Alphasmart portable keyboard/PDA

This is my new favorite toy.  It may look dumb, but all I ever do is write a lot on my computer (other than looking things up on the web, building my own pages, viewing/editing photos, data analysis, playing games, playing music, editing guitar effects patches, text-to-speech synthesis, and using my computer as a dvd player), so I wanted something that would let me get out and write without being trapped in front of the monitor all the time. This is a PDA with a *usable* keyboard.  That's all I want out of a PDA.  What's an ordinary PDA lack?  A keyboard.  And those fold-up keyboards suck!

Alphasmart has been around for quite a while making devices similar to this, but they've finally come of age.  Previously, these keyboards were designed for school kids and the company targeted school districts.  You can find many of their outdated models for cheap on eBay, but they are a hassle compared to the Dana model which is the first genuinely useful model (in my opinion) since it actually runs on the Palm OS rather than Alphasmart's proprietary software.

They're a cheap, easier alternative to a laptop if your primary

You still can't get these at your local office supplies or electronics stores, but you can order them from the company for $400 or find them on eBay for ~$250, which is how much mine was.

Features and how I use it
There's a wireless internet version as well for not too much more, but I just wanted it to be able to type on the go.  I figure a computer would be faster for everything else, but if you type a lot of things people normally hand write, it's great for that.  For example, I use it to add items to my "to do" list(s) as I think of them.  If I'm watching tv, I usually have it next to me, so I just reach over and jot something down.  It turns on and off immediately, just like any other PDA, so it's very convenient.

Dani (my girlfriend) and I took a trip to Dallas last weekend, and we had it in the car with us.  I got some writing done for a web page I was working on about movies, then some more writing about guitar electronics for another page, then some things for the a few other pages.  I also got caught up on my "headlines" for the humor page.  I was almost a month behind, but I caught up in two days because I was able to write new ones every few minutes whenever I had a free moment.  I was doing this while I was stuck in traffic coming home from school the other day, but don't tell Dani.  She thinks I'm a distracted enough driver as it is.

It's good for reference too.  I had lists of places I wanted to explore on it, so I could look up descriptions of the sites I wanted to visit along with their GPS coordinates.  My GPS receiver will store points, but it's tough to enter information into it, so all my descriptions are really short (usually just an 8 character name for the point).  It's nice to be able to carry around an entire file without having to print out new ones all the time.

I also keep things like grocery lists on it as well as lists of book and movies I want to get so I don't forget to look for them when I'm at the library.  Presumably you could carry around even more text such as ebooks (it has 16MB built in with two expansion card slots), but I primarily use it for writing.

One thing that's really cool is that you don't have to transfer files to send short bits of text. You connect it with a USB cable, and you just hit "Send."  That sends the text of the open file over to whatever document you already have open on your PC.  And it's recharging while you're connected to your computer.  An all-in-one cable?  That rocks!  And the thing will already run 25 hours with the backlight on, so it isn't like I need to even charge it all that often.  (They don't say how long it will run without the backlight, but their previous units used to run as much as 200 hours.)

If you like to write, then, yeah, you ought to get one.  I have a nice front porch I'm able to take advantage of largely because I can bring work or play out there via the Alphasmart.

It's great on roadtrips as well.  First of all, I brought things to work on while I was travelling.  Then I also used it as a "to do" list of places we wanted to visit.  That list became the "done" list which I would annotate with text about anything interesting that happened along the way.  When we got back, I already had all I needed (coupled with the pics from the digital camera) to put together web pages about the trip.  I did that over spring break when I went to New Orleans to see the post-Katrina devistation, including composing a lot of the text for those galleries and journal entries while I was in the airport and on the flight back.  Think how much time you would normally waste there?

Of course, you'll find more uses for it once you have one in hand.  Right now you're thinking only in familiar terms.  Once you actually own one, your paradigm will shift and you'll find yourself doing different types of writing and catching ideas in more nascent forms.  In other words, there won't be a delay between when you think of something and when you get a chance to write about it.  You also find yourself writing in different states of mind.  For example, when was the last time you wrote about a dream when you first woke up?  What would come through your fingertips if there was no distance between the bed and a keyboard?  I eagerly await answers to that one.

There are a few criticisms that I have though.  For one thing, the screen is always exposed, so it's vulnerable to damage (which is all the more likely since I carry this thing everywhere).  I would have designed it to have a snap-on cover of some sort.  Also, the angle of screen ought to be able to be adjusted.  There are a lot of times when I have to hold it awkwardly so that the light catches it "just so."  It has a backlight, but that shouldn't be as necessary as it often is when there's already available light.

I'm also not so crazy about the operating system.  I've gotten spoiled by my mp3 player, digital cameras, etc., where I can just treat those devices as external storage devices. With those, you can just drag and drop files.  This unit requires you to "synch" up to the computer via a separate utility.  It's no big deal, but it's an extra step I thought computing had outgrown.

Those are minor complaints though, and the freedom this device affords compared even to a laptop or PDA already outweighs any drawbacks, but those areas still ought to be addressed by any designer concerned about the quality of his (or her) product.

The rundown...
Compared to a laptop the Alphasmart Dana:



Compared to a PDA the Alphasmart Dana:


  • B&W screen.
  • not good for graphics.
  • not as small.

  • Bottom line
    Still, the whole thing gives me capability without too much hassle, so I really don't have much to complain about.  It needs work, but I honestly couldn't live without mine.

    Alternatively, you could go with this...
    I mounted a PDA on a piece of particle board via some velcro with adhesive backing.  The PDA is held up by a piece of sheet metal I cut and bent into configuration.  The keyboard is the "Almost Indestructible" keyboard (version compatible with this model PDA).

    Unfortunately, this wasn't nearly as comfortable or as easy to use as the Alphasmart.  I designed it to be able to write in bed (it is pictured on my nightstand), but I would recommend the Alphasmart over this any day.

    Copyright Ale[x]tronic.
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