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The AlphaSmart was a brand of portable, battery powered, word-processing keyboards manufactured by NEO Direct, Inc. (formerly AlphaSmart, Inc. and owned by Renaissance Learning, Inc). The models were discontinued by the company in late September 2013, although it still offers support and software to existing users.
The AlphaSmart was a keyboarding device that enabled a person to work on the go, much like a laptop computer, but it was strictly for word processing, as it functioned essentially like a simple digital typewriter. The Dana (one of the last devices made by AlphaSmart, Inc.) was an exception, as this device also ran Palm OS applications. Since the AlphaSmart, Dana, and NEO were specialized for limited purposes, they were generally much cheaper than a standard laptop computer. All of these devices were 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 saved every keystroke directly to the machine's RAM, which was maintained by a battery backup even when powered down. AlphaSmarts could transfer data either by a special program that communicated 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 could be used as a standard keyboard.
AlphaSmarts were very popular in schools for their affordability and durability. Elementary schools and high schools used them; and they were particularly popular among special education departments for use by students with graphomotor challenges.
The machines were also popular among journalists and writers, who found them easy to carry and appreciated 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 6, 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 NiCd battery pack. Like the Alphasmart Pro, it had a 128 kB 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 NiCd 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 NiCd 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.
|Operating system||Palm OS 4.1.2|
|CPU||Motorola Dragonball VZ @ 33 MHz|
|Storage||8 MiB (Dana) or 16 MiB (Dana Wireless) internal RAM|
|Removable storage||two SD card slots|
|Display||560x160 pixels, 4 (Dana) or 16 (Dana Wireless) shade greyscale|
|Input||full-sized keyboard Touchscreen|
|Connectivity||Infrared, USB master, USB slave,
Dana Wireless adds WiFi, SDIO
|Power||3.6V NiMH battery pack or 3 AA batteries or mains power adapter|
|Dimensions||1.9 in × 12.4 in × 9.3 in (4.8 cm × 31.5 cm × 23.6 cm)|
|Weight||2.0 lb (0.91 kg)|
In June 2002, AlphaSmart released the Dana product which was a radical departure from their standard product line. Similar to Apple Computer's Newton eMate 300 (a laptop running the Newton PDA operating system), the Dana, FCC ID KV2DANA001, was 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 had a backlight and was capable of displaying complex graphics (though only in 4 bit grayscale), unlike the original AlphaSmart line. It had 8 mebibyte (MiB) of storage and two expansion slots for cards in Secure Digital (SD) or Multimedia Card formats. It was compatible with nearly every Palm OS application, and some Palm apps could take advantage of the Dana's extra-wide screen, which was 3.5 times the norm (560 x 160 pixels).
The Dana's primary software was the built-in Alphawrite word processor. This is a licensed version of Wordsmith for Palm OS by Blue Nomad, customized for the Dana's wider screen. Up to eight Alphawrite documents could be resident at one time, each instantly accessible via the Dana's eight function keys. It was a simple matter to also switch between the Alphawrite documents and any of the four standing built-in application native to Palm OS (Memo Pad, Datebook, Todo, Address Book). Larger size fonts could be selected from within Alphawrite to compensate for the low-contrast screen display's being somewhat difficult to read.
The screen could be used in either landscape mode or portrait mode, though there is no auto-detection of how the Dana is positioned; the user had to tap a menu selection to choose the mode.
The screen was taller than that of the original AlphaSmart products, and the Dana's casing was made from opaque dark-blue plastic—a change from the iMac-esque clear blue of the AlphaSmart 3000. It used either a Ni-MH rechargeable battery or 3 AA batteries for up to 25 hours of usage.
Danas produced near the end of its production run had their OS software modified because many users complained that their Danas were frequently turning themselves on when carried in a container, such as a backpack, depleting the battery charge. This was because only the On/Off key was needed to power up the device. Version 1.5 of the Dana OS provided a way to require both the Enter and On/Off keys to power it up. This was accessed through the system Keyboard App.
The Dana had an IRDA compatible infrared port for transferring documents and files. For those owners with two Danas, this was a convenient way to back up files.
One year later, in 2003, Alphasmart added the Dana Wireless model (FCC ID KV2DANA002) which added built-in Wi-Fi connectivity for internet use & interaction with other Danas, doubled the RAM capacity from 8 MiB to 16 MiB, doubled flash ROM from 4 MiB to 8 MiB, and added SDIO support to the SD card slots. It used 3 AA batteries (standard or Ni-MH or Ni-Cad) for up to 20 hours of usage.
The Neo model was introduced in August 2004 and could hold more than 200 pages of text. Its LCD display was 50% larger than the AlphaSmart 3000's display. Unlike the 3000, it didn't use fixed blocks for each character and therefore could display different font/point sizes, along with simple graphics. The Neo also ran a newer operating system that allowed for modular control of SmartApplets and a new version of AlphaWord (the word processing SmartApplet), which allowed dynamic file resizing. The Neo's chassis was a dark opaque shade of green with its form factor based on the Dana. The Neo also used the same class of CPU as the Dana. It used the same optional NiMH battery pack as the AlphaSmart Dana. Initially the Neo had several software bugs, such as a hard-to-see cursor and a text-stacking file corruption problem. These were corrected in an update to the operating system, System 3.2, released originally for USA Neos and then in September, 2008 for UK/European Neos.
The Neo 2 added several minor upgrades to the original Neo and was the first unit released after AlphaSmart was acquired by Renaissance Learning. It added quiz functionality, using the 2Know! Toolbar, which was developed for the 2Know! Classroom Response System. Teachers could create, distribute, and score quizzes using the Neo 2. Neo 2 could also access Accelerated Reader quizzes and allow students to use network printers, when using the Renaissance Receiver accessory.
The machines can be found in the aftermarket and have developed a cult following among writers who find their lack of online connectivity attractive for writing without the distractions of the internet.
- "Page of Interest to Writers".
- US Patent
- "NEO Download Center - Software for NEO 1 and NEO 2 Devices".
- "2Know! Classroom Response System - Clickers - Learning Products".
- "AlphaSmart Unveils Dana, First Palm OS Based Laptop Alternative for Education" (Press release). San Antonio, TX: PalmSource. 2002-06-17. Retrieved 2014-04-15.
- Flegal, Matt (2003-09-09). "AlphaSmart Announces Availability of Dana Wireless; Affordable Palm OS Laptop Alternative Now Offers Built-in Wi-Fi Connectivity." (Press release). PRNewswire. Retrieved 2014-04-15.
- Fadhley, Mohd Nazley (2003-12-22). "Alphasmart Dana Wireless". PalmX.org. Retrieved 8 April 2014.
- Binks, Kate (2003-08-13). "New Version of Dana by AlphaSmart Introduced in Conjunction With Back-to-School Season; AlphaSmart's Affordable Laptop Alternative Now Offers New Features At a Lower Price." (Press release). PR Newswire. Retrieved 2014-04-15.
- "4 sucky things about this $19 piece of junk that make it AMAZING for writing" by David Kadavy, Jund 23, 2015, http://kadavy.net/blog/posts/portable-word-processor/
- "Is Alphasmart STILL the ultimate writers' tool?" by Rob Beschizza, BoingBoing, Jun 25, 2015: http://boingboing.net/2015/06/25/is-alphasmart-the-ultimate-wri.html
- Renaissance Learning, Inc., parent company of AlphaSmart