The AlphaSmart is a keyboarding device that enables a person to work on the go, much like a laptop computer, but it is strictly for word processing, as it functions essentially like a simple digital typewriter. The Dana (a newer device made by AlphaSmart, Inc.) is an exception, as this device can also run Palm OS applications. Since the AlphaSmart, Dana, and NEO are specialized for limited purposes, they are generally much cheaper than a standard laptop computer. All of these devices are meant to be plugged into an ADB, PS/2, or USB port for transferring the written text into a computer's word processing document for further editing (such as indentation and font preference) or printing if so desired.
The AlphaSmart saves every keystroke directly to the machine's RAM, which is maintained by a battery backup even when powered down. AlphaSmarts can transfer data either by a special program that communicates with the AlphaSmart or by the simpler method of transmitting the keystrokes of the written text as if it were the computer's keyboard. When not transferring text, the Alphasmart can be used as a standard keyboard.
AlphaSmarts are very popular in schools for their affordability and durability. Elementary schools and high schools use them; they are particularly popular among special education departments for use by students with graphomotor challenges.
The machines have also developed a type of cult following among journalists and writers, who find them easy to carry and appreciate the full-size keyboard and long battery life.
Intelligent Peripheral Devices, Inc. was founded in 1992 by two previous Apple Computer engineers, Ketan Kothari and Joe Barrus, with the mission to "develop and market affordable, portable personal learning solutions for the classroom" and to "deliver affordable, lightweight, rugged portable computing devices that are expandable, easy to use and manage, and provide exceptional battery life." Shortly after its founding they were joined by Ketan's brother Manish. Later, as their product line expanded, they changed the name of the company to AlphaSmart, Inc.
Barrus and Kothari also hold a US patent on a "portable keyboard computer", applied for in 1992 and granted in 1995.
AlphaSmart, Inc. completed its initial public offering (IPO) on the NASDAQ on February 6th, 2004 and started trading under the symbol ALSM. In June 2005, it was acquired by Renaissance Learning (NASDAQ: RLRN). The name changed again in the Spring of 2009, this time to NEO Direct, Inc. They went on to release the Neo2 and 2Know Responder hardware products.
The original AlphaSmart computer companion was shipped in August 1993, and worked only with Apple Macintosh computers, plugging into the Apple Desktop Bus (ADB) port. This model provided customers with 16 "pages" of memory (32,000 bytes) for 8 separate files (2 pages per file), that were accessed by pressing the corresponding function key. The AlphaSmart took on the aesthetics of the computer it was intended to be partnered with—it had a boxy, durable beige plastic case like the Macintoshes of that era. It had a four line LCD character display similar to what one would find on some appliances. Each character was displayed in its own LCD "box," making the point size and font type fixed. The AlphaSmart could not display graphics, except for ASCII art. It ran on 2 AA batteries, and could be used for literally days at a time due to its clever power saving technique, effectively "sleeping" in between keystrokes. There was a rechargeable nickel-cadmium battery (NiCad) pack add-on that a customer could purchase separately.
The early AlphaSmart models included a couple of jokes, including a reference to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. If, while using the calculator, the answer is 42, the words "The answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything" appear. Or, if the input was 1+1, the calculator would say, "That's too easy."
In February 1995, the AlphaSmart Pro was launched. This looked almost identical to the original but had a PS/2 port as well as an ADB port, making it compatible with both Windows PCs and Macintoshes. Second, the Pro had a "find" feature to search stored text. Third, the AlphaSmart Pro was able to receive text from a computer through "Get Utility" software installed on a Mac or Windows PC. Lastly, it included a password feature for securing content. The Pro model was able to store up to 64 pages of text (128,000 bytes), holding 16 pages in the first file, 8 pages in files two through five, 6 in files six & seven, and 4 pages on file number eight. The original rechargeable NiCad battery pack could also be used in the Pro model.
In October 1997, AlphaSmart, Inc. introduced the third generation of the AlphaSmart family, the AlphaSmart 2000. Along with a more ergonomic design, the case of the AlphaSmart 2000 was curvy and blue. New features added were spell-checking, direct printing (allowing a user to plug into a printer directly, bypassing a computer), auto-off power save, and a keyboarding timer. A year later, the company added infrared capability to the 2000, enabling users to transfer text to a computer or another AlphaSmart without a cable. This model needed 3 AA batteries, but could still use the original rechargeable NiCad battery pack. Like the Alphasmart Pro, it had a 128K memory.
