Inexpensive Laptop Substitute

If you can’t afford a laptop or need something lighter, more rugged, or with a longer battery life, you might want to look into a family of devices that are essentially keyboards with memory. You enter and edit text on a small LCD screen in a keyboard-sized, 2-pound device that stores 60 pages or more, divided into about 8 different files. Battery life ranges from 100-700 hours on three AA batteries. (Yes, that’s battery life in the hundreds of hours for pennies.) When you’re ready to move what you’ve written into an actual computer, the device connects like a keyboard and text moves into your writing application as if it were coming from a keyboard. With Scrivener, those 8 files could be 8 chapters in a book. The New York Times takes a look at them here: … A9679C8B63

Perhaps the best known brand is the AlphaSmart, which rates its own entry on Wikipedia:

You can find downloadable manuals for them here:

New, these gadgets typically run between $200-300. A quick look on eBay, suggests they go used for about $100 or less. At this moment, you can pick up an “open box” discontinued AlphaSmart 3000, which connects to your computer through a USB port, through ClubMac for $139. … 342026.asp

If you’re patient (or lucky) you can pick them up even cheaper at thrift stores. My local Goodwill considers them odd-looking keyboards, so I managed to get an AlphaSmart 2000 for $3. It didn’t come with a cable and my iMac doesn’t have the two old-fashioned keyboard ports it uses: PS/2 (PCs) or ADB (Macs). At AlphaSmart they charge $70 for an adapter cable to work with a USB port. But I picked up a PS/2 to USB converter at XPCGEAR for less that $6 here:

The converter works fine and even lets the AlphaSmart 2000 become a keyboard. I also needed a male-to-male PS/2 cable, but you can find those almost anywhere.

The only real weakness is that until the very latest models sending files the other way (PC to AlphaSmart) has been somewhere between iffy and impossible, depending on factors I’ve not quite sorted out, including the model, the cable and additional software. (Their website is unclear about this and their Mac software seems stuck at OS-9, perhaps because most of their customers are schools with tight budgets.)

In short, my AlphaSmart 2000 is small and light, with a full-sized keyboard. Hit the On button and it’s ready to take text in about 2 seconds. In another two seconds, you can shift to any of the other seven files to write or edit. In perhaps 30 seconds, you can connect to a Mac and upload what you’ve written. Editing is done on a 4-line, 40 character screen with big, ancient DOS-type characters (no descenders) that are easy to read in bright sunlight (unlike laptops) or room lighting. The screen isn’t backlite, so you can’t use it in the dark. My AlphaSmart 2000 doesn’t have cut and paste, but the 3000 does. And if you need to make database entries, you can tab and import the resulting tab-delimited file. If you budget isn’t tight, you might want to look into their current products:

The Neo’s greater text storage, larger display, and ability to display 2 lines of large characters to six lines of small characters might make it worth the extra money.

I have a MacBook, so I didn’t absolutely need to get this. But I find that for a lot of uses, particularly when on the move or out in the sun, it’s better than a laptop. especially if all you want to do is enter text without a lot of hassle or fretting about battery life.

–Mike Perry, author of Untangling Tolkien

P.S. I just found out about a similar product called QuickPad. Their Pro version can hold some 500 pages of text and the screen displays 16 lines, although the battery life is “only” about 50 hours. The website is:

Also, if you need something that’s compact and functions more like a PC (i.e. viewing photos) and don’t mind Linux, a tiny keyboard, and a short battery life, look into the tiny Eee PC. There are reviews at: … 00.htm?r=1

The Eee PC doesn’t impress me. Cute as it is, it still has the limitations of a laptop and the price is almost half what a refurb MacBook costs at the Apple store for a fraction of the functionality. Maybe Apple should get over its obsession with thin and do something similar, perhaps a 10" model with a full-sized keyboard.

Finally, keep in mind that some laptop replacement companies offer free, 30-day trials, so you can see if their product fits your needs. If you just need get text down on the go, then one of them may be just what you need.

