AlphaSmart 3000 arrives

My latest e*ay toy arrived today – an AlphaSmart 3000 typing tool. This minimal computer has a full sized laptop style keyboard and a small LCD display that shows 4 lines of about 50 characters each. The device has no complex filing system, there are 8 files available on buttons at the top of the keyboard where the function buttons are usually located. Just switch the device on, select a file button and start typing. Your words are saved as you type. As the display has no backlight, there may be situations when you don’t have enough light to type with.

When you want to transfer text to an application on a real computer, you plug in a USB cable, open a suitable application on your computer, and press the ‘send’ button on the Alphasmart. The text appears as if being typed into the application.

Because the AlphaSmart emulates a keyboard (PC or Mac), it will work with any make of computer with a USB port. Mine came with a Y cable for a PC with a PS/2 socket as well.

The AlphaSmart is chunkier and less flimsy than I was expecting – I suppose it has to be to withstand the attentions of the school children for whom the keyboard is intended. The editing is basic – plain ascii text – and the scrolling speed and small display mean that this device is for note taking and text capture rather than review or editing.

Because the device spits ascii code into any application you load on your main computer, you can include formatting codes; html, texttile mark-up or even TeX for maths formulas in my case.

In 20 minutes(!) of use, the only problem I can forsee is accidental on – the power switch is a simple key with no lock or slide action needed.

The low value, ruggedness and lack of features mean that this keyboard will get used on train journeys – 1 hour a day of writing time adds up over the year.

£160 is a lot for this device new, but they seem to be available on the well known auction site for around £75 to £100 depending on how many of the leads are available. As the device will run for 300+ hours on a set of AA batteries, the absence of a mains transformer is not critical, and the device works fine with a standard USB cable in my iBook. There is a backup lithium battery on the circuit board that will keep the memory alive even if the display batteries run down. I checked my version 1.3 AlphaSmart by typing some text and pulling the AA batteries out, and replacing them 5 minutes later. The text was still in the file, so the lithium battery is still fine on this older computer.

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