Review: AlphaSmart 3000IR
Company: AlphaSmart, Inc.
Price: $224 (or, without IR capabilities, $199)
As much as I love my Wall Street PowerBook, it spends a lot more time sitting on my desk at home that I thought it would when I purchased a portable computer. It’s just too big and heavy, not to mention fragile and expensive to replace, for me to carry it around unless I’m sure I’ll be needing it. What I wouldn’t give for a nice, small, two-pound portable that I can drop, pick up, and keep using...
Enter the AlphaSmart 3000IR. Don’t get me wrong, this is not going to replace your PowerBook. But for tasks like taking notes at a meeting, it’s a godsend. Though mainly marketed towards schools as a teaching tool, I find it a handy portable word processor, bare-bones but well thought-out, doing just what I want it to do, and just the way I’d expect it to.
The AlphaSmart 3000IR is basically a keyboard, with a few connectivity ports and a four-line, 40-characters-per-line LCD screen. It’s enclosed in a translucent blue-green shell, which reminded me a little of the long-lost eMate. It runs (anywhere from 200 to 500 hours, according to the manufacturer; all I can say is the batteries never ran out over two weeks of use) on three AA batteries, making it perfect for all-day use.
It has eight files (with optional password protection) into which you can type, each file holding about ten pages worth of text. You won’t write any novels on the AlphaSmart, but that’s not what it’s made for. Use it all day, then hook it up to your printer and print out your notes, or hook it up to your computer and send the text to whatever program you like. A Find function allows searching through multiple files, which I found essential since I could never remember whether the Web site meeting was in “file 2” or “file 6,” etc. There’s a spell check feature, which works quite well, and can be disabled by teachers if the AlphaSmart is being used in a school, so students can’t “cheat.”
It comes with an impressive, proof-read, and complete manual, which is extremely well indexed. Literally, every feature of the AlphaSmart is covered. Manuals are also available in PDF form on AlphaSmart’s Web site, as I was pleased to find one night when I realized I’d left the manual at the office. Yes, I read the manual cover-to-cover, though that’s definitely not necessary in order to use the AlphaSmart. (Literally, hit the “on/off” switch and start typing.) The basics for using the AlphaSmart are printed on a “QuickGuide” found on the back of the AlphaSmart: like many other things about this product, simple and elegant. Unlike other companies, which hide contact information in the hope that you won’t pester them, AlphaSmart provides you its mailing address, phone number, fax number, Web address, and e-mail address, right on the back of the unit.
I haven’t yet mentioned the single best thing about the AlphaSmart: the loaner program. If after reading this review, you find yourself thinking...sounds interesting, but I’m not sure...the company is happy to lend you one so you can try it out. All you pay is the cost of shipping it back when the loan period ends. At the risk of sounding too much like an info-mercial, you really have nothing to lose.
Using the AlphaSmart
While it’s a basic, bare-bones product at heart, the AlphaSmart generally handles the details quite well, making it easy to use. There are “Find” and “Print” buttons dedicated to those functions, but the AlphaSmart also responds to the standard Macintosh command keys for those functions, which is generally how I ended up accessing them. Copying, pasting, and cutting text are also possible, though it takes a little getting used to: the cursor is always on a character, rather than before one, as it is on a Mac, so at first I found myself being off by one character when selecting a bunch of text. There’s no Undo command, but there is a Recover command, to restore the last 40 characters you deleted, or an entire file, in case you clear an entire file and later decide you want it back. Arrow keys let you move about, and you can scroll the document one screen at a time if you’re searching for something. Home and End keys take you to the beginning and end of a file.
The keyboard itself is definitely not the most comfortable I’ve ever used, and I wouldn’t want to use it for prolonged typing. (I had initially thought of using it to write this review, but decided to stick to my Mac, both because of the keyboard and the small screen.) For the price, however, I can’t complain; it just isn’t reasonable to expect to find a PowerBook-quality keyboard here. I was a bit surprised, however, at how noisy the keyboard is, especially considering that the AlphaSmart is primarily marketed to be used in classrooms, one per student. (The AlphaSmart itself, by the way, is silent.) Of course it doesn’t approach an old IBM keyboard (the most comfortable by far I’ve ever used, but also the noisiest), but it is louder than a standard Mac keyboard. That said, I used it in a variety of settings, including large lecture halls, and no one complained about it or threw me evil glances.