A most excellent post! :exclamation:

I’ve used a Tandy WP-3 tablet (very rare; the WP-2 is usually found on eBay) for note-taking and drafts where I didn’t want to lug a laptop, but the file transfer process is not easy.

After reading this post, I followed the links for info. That led to eBay, and a quick buy-it-now of an AlphaSmart 3000 for $55. It arrived three days later, in pristine condition.

What can I say?! This thing is like the Mac: “insanely great” and “it just works!”

The AS-3000 keyboard is great, with “click” keys for tactile feedback, almost good as my classic old Apple Extended Keyboard II. (I love those old keyboards so much, I use a USB-ADB converter cable with my new Macs so I don’t lose that lovely, lovely touch.)

File transfer from the AS-3000 is easy to the extreme. And if you have an older printer that uses the Din-8 serial port, printing involves a single key-press. (It works nicely with my ancient Stylewriter II inkjet. The AS-3000 contains drivers for several printers.)

There is a built-in spell checker which again “just works!” It’s nice.

The AS-3000 is quite adequate for its purpose: an electronic notebook that works as easily as pencil to paper. The storage capacity is enough that one could pound away on it for a week, and still have room to spare. Need more bells and whistles? Use a laptop.

It also doubles as a keyboard while hooked to the computer, but there is no row of function keys.

One final note: upgrading the word processor. The AlphaSmart website has an upgrade patch for AlphaWord. The patch requires Classic OS to run. My “new” AS-3000 had ver. 1.4; now it has ver. 1.6. The website doesn’t list whatever improvements this upgrade provides. Bug fixes? I had a hard time getting the patch software to recognize the USB port, until I unplugged my USB mouse and moved the keyboard cable to that slot. Instant success.

Most photographers will say that they’ve missed many excellent photos because they didn’t have their camera handy. How many writers can say they’ve missed a connection with their muse because no notebook or keyboard was at hand?

I spend a lot of time on or around a boat, or just “loitering” in the green spaces and beaches around the island, places where I really hesitate to risk my precious old Mac Pismo (with a G4 CPU). Researching at the library is a pain, because I’m afraid to turn my back on my laptop while getting another book from the stacks.

But this is really nice: if I damage or lose the AS-3000, I’ll just go on eBay and for $50-60 get another one. :laughing:


Thanks for some intriguing ideas.

At this point I have gotten fairly swift at using my Palm and the software keyboard in it. It’s the epitome of “hunt and peck” but it’s very light and goes anywhere with me, anyway.

I’ve toyed with the idea of getting a keyboard for it, they are fairly inexpensive.

Ironically, having Scrivener makes me less likely to long for substitutes for my laptop!

Quite a while back, when laptops were still quite heavy and expensive, I had a legal pad and fountain pen. If you do go “low tech” this way, don’t skimp on the fountain pen. For me, that made the difference between writing for a couple of hours… or getting hand cramps.

I taught myself shorthand to solve that problem. :slight_smile: I thought about getting a Neo or the 3000 for a while, but ultimately decided against it. I used to use a Palm + Folding keyboard, but eventually stopped for a number of reasons, one of which is that I am just tired of carrying around so many electronic devices. So for me it is a cheap notebook and a pen and transcribing/expanding my thoughts the next time I’m near a computer. With some form of shorthand, you can write nearly as fast as you can type, so speed isn’t an issue. Yes, fatigue can be as Werebear points out, but I looked up information on proper writing technique, discovered I was holding the thing all wrong all these years (!), and now I can write for hours. And yes, a good gel pen or fountain pen helps much, as you needn’t use much (any) pressure to make a mark.

I’ve owned a 7" EeePC for about three months now, and I can say that - apart for the Psion 5 - it is the best portable writing device I’ve owned, but it is far from perfect.
On the plus side there is the small size and the availability of JDarkRoom. On the cons, there are the hard to configure, unreliable operating system*, and the short-lasting battery.
I don’t put the small display among the minuses, because working on JDarkRoom only it is the right size; however, I wouldn’t consider doing anything else with it.

