Review: the Alphasmart 3000

I will, on occasion, wax romantic on the delights of the manual typewriter, and my feelings on those marvelous devices remain steadfast. I’m a child of the computer, an aging teen in the age where these machines and the web they spin just keeps getting larger and better and opening into new worlds, and an adult who savors the sweet potential of interconnection that the highest technology allows us, and yet—

The internet calls us, distracts us, lulls us into functional abeyance as we listlessly paddle down the endless streams and by-ways as we wonder about something that tickles the curiosity, then draws us deeper in, and deeper in, and deeper in until we’ve forgotten what we set out to accomplish. For a writer, in particular, this can be a compelling trap. We start out strong, beating words into submission, then wonder about a word or a fact or something else, and step outside our work to check the consensus, and then we’re lost in the wash, dazed and digital, and the hours pick up speed and leave us behind.

The typewriter is a splendid focusing tool, because it can’t pick up four strong bars of unlimited information, and, in the manual varieties that I most adore, doesn’t hum, doesn’t get hot, and doesn’t occasionally fail to save my work. It’s just there, just an interpreter of crystallizing dreams, and it’s the tool with which virtually all the most accomplished novels in our language were realized. At the same time, typewriters are a dwindling resource, with the last manufacturer of manual typewriters finally shutting down their production lines, and they fall prey to facile self-taught craftspersons, who cut them to pieces to make cheap jewelry for literary dilettantes and hangers-on. It’s a true shame, but one that won’t be recognized until long after it’s too late.

The Alphasmart 3000, on the other hand, is a refugee of a more recent era, an almost laughably limited machine that stores about a hundred pages in eight files selected with dedicated keys, revealing your writing through a digital letterbox of four lines of forty characters each. It has no apps, no distinct software or capacity for installing any, and can’t connect to the internet, retrieve email, or browse anything beyond those fixed eight files. Even the means by which it connects to a computer is idiosyncratic—one either plugs a USB cable from the 3000 to one’s host computer or uses a now quite rare infrared connection, fires up a word processor on the host computer, and presses a key on the 3000 to send the contents of the currently open file to the host computer by simulating a keyboard typing the file in. Seriously.

You plug it in, tell it to go, and it dutifully types your work into the computer to which it’s attached. That’s it. There’s no communications software, no hardware specific plug-ins, widgets, or drivers, just clever hardware that tells the host computer that a keyboard is attached. A more sophisticated user might call it absurd, a clunky workaround, but it’s designed to be robust, and it is robust.

It’s also physically robust, because the original Alphasmart and Alphasmart 2000, which evolved into the 3000, the somewhat awkward mid-level Dana, and the current Neo, was designed for children, and reflects their wild, destructive nature with sturdy, simplified construction. I’ve demonstrated mine with enough waist-level drops onto a variety of surfaces to have smashed far more sophisticated machines, and it doesn’t show a mark from the effort. It’s been frozen and broiled, sitting in the trunk of my car as my be-anywhere writing machine, and it’s still here, still stalwart. The slightly dated translucent blue-green plastic of the case seems almost surreally impervious to anything but a targeted assault.

It runs on standard AA batteries, and runs nearly forever at that—I wrote the bulk of the book manuscript I’m currently editing in fits and starts on my 3000, watching the battery indicator stay stubbornly in one place because of its odd operating mode where it’s really only consuming power when keys are being pressed. I’ve carried it with me on cross-country trains, on planes, on the bus, at work and at play, writing whenever there’s a free moment of clarity, and it just works. It just works, which is more than can be said for more sophisticated machines sold to us as perfect do-it-all multi-tools, and it just does one thing, and does it very well.

The keys aren’t the most satisfying, and my single longstanding complaint about the 3000 is that the spacebar needs a firm tap in a direction perpendicular to the keybed and will stick if struck near the edges, but they work, and in the last seven years, I haven’t worn them out. The display isn’t backlit, so you have to use it in lighting conditions comparable to the conditions in which one would read a book, and there’s no font—just a 1980-vintage 5×7 dot matrix character against LCD grey. None of these flaws do more than cause an occasional and fleeing wrinkle at the bridge of my nose, and for the price, the 3000 is a bargain. I carry it everywhere, never worrying about the risks of losing a thousand dollar (or more) laptop, and if I leave it in the trunk of my car for months, a backup for those moments when inspiration strikes, it’s always alive when I dig it out and fire it up.

When the Dana came out, I picked up one of those as well, and while the keyboard on the Dana is absolutely fantastic, the screen’s not quite as nice, and the stylus-based interface (the Dana is essentially a Palm device) and attendant complexity of having multiple apps and files and storage media (with a dependance on using the Palm software to move data in and out) disturbs the simple surface tension of the original 3000 enough that it’s never gotten as much use. The newer Neo model, which looks for all the world like a hybrid of the 3000 and the Dana, with the 3000’s simplicity and the Dana’s lovely keyboard, would likely be an even more perfect companion, though I can’t speak to its virtues, having never found myself needing more than my old reliable 3000.

Brand new, the Neo is $169 at the time of this writing, which is a bargain for a latter-day manual typewriter with all the attendant virtues of being able to directly dump one’s writing to a full-featured computer for editing, and used 3000s go for as little as $20 on ebay or Amazon, with the Neo running about $75 or thereabouts.

As a tool, they are unmatched. Simple, robust, long-lived, and economical, I can’t think of anything remotely comparable in this day and age, and if you’re the kind of writer I am, who’s a little too prone to the easy surrender to distraction, I can’t recommend them highly enough.

© 2011 Joe Belknap Wall