October 6, 2009

Coming to you by popular demand (popular demand could be just one person, right?), here is my review of the AlphaSmart 3000 (A3K), picked up used from eBay for a whopping $21.85.

I had heard many raving reviews on how AlphaSmart's are the perfect writer's tool and, much like a typewriter, allowed one to focus on writing without a myriad of distractions. A quick search on eBay turned up several pages of a variety of models.

The Dana and Neo models are newer and more expensive (usually over $100). The Pro, 2000 and 3000 models are each under $40 and at that price, quite the bargain. The A3K is the newest of that bunch and since I found one for really cheap, it was easy to pull the trigger, even if I end up not liking it.

After giving it a quick once-over, I replaced the batteries. Flip the unit over and remove eight screws and you have access to everything you need. A new lithium backup battery (about $4) should last 7 - 10 years and three AA batteries should last between 500 and 700 hours. There is an optional power adapter, but I didn't get one, so I won't comment on that.

It takes about 3 seconds from turning the unit on until a file opens up and you are ready to write. Very cool! As you type, the four-line LCD screen shows your progress. At first, I didn't think four lines would be enough, but so far, I haven't had an issue.

By default, you have eight files to work with. Each has their own button which instantly takes you to a new file or the last edit in that file. I read that each file has about 25K storage and when all eight are combined, is supposed to be 100 single-spaced typed pages. Every character you type is instantly saved, so when you are done with a writing session, just turn the unit off. Easy on, easy off, quick boot. Can't really get more simple than that.

After testing it out for a few minutes, I was ready to check out how the transfer worked. I had a spare USB cable in my desk (it came from a USB printer I got a longer cable for) and connected it to both the A3K and my computer. Windows XP immediately recognized it and the A3K's LCD showed it was ready to transfer my file. It defaulted to File 1, but had instructions to switch to any of the eight files. I opened a new Word document and pushed send and I watched as each character was "typed" into Word. It went pretty fast, but if I had 100 pages to transfer, it could take some time. Now I used Word, but Notepad, Wordpad, really anything you could type into should receive the transfer from the A3K.

I noticed that the software version installed was 1.4. There is a newer, 1.6, version freely available from the company website which is required should you decide to upgrade to System 3.01. I stumbled upon this upgrade from an AlphaSmart Flickr group. The latest software adds some features like word counts that are really nice to have. The upgrade is not freely available, but I just asked for a copy and within 30 minutes a member had sent me a Flickr mail with a link to download the update (i.e. AlphaSmart Manger 2.3) I highly recommend getting that update if you get an A3K. Not only will it give you some extra features and some distractions, err, I mean apps, it also gives you the ability to adjust file sizes, create more than eight workspaces and transfer files to and from (you only get one-way transfers with version 1.4 and 1.6).

Its size and weight will be hard to beat. The unit weighs less than 2 lbs. and fits in a 12" to 15" laptop case. It is convenient to toss into a bag or backpack and feels durable enough to not have any problems getting banged around (these were designed for use in schools, so they should be able to take a lot of abuse).

When its connected to your computer, Mac or Windows, the A3K acts like a USB keyboard. It doesn't save any text to its internal storage, but there's no reason it needs to when functioning this way. I found that the keyboard was average. It wasn't really loud and the keys felt like regular keyboards I have used at work and home (I did read complaints about sticky keys and the like, but those seem like unique cases), so I'd have no problem typing for hours in crowded or quiet places.

I haven't written much yet with it (basically a few tests and then this review), but I am already seeing places and times that this is going to be a lot more convenient than a typewriter or laptop. And when I am done writing, I just push the on/off button, pack up and go. I'm not worrying about battery life, being tethered to an electrical outlet or drawing too much attention as a write. So, for now, the AlphaSmart 3000 is full of win!