Until Apple does not release a laptop that is not wider than their wireless keyboard, I would consider the EeePC a satisfactory device for short travels, or just afternoons writing out of my house. By leaving my Pismo at home, I no longer look like I’m arranging my office in bars or public gardens…

At the same time, I’m replacing the hard disk of my Pismo with a Compact Flash device, to make it the most silent, comfortable writing machine for longer travels or holidays.


*Note: Just two things: (1) when battery goes low, it does not go to “sleep”, but turns off without saving the open documents; and (2) I’ve ended up with four battery indicators in the status bar, and the only solution Linux experts have been able to suggest is to reformat and install. Bleah!

I’ve tried to like my EeePc, but that keyboard is just too small for me. I agree with ptram about JDarkRoom, it is a sweet plain editor, but if I can’t compose without issues with the keyboard, it doesn’t do me a lot of good.

In a fit of indulgence, I bought a MacBook Air and love it. Yes, it’s bigger than the EeePC but I can write on it without cursing, making it a better fit for me. It’s light and easy to pull out of my bag, so it isn’t nearly as bothersome to use as a full-sized laptop is.

All that said, I still keep my Neo around for quick notes and when I’ll be out and might have time for a short writing session. It fits on my lap better than the EeePC and the screen has a nice crisp contrast, so it’s easy to see in bright sunlight. I’ve had Alphasmarts for years - my first was the Alphasmart Pro back when it was new - and find them wonderful for distraction-free writing.

THIS is amazing.

I’ve decided I need an AlphaSmart.
Bloody hell - this is exactly what I was wishing for in my IT needs.
As a dyslexic who a) prefers being away from computers and b) is easily distracted; this is brilliant.

Bring on the DSA (disabled students allowance) money. I have a meeting with them on Monday and I’m DEFINATELY going to push for one of these.

I have one of Apple’s wafer-thin wireless keyboards. It is small and lovely and lovely to type on. I have often wished it had a “keystroke retention” mode, so that I could use it while away from my mac. The fact that it has absolutely no screen at all would just add to its status as a “Just write!” device, in my opinion. That would be my dream.

If you were the CEO of one of these companies, like the Alphasmart company, you would have taken one look at this Apple keyboard and said “That is what I want the next Alphasmart to be like.” And then, of course, you’d get all Steve-Jobs on your workers until they came across with one.

Sleek form factor, great keyboard, and, of course, off-loading via bluetooth now seems de rigeur.


P.S. My wife had a QuickPad briefly–she quickly sent it back and got her first iBook instead. Things have not changed with the QuickPad. (And it still sports the styling of a bondi blue mac!) Shouldn’t the price on these typing keyboards have dropped precipitously by now? But they haven’t.

I’m glad my original posting was helpful. It’s easy to forget that sometimes ‘less is more.’

I’d add another laptop substitute list to the one I gave earlier–Apple’s late 1990s eMate. It’s the Newton with a keyboard and was designed for school kids. It’s the size of most laptops, but lighter and far more rugged. They typically go for under $100. The cable to the screen can fray and cause problems and by now the rechargeable battery pack has died. There was someone on eBay who was selling them with the cable problem fixed and adapted to use replaceable rechargeable batteries who might be worth checking out.

I’ve converted to using the new thin aluminum keyboard (USB) with my white iMac. I like the feel and it helps to have a keyboard that’s like my MacBook, so shifting between the two is easier. I also like someone’s suggestion that there should be a laptop substitute with a keyboard as compact and thin as the Apple wireless keyboard. I suggest that it should also have an LCD screen that flips over and locks magnetically to protect the keyboard. It’d have USB to transfer files to a regular computer and charge the AA batteries. Make it energy efficient and it might be possible to have some solar cells next to the screen to power it. It should also work without backlighting, so it can be used in sunlight, but might have lCDs to light it up after dark. Price it under $200, and it would sell like hotcakes. It’d be perfect for travelers.

–Michael W. Perry, Untangling Tolkien

Cheers, Michael. Thanks primarily to this thread, an Alphasmart Neo is due to be delivered chez Hugh today. :smiley:


Enjoy your new Neo! It’s a great little distraction-free device, though the battery life will spoil you.

