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Connecting | Hand-Helds

AlphaSmart Text Processor Is Clever but a Little Loud

November 09, 2000|MARK A. KELLNER |

Unpacking the AlphaSmart 3000, a 2-pound device that gives new meaning to the words "hand-held computer," I had what the Monty Python troupe once called a "terrible feeling of deja vu."

The $299 device evoked memories of one of my first portables, the Tandy Model 100.

That machine, said to be the last device for which Bill Gates personally created an application, was a lightweight, AA-battery-powered device that offered limited word processing and spreadsheet functions and a built-in modem--a blazingly slow 300 baud. It sold for $899, more if you wanted additional memory. The screen was a small liquid crystal display, or LCD, with eight lines of 40 characters apiece.

There's no spreadsheet supplied with the AlphaSmart 3000--there is a built-in calculator, however--and no modem runs with this device. The tiny display I'm looking at is only four lines by 40 characters. But for what it does, this machine is in its own way quite a wonder, although far from perfect.

What it does is simple: You type into it, store your work in one of eight separate files, spell-check and edit the text and then upload it through a Universal Serial Bus, or USB, cable to another computer. That's it. The AlphaSmart spills text into an open word processing file. Writers, students and businesspeople who want to bang out a bunch of memos on a cross-country flight might benefit from this device.

Another use proposed by the manufacturer is as a low-cost computer replacement for schools. Kids could use it to practice rudimentary tasks and transmit files to a teacher.

I recently tested the AlphaSmart, and the result was as I expected: My notes were complete and a snap to edit once loaded onto a desktop system.

Compatibility should not be a problem. The device worked with a Windows system running Microsoft Word. It also dumped text into the Microsoft Outlook e-mail program. Connected to an Apple iBook, text fed perfectly into Nisus Writer, a word processor many Mac aficionados prefer.

The small display screen isn't too taxing on the eyes because the characters are easy to read, even under fluorescent lighting. The keyboard has enough travel to allow a touch-typist to negotiate its keys quickly. The eight files are enough for most purposes. This is clearly designed as an intermediate text storage and transfer device, not something to hold your thoughts for the ages.

Commands are simple enough. Function keys on the AlphaSmart are labeled in prosaic language.: Print, Spell Check, Find, Clear File. But I wish, oh, do I wish, there were a Delete key somewhere on this device. The only way I found to delete a word or sentence is to highlight the text and hit backspace. It's not a big irritant, but a serious user of this device is likely to notice.

Two other improvements could be added to the AlphaSmart. One is a quieter keyboard. This device could be disturbing to a seatmate on an airplane or other patrons of a library or office where quiet is valued. Put 100 of these devices in a room, and the resultant cacophony could be unsettling.

The other would be some way to include a modem or wireless communications device in the unit, which would come in handy for sending text over telephone lines or the Internet. Of course, doing either of these might add to the cost and weight of the item, and its complexity. Right now, this small device does what it does superbly, as long as you don't mind the noise.


Mark A. Kellner is editor at large for Government Computer News.


The Skinny

Product: AlphaSmart 3000

What it does: Allows users to type notes on the fly and upload them to a PC or Mac

Price: $299

Manufacturer: AlphaSmart, Inc.

Niche: Travelers who type a lot and don't want to lug around a laptop

The good: Light and easy to use

The bad: Limited functionality, noisy. No modem.

Bottom line: Quite handy

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