a safe bet the next version of the AlphaSmart will have a USB port.
USB would also make it fully plug-and-play; with ADB, in theory you should power down your Mac before connecting the AlphaSmart.
One improvement I would like to see is a nicer display font, maybe a proportional font as crisp as Geneva. It would take a bit more system overhead to display a proportional typeface, but that and true descenders would make reading a bit easier.
A slightly larger display would be nice, but adding more than one row would probably increase the size of the AlphaSmart – which would not be a good thing.
These are minor issues. For what it does, the AlphaSmart 2000 is a well though out, well executed writing machine. It’s often used in schools to teach keyboarding and writing. In the two weeks I’ve had one, I’ve found it is an excellent writing tool.
If you’re intrigued, visit the AlphaSmart website to learn more about this $229 writing machine.
Update: The last AlphaSmart products were discontinued in November 2013. There is usually a good selection available on eBay, often at very attractive prices.
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