Front page > Speak Out > Reviews > A Smart Computing Solution: AlphaSmart
August 24, 1999   TEST REPORT   By Lee Shiney, Teachnet editor

What's to like about the AlphaSmart? Just about everything, including its US$229 price tag. Teachnet editor Lee Shiney takes a look at the machine that might be the solution when you have a classroom full of beginning keyboarders or need a basic device to do quick and cheap word processing.

When I first took the plunge into serious computing (as in Macintoshes for business, compared to the Atari 400 where I learned BASIC), those machines had 16MHz processors and 40Mb drives. Now, standard issue machines have surpassed 400MHz with well over 100 times the disk space. To coincide with this need for speed is a group of users who seek out and use old, archival software because it is smaller and faster and does the job. They scoff at our need to use US$3000 worth of brute force computing to send an email to Grandma. They are viewed as Luddites by those who worship at the altar of Windows2000 or MacOS9.

I mention this because I am typing this article on a handheld device that will run 100 hours on three AA batteries. It has a built-in four line LCD screen, a full-size keyboard, built-in spellcheck and "find" functions, cable ports for both PC and Mac, infrared file transfer, is light enough to be easily picked up with two fingers AND has the operating instructions cleverly printed on the bottom of the unit. It is the US$229 AlphaSmart2000.

I suppose in the real world, the inability to run Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations is a serious detriment, but in the classroom, this is a killer machine. Hit the ON button, and there is no wait time for it to boot up. F1 through F8 keys are used to store files; hit the key, and the file appears instantly. Everything is saved automatically as you type. Take the batteries out and it won't lose its memory.

Intelligent Peripheral Devices is marketing the AlphaSmart as a classroom device for good reason - the price is a good thousand bucks cheaper than a decent desktop computer. Multiply that by 10 or 20 students and the AlphaSmart begins to look like smart computing indeed. Students can download and use the available keyboarding software at their desks, or write and store 64 pages of text and transfer their writing to a computer via the IrDA interface which performed flawlessly in our tests. My only regret - imagining a room full of these clacking away and wishing the keyboard was quieter.

The AlphaSmart2000 is very cool. It took me all of a few seconds to adapt to a device with zero boot time and auto-save. Given that, for word processing, this is close to an ideal computer, especially if your classroom is on a slim budget. These folks at Intelligent Peripheral Devices are living up to their name. Just don't let Dell or Compac or Apple steal this idea; they'll want to bloat it with add-ons. I like this device just fine as-is, thank you.


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