Three Portable Options: AlphaSmart, DreamWriter, and Apple eMate

By Buchnan, Larry | Multimedia Schools, January-February 1998 | Go to article overview

Three Portable Options: AlphaSmart, DreamWriter, and Apple eMate


Buchnan, Larry, Multimedia Schools


The DreamWriter is a real bargain. It is my choice for the best combination of price and functionality.

by Larry Buchanan, Technology Coordinator

Poudre School District

Fort Collins, Colorado

Portability. Durability. Functionality. Cost.

These are factors I consider when purchasing a computer. The power of a desktop computer to connect to other devices, to provide a nice monitor and keyboard, and to perform sophisticated word-processing, desktop-publishing, spreadsheet, and database applications is hard to match in any portable device--even in expensive laptop computers. But when you consider how computers in school classrooms are most often used, you discover that typical applications do not require all that horsepower, and to equip a lab or classroom with enough desktop computers to give all students ready access to machines requires an enormous investment. Several companies are now offering lower-cost, durable, functional, and portable alternatives. Are these devices worth considering? To answer this question, I sought out three of these offerings--the AlphaSmart Pro, the DreamWriter, and the Apple eMate 300--and took them for a test drive.

AlphaSmart Pro

The AlphaSmart Pro (see Figure 1) is like a keyboard with a memory. Manufactured by Intelligent Peripheral Devices, Inc. of Cupertino, California, it has a small LCD screen, which will display four lines of text, with each line containing up to 40 characters. It is designed as a tool that lets students enter and edit text, then transfer it to a Mac or PC for formatting and printing. The company bills the AlphaSmart as "a lowcost way for teachers--who never have enough computers in the classroom--to get more `keyboard time' for their students."

There is really no software to install. Just turn it on and start typing. The unit will hold eight different files, so theoretically eight students could do some work before you needed to empty the memory by uploading files to a Mac or PC. The unit holds approximately 64 pages in its memory: 16 pages in file one, 8 pages each in files two through five, 6 pages each in files six and seven, and 4 pages in file eight.

Uploading a file from the AlphaSmart Pro to a desktop computer is easy. The unit connects to a computer for uploading using a "Y" cable (purchased separately) via the keyboard port on a PC or the ADB port on a Mac. When the upload is activated, the AlphaSmart "types" the stored file into the computer. As far as the Mac or PC knows, some exceptionally good typist is sitting at the keyboard. The text can be uploaded right into any word-processing application installed on the computer. No special software must be run on the Mac or PC, although there is some optional software for Macs that can be used to speed the transfer.

The AlphaSmart Pro is powered by two AA batteries which last for up to 200 hours of use. There is an optional $10 NiCad battery that recharges when the unit is plugged into the optional AC adapter or to the ADB port of a Mac. As with most NiCad batteries, the battery will soon lose its ability to hold a charge unless you periodically drain the battery completely to avoid the battery "memory effect." The unit also includes a secondary lithium battery, which protects the unit's memory (and any user files) when the main batteries are expended or removed. An auto shut-off feature protects the battery charge when the unit is left on and idle.

What is the "Memory Effect?"

This is not the onset of Alzheimer's. The "memory effect" is a problem with many NiCad batteries that have not been fully discharged before a recharge. The battery tends to "remember" how much of the charge was used and that becomes the battery's new life span. For example, suppose you have a new NiCad battery that when new will give two hours of usage before a recharge is necessary. Instead of running the battery out completely, you use only one hour and then recharge it. …

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Three Portable Options: AlphaSmart, DreamWriter, and Apple eMate
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