One thing that did impress me about the keyboard is that the AlphaSmart is pre-programmed for not just the popular QWERTY arrangement, but for the superior Dvorak as well (and for special one-handed keyboards). The keys themselves can be popped off of the keyboard and rearranged to match the keyboard arrangement you choose, and the manual shows each of the four possible keyboard layouts. Command keys are remapped to the new keyboard layout, unlike some other implementations of Dvorak I’ve come across, which means you don’t have to keep QWERTY in the back of your mind when you want to perform a function.
The screen is better than this picture would lead you to believe. It is reflective, but not enough so to cause a problem. I did, of course, occasionally find myself wishing it were larger: it takes a long time to scroll to the middle of a ten-page file going four lines at a time, and if you are reading back text you typed, the scrolling is pretty constant.
The Find command makes up for some of the scrolling difficulties, if you know what you’re looking for. It’s fast, and, as I mentioned before, able to search through all eight of the files the AlphaSmart stores. It also remembers the last thing you searched for, although I found that to be more trouble that it’s worth. On your Mac when you do a Find, your previous search request is highlighted, so if you don’t want to redo that find, you can just type something else over it. The AlphaSmart, however, doesn’t work that way. You have to backspace over your previous request. Since it’s quite rare in practice that I want to do the same find twice in a row (and if I do, I use Find Again—yes, Command-G is supported for that), I constantly had to remember to backspace over my old request before I could enter a new one. A find request is limited to 16 characters, but in practice, that’s enough for a word or two, or for a full name, and so sufficient for the overwhelming majority of finds you’ll want to perform.
While I used the AlphaSmart as a note taker, I should note that that’s not its only possible use. The word processor is just one “applet” that comes pre-loaded in the AlphaSmart. There are also a calculator and a typing tutor program. It is possible to load other applets into the AlphaSmart, although only the standard three are listed on the AlphaSmart Web site. (Personally, I’d love to see a vi implementation for AlphaSmart, but I admit I’m probably the only person with that particular hankering.)
The AlphaSmart supports printing to a wide variety of printers, at least, alas, in theory. A menu lets you select from Epson, StyleWriter, HP, Citizen, or even an ImageWriter. The printer port takes a standard Mac printer cable (you can’t print to a USB-only printer), and printing by infrared is supported in the IR model. You cannot control the formatting of the hard copy: it’s double spaced, and there’s only one font and size supported. That’s not a big deal: you’re not going to use an AlphaSmart to write any documents in which formatting is everything anyway; you just want a quick hardcopy so you can share your notes with a friend. I tried printing to a variety of printers, and sometimes it worked and sometimes didn’t. The obvious workaround when printing doesn’t work right is to transfer the text to your Mac and print from there...which, frankly, is probably more convenient than unplugging your printer from your Mac and hooking it up to the AlphaSmart anyway. Still, the print function of the AlphaSmart needs work. Here are some specifics, from printers I tested on:
I printed successfully to an HP DeskJet 870. The entire file was sent to the printer (via serial cable) before printing started, but the sending process was fast (a few seconds for a three page document).
Printing to my StyleWriter II was a mixed bag. A short file printed successfully (again, serial cable), but when I tried a longer file, I only got a few lines, after which the AlphaSmart hung. (Fortunately, pressing the escape key cancels printing in such a case.) Unlike the DeskJet, the StyleWriter printed as it received the data from the AlphaSmart: in the failure case, only 20% of the file was sent (according to the AlphaSmart’s display) before it hung up.
I was very impressed by my printing to an HP LaserJet 4MP via infrared. I hit the Print button, and the AlphaSmart realized there was no serial cable attached, and looked for IR. It found and correctly identified the IR printer I was printing to, even though I had left my preferences set for the StyleWriter. The file was sent to the printer, and printed without any trouble.
Finally, I tried printing to a HP DeskWriter 600, admittedly quite an old model, but one which still works fine with current Macs (given a serial port, of course). It froze almost immediately, printing nothing, and the AlphaSmart didn’t respond to the escape key, as it had for the Stylewriter. However, when I unplugged the serial cable from the AlphaSmart, it unfroze, and appeared to be searching for the printer, so I plugged the cable back in. The result was that the entire file was printed, but all on a single line, making for a completely unreadable line of blocks. Repeated attempts to print to this printer returned the same result.
