The AlphaSmart can hold up to 100 pages of single-spaced text, or 200,000 characters in its eight-file memory. It offers four keyboard options – the default layout is QWERTY. The other options are Dvorak – needing less hand movement – and right and left single-hand layouts. However, there’s only a QWERTY keyboard, so unless you know the other layouts, you’re stuck. It offers an easy-to-use spellchecker, a find-file option and password protection. A keyboard timer is included to help assess typing speed and accuracy. The power comes from three AA batteries which provide around 500 hours of life – so its available for use most of the time and unlikely to conk out mid-project. Also, it’s quiet. Text management is easy – there are eight files, each accessed through a separate button. Text can be typed directly into each file, and copied and pasted between files. Accidentally deleted data is recoverable – though data can be completely deleted if the option- -clear file command is used. Once you have your text, AlphaSmart lets you upload it for layout or storage – text can be delivered directly to any active word-processing or email application, as long as a document is open to receive data. AlphaSmart can also receive text from the computer. Connectivity is simple, it took only a few seconds to figure out how to manage this with IrDA, and even less time to get the cable-based connectivity working. The infrared option has a range of one metre – though I managed to get it working at a slightly longer distance, and the cable-based option is a real no-brainer, up and running in seconds. AlphaSmart can print directly to a parallel or serial printer without needing a computer. A list of compatible printers is available at www.alphasmart.com. The company also lists machines it knows to be incompatible with its device, including Apple’s Color StyleWriter 2500, the Epson Color Stylus 500 and Apple’s LaserWriter Pro. The print option is invaluable for educators, who can choose whether to get their pupils to print out their assignments for marking, or use the infrared facility to transfer everyone’s work to their Mac – or use that infrared facility to transfer assignments to their kids’ AlphaSmarts.
AlphaSmart is stable, reliable, durable and lightweight. It lacks the cachet of a PowerBook, sure – but it needs less insurance cover. It’s quiet, so you can tap out notes during meetings, and has a long battery life. For children, it’s functional, easy-to-use, and the lack of games means less distractions. I do have reservations about the price though. Competing products are available – a Handspring plus Stowaway keyboard combination offers more functions for only £80 more. However, the AlphaSmart is funky enough for kids.