My Wife Gave Me an AlphaSmart 3000 for Christmas

my AlphaSmart 3000

I didn’t expect my wife to give me anything this Christmas, but she gave me an AlphaSmart 3000 word processor.

Though Catherine and I were going to skip Christmas this year because of COVID-19, my wife got me a secondhand AlphaSmart 3000 portable word processor. She had told me that she was spending some money to buy me a Chrirstmas present since that’s a courtesy we share when only one of us has a job, but I had not asked her what exactly she was going to give me. I must admit that I was a little curious when we went grocery shopping a few days later and she suggested buying AA batteries because the present she bought for me might need them, but I had suggested waiting since the only ones available were overpriced generics. Also, I reasoned, whatever Catherine bought for me might come with batteries included.

Of course, now that I have this I feel like a bit of a heel; all I gave Catherine for Christmas was a copy of the HD remastered edition of Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy X-2 because she had had hours of fun playing the latter when it first came out on the PlayStation 2. Then again, she’s still having fun with it so perhaps it’s not so bad.

I must admit that I was surprised to have gotten an AlphaSmart, let alone that any remained available on the secondhand market. I’ve known about these for years; professional writers and journalists have praised them as a lightweight and distraction-free alternative to a traditional laptop since the AlphaSmart cannot connect to the internet and has no capacity for games.

Data transfer is dead simple. You simply turn off the device, connect it to your computer with a USB cable, and put your cursor into a text editor or word procesor. Though the manual (printed in 2002) promises compatibility with Windows, Macs, and PCs running DOS and OS/2 the AlphaSmart also works with OpenBSD.

I verified it myself with Cat looking over my shoulder, watching the device transfer some text written for the purpose one character at a time into an Emacs scratch buffer. The only problem I had was that the manual had not been explicit about the need to have the device turned off before attempting a transfer; I had had the device open with my file active on my first attempt, and spent a few minutes trying to see if the computer had detected the device and then searching for any mention of compatibility issues with GNU/Linux or BSD before I remembered Occam’s Razor and thought to turn the device off before attempting a transfer. The second attempt went off without a hitch.

I’m rather impressed with the design. The keyboard is pleasantly clunky to type on. Cat says they sound like Cherry MX Brown switches, but I doubted it since the device appears to have been manufactured in 2005 and that might predate these switches. A bit of research confirmed that the AlphaSmart uses rubber dome switches. Regardless, the switches are fairly responsive and require a comfortable amount of force. They aren’t on a hair trigger, and you need not pound them, but I suspect they could take a good pounding if they had to.

The non-backlit LCD takes a bit of getting used to; it’s four lines at roughly twenty characters per line, but unlike some classic Unix editors (ed, vi, and even Emacs) the device’s editor provides soft wrapping without breaking in the middle of a word.

Capacity is measured in pages rather than characters or bytes. You can type out roughly 12.5 pages of text per file, and the device supports eight files for a total of 100 pages. While you can use CTRL+S to manually save and provide a short filename for convenience, this is unnecessary until you’re ready to transfer your text. The device doesn’t seem to use actual files, but instead keeps text in eight small battery-backed SRAM buffers similar to the ones used to save progress in some NES and SNES cartridges. Transfer from the device to your computer doen’t require a sophisticated protocol. Simply turn off the device, plug it in, wait for the device to signal readiness, open or focus on your text editor or word processor, and press the “send” key. The device will “type” into your computer what you had previously typed into the device one character at a time. The device comes with four transfer speeds, each optimized for computers in use around 2000: PCs with 386, 486, and Pentium procesors and Macs with 68K and PowerPC CPUs. On a ThinkPad T60 with a 2GHz Core 2 processor the transfer was fast but not instantaneous. I suspect it will be faster still when I try it on my main computer, which boasts a 3.5GHz i7 processor.

The editing software is reasonably sophisticated as well. It supports cut, copy, and paste using keybindings familiar to Windows users, as well as find and spell check with the ability to add words not in the built-in dictionary. While the device uses an ANSI keyboard, the device isn’t limited to ASCII. Instead, it provides limited support for international and accented characters. This international character support is limited to languages using the Latin alphabet. I can still have my heavy metal umlauts, but Russian isn’t going to happen and you can forget about Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. I think this is because the AlphaSmart 3000 uses Windows CP-1252 or ISO 8859-1 character encoding instead of UTF-8. Then again, this isn’t a huge problem for me, since I only speak English, bad English, and just enough French to get through a ten day visit to Paris without making a complete embarrassment of myself.

According to the manual, the device can run for up to 700 hours on three AA alkaline batteries, and it also comes with a secondary CR2032 lithium battery to power the SRAM buffers and retain their contents if the main batteries die. The former are easily replaceable, but replacing the latter requires a Phillips screwdriver and a steady hand. This beats the living shit out of my ThinkPad, which runs for about 4 hours if I turn off the wifi, turn the screen’s backlight all the way down, and don’t run anything more demanding than GNU Emacs (which might have been heavy 20 years ago but is positively svelte compared to Firefox and Chrome).

I’ve been using my AlphaSmart 3000 to write this post about it. Cat wanted me to have something that would let me write without being distracted by the internet. While I could get that by using my ThinkPad T60 without plugging in an Ethernet cable (since Atheros AR5418 wifi support on OpenBSD is spotty) the ThinkPad has other disadvantages:

  • I can still tinker with it.
  • I can play (some) games on it.
  • I can watch videos stored on it.

Of course, the AlphaSmart 3000 also has a few small disadvantages:

  • The device is better for composition than revision.
  • Data transfer is one-way: from the device to a general-purpose computer.
  • It can’t store or play music, so I’d need my phone and I’d need to keep it in airplane mode if I want to rock out while writing.
  • Since it only weighs about two pounds (compared to my five pound ThinkPad) it isn’t suitable for use as a blunt instrument against neo-Nazis.

Of course, my wife insists that this last issue is hardly a disadvantage; I’m better suited to the pen than the sword by temperament and habit even if I do occasionally ask myself, “What would Hugo Stiglitz do?”

In any case, I can see myself using my AlphaSmart for the following tasks:

  • Drafting new Starbreaker stories
  • Drafting blog posts
  • Note-taking as I read novels, watch movies, or play video games

Because it’s so light, I can take it just about anywhere. For example, if my wife is shopping and I don’t feel like joining her, I can just reach down between my legs, ease the seat back, and bash out some text in the car without having to worry about the steering wheel getting in the way of having the laptop screen at a comfortable angle. Because the screen isn’t backlit, sitting out in the sun with it should present no problem. Of course, if I find I’m too wired to sleep I can’t write in bed with the lights off because I won’t be able to see my typos.

Some purists will insist this is a good thing, but I’m a developer at my day job. Most of my bugs are typos, and I don’t like leaving them in place even if I’m writing crappy sci-fi instead of yet another CRUD application.

I’ve only written a blog post with my AlphaSmart 3000 thus far, but I’m already sold. Furthermore, I wish I had thought to buy myself one of these when they first hit the market. Even if it cost as much as a FreeWrite (a similar device marketed to hipsters with more money than sense) does today it would have been worth it if I used it often enough. Hell, it would probably have been a better deal than the MacBook I bought back in 2006.