The AlphaSmart allows you to transfer text to and from your Macintosh in a variety of ways. ADB, USB, and Infrared are supported. Sending data to the Mac through ADB or USB couldn’t be simpler: plug a cable into your Mac’s keyboard, the other end into the AlphaSmart, and hit the “Send” button on the AlphaSmart. Your text goes to the active window on your Mac.
While the AlphaSmart is connected to your computer, its keyboard works as a normal Mac keyboard, so you can’t type on your AlphaSmart while it’s connected to a Mac. Cables are not included, but AlphaSmart will sell you a standard (and thankfully long...why does Apple think we all keep our keyboards within three feet of our Macs?) USB cable for $10, or a “Mac Y cable” for the same price, if you want to use ADB. Since one end of the Y cable is USB and the other is ADB, you probably won’t find a generic version of that cable anywhere, so you’ll have to buy it from AlphaSmart. The ADB connection worked perfectly every time.
The USB connection, however, frequently cut off the beginning of files that I was sending. When I repeated the send, it always worked fine...it turns out that the problem is that you can’t hit Send instantly after plugging the AlphaSmart into your Mac: the USB connection isn’t instantaneous like the ADB is, so if you hit send too quickly, your Mac won’t get the beginning of the data the AlphaSmart sends it. Waiting a few seconds before sending is the workaround. My guess is that this isn’t a problem that AlphaSmart can fix, but it would be nice to have it noted in the manual. (The Troubleshooting section does mention the problem of some characters not transferring, but doesn’t mention this particular cause/workaround.)
Transferring files using Infrared requires extra software to be installed and running during the transfer. If your Mac has built-in IR, you can use that for the transfer, or you can use an IR pod, which attaches to a Mac through a serial port. One IR pod is included with the IR version of the AlphaSmart. Even though my PowerBook has built-in IR, I found I preferred to use the IR pod, since that way, I didn’t need to turn my PB around to make a transfer.
If you want to be able to transfer files from your Mac to the AlphaSmart, you’ll have to put up an additional $19 for the GetUtility. It’s simple enough to use, and worked fine with ADB, USB, and IR connections. You copy the text you want to transfer into the clipboard, run the GetUtility, and hit the Send to AlphaSmart button. The only problem I had was sending a large file: the AlphaSmart can only hold so much in a single file, so the end of the file gets cut off. You are not informed that this happened, nor are you given an option to put the rest of the file you’re sending into a different AlphaSmart file; the data is simply lost.
Always Room for Improvement
For the price, the AlphaSmart is a great value, and many of the improvements I could suggest here are simply incompatible with the idea of an inexpensive, simple to use, text-only product. That said, I would like to share a few ideas of ways the AlphaSmart could be improved.
As mentioned above, the AlphaSmart can hold eight files, each of about ten pages. That’s fine as long as your files are relatively short. However, it means that if you’d like to have a fifteen page document, you have to split it up across two files. But the memory is there: why can’t the AlphaSmart allot as much space as is necessary to one file, albeit at the cost of another? It’s unfortunate that the total amount of memory in the AlphaSmart can’t be distributed across the files as needed.
I also wish the angle of the display were adjustable. In the AlphaSmart 3000, it is fixed at a slight angle. It’s fine if you’re holding the AlphaSmart on your lap, or if it’s on a desk in front of you, but if its closer to eye-level, it becomes hard to read the screen. Perhaps more of an issue, the fixed angle increases the thickest-point thickness of the AlphaSmart to nearly two inches. If it were possible to flatten out the screen when traveling with the AlphaSmart, its thickness could be reduced to about an inch and a quarter.
Finally, I frequently found myself using the Find command to locate a particular file, since they aren’t named, and are only identified by a number. An Index function, displaying the first line of each file in a menu, would be very helpful. I’d like to hit one button to get a menu, arrow-key to the file I want, and hit enter; that would be a good deal faster than using Find. It would also allow one to quickly find an empty File: I often had to go through opening several files looking for an empty one in which I could start a new document.
Overall, I am very impressed by the AlphaSmart: it’s thoughtfully designed, easy to use, and a wonderful companion for my Macintosh. The manual is complete and easy to follow, and with the excellent loaner program, it almost seems crazy not to give an AlphaSmart a trial run. The only significant problem I had with it was in printing to older printers, the DeskWriter and StyleWriter. Since modern Mac users now have USB rather than serial printers, the inability to connect the AlphaSmart to a USB printer may also be significant for some. While no product is perfect, I do feel that printing needs some improvement, and I therefore give the AlphaSmart 3000IR a rating of Very Nice.