In January 2000, the AlphaSmart 3000 was released. The 3000 used the same chassis as the AlphaSmart 2000, but it was now encased in translucent bondi-blue plastic, matching Apple Computer's first generation iMac. This was meant to be a visual indication that the AlphaSmart 3000 was a USB native device, as many other USB devices were patterned using the iMac's design in the same way.
Designers removed the ADB and PS/2 ports, replacing them with a USB port and a mini-DIN-8 serial port that allowed users to plug the AlphaSmart directly into a printer. Also new was the SmartApplet architecture that was capable of extending the simple functionality of an AlphaSmart with the inclusion of SmartApplets—miniature software applications that extend the AlphaSmart's functionality to give it features beyond basic word processing. For example, it included a simple 5-function calculator. Additionally, the battery life and memory were increased (although it still ran on 3 AA batteries), and cut/copy/paste functions were introduced. The original rechargeable NiCad battery pack was not compatible with this model. Instead, it used a new optional nickel metal hydride battery (NiMH) pack that lasted longer and eliminated the memory effect of NiCad batteries. The AlphaSmart 3000 had the customary 8 files, each with a capacity of 12.5 pages (about 25 kilobytes), for a total of 100 pages altogether.
AlphaSmart announced the discontinuation of the AlphaSmart on April 30, 2006.
In June 2002, a radical departure from the standard AlphaSmart line was released. Similar to Apple Computer's Newton eMate 300 (a laptop running the Newton PDA operating system), the Dana is actually a fully fledged Palm OS device complete with a touch-screen, allowing a user to write directly on the screen via Graffiti in addition to typing on the built-in, full-size keyboard. The Dana's screen has a backlight and is capable of displaying complex graphics (though only in 4 bit grayscale), unlike the original AlphaSmart line. It has 16 Megabytes of storage and two expansion slots for cards in Secure Digital (SD) or Multimedia Card formats. It is compatible with nearly every Palm OS application, and some Palm apps can take advantage of the Dana's extra-wide screen, which is 3.5 times the norm (560 x 160 pixels). The screen is taller than that of the original AlphaSmart products, and the Dana's casing is made from opaque dark-blue plastic—a change from the iMac-esque clear blue of the AlphaSmart 3000. The Dana optionally comes with Wi-Fi connectivity for internet use and interaction between other Danas, and it runs off a Ni-MH rechargeable battery or 3 AA batteries for up to 25 hours of usage.
The Neo model, introduced in August 2004, can hold more than 200 pages of text. Its LCD display is 50% larger than the AlphaSmart 3000's display. Unlike the 3000, it doesn't use fixed blocks for each character and therefore can display different font/point sizes, along with simple graphics. The Neo also runs a newer operating system that allows modular control of SmartApplets and a new version of AlphaWord (the word processing SmartApplet), which allows dynamic file resizing. The Neo's chassis is a dark opaque shade of green with its form factor based on the Dana. The Neo also uses the same class of CPU as the Dana. It uses the same optional NiMH battery pack as the AlphaSmart Dana.
The Neo had several software bugs, such as a hard-to-see cursor and file corruption problems, but the most serious of these issues have been fixed in AlphawordPlusNeo 3.0B and C. The remaining problems (the-hard-to-see cursor and a text-stacking bug) were corrected in an update to the operating system, System 3.2,but this seems to only apply to USA Neos. A software update for UK/European Neos was released in September 2008.
The Neo 2 offers several minor upgrades to the original Neo, and was the first unit released after AlphaSmart was acquired by Renaissance Learning. It has added quiz functionality, using the 2Know! Toolbar, which was developed for the 2Know! Classroom Response System. Teachers can create, distribute, and score quizzes using the Neo 2. Neo 2 can also access Accelerated Reader quizzes and allow students to use network printers, when using the Renaissance Receiver accessory.
Both the Neo and Neo 2 have been discontinued by Renaissance Learning in late September 2013, although the company still offers support and software to existing users.
- US Patent
- NEO Direct
- NEO Direct homepage (formerly www.alphasmart.com)
- Renaissance Learning, Inc., parent company of AlphaSmart