If it’s not bad form, I’d also suggest checking the AlphaSmart group over on Flickr. Lots of discussion (and help, if you need it) in addition to pics.

Imo, if you plan on taking it out and about with you a lot, the neoprene sleeve is a must-have. There’s a sheet of hard plastic built into the top to protect the screen and keys. Very nice.

Welcome to Club Minimalist. :smiley:

Thanks Studio,

I should have said above that your posts on this subject were a great encouragement too. Fortuitously I ordered a neoprene sleeve with the Neo; it’s on the table beside the MacBook now. I particularly like the hard plastic sheet to protect the vulnerable bits.

I’ve also discovered the flickr group. One thing I’ve learnt there is how to back up the Neo with a Palm TX, via infra-red. Serendipitously I already own a Palm TX, which was part of my previous attempt at laptopless computing.

The person who took my order at Renaissance Learning was very helpful, but seemed surprised that I don’t work in primary school education, which is obviously the Neo’s main market. I’m looking forward to curiosity about it wherever I take it. And I do intend to take it…

Now to read through the manual. Then Club Mediterranee Minimaliste here I come! :smiley: (Well, West Wittering perhaps…)

Thanks again. I wouldn’t have known about what is evidently a very useful device without this forum.


P.S. I still intend to pour its output into Scrivener, invariably.

Okay, so it occurs to me that it ought really to be pretty easy to turn that beautiful Apple bluetooth keyboard into a sleek standalone writing device. What one needs is a bluetooth receiver synced to the keyboard that will capture and retain the keystrokes until off-loaded later by usb. Seems to me one could kludge one together with these three off-the-shelf devices (see schematic).

Bluetooth Keyboard Capture.jpg

The usb power supply is battery-based and provides power to the other two devices in the usb chain. The bluetooth dongle is synced to the keyboard. It catches the key input, and passes it on to the key logger–and the key logger does what key loggers do, it stores the keystroke stream in internal memory for later USB off-load.


Now if only one could find versions of these three devices that would look very cool when you strung them all together, instead of looking like Rube Goldberg in the 21st Century.

Now, if one of you geniuses wants to build a composite device and sell it to writers and other text-workers, I already have the marketing name picked out for you: “Writ’ning Rod”. I’ll buy two! See, you’re making money already and all you’ve done so far is read this forum entry.


P.S. It should work, right? Plot Complication: Can one actually buy usb key loggers other than in a dark alley? Hmm.

USB key loggers can be purchased from office security facilities. They are required for some institutions (like banks).

While intriguing, I do not think this will work with “normal” components. The problem is that much of the “thinking” for these devices is done by the CPU in the computer they are attached to. There are USB key loggers that are entirely self contained, but I think the problem would be the bluetooth. If we are willing to be a little less “hip” we could certainly accomplish your idea using a WIRED keyboard. If you have a friend who is handy with electronics it would not be impossible to shorten or (even remove) the cable to little more than a stub to connect to. I opened a USB keyboard I have here and I could easily do this with a M$ 105 (remove the wire completely and hide it all internally).

If you really want something like this I will have one of the engineers check on the blue tooth thing for you.

Yes, I see that the bluetooth component might be the hitch. There are dedicated devices (like my presentation remote) with bluetooth dongles that use a computer independent way of syncing to the device, but maybe an off-the-shelf bluetooth dongle, since it is not device specific, isn’t going to be like that–but will depend on software on the computer for syncing.

Ah, crumb.

Some of these bluetooth dongles advertise themselves as plug-and-play–no drivers needed–and are aimed at computers without built-in bluetooth capability, though, so wouldn’t this imply that the syncing with an input device is strictly an interaction between the dongle and the device? That is my remaining hope, I guess.

Having the bluetooth receiver there (rather than going all USB) had the happy plus of enabling me to use the keyboard of my choice.

Thing is the dongle has to advertise what it is to the OS for the proper “generic” driver to be loaded. The devices that “enable” blue tooth in non-blue systems still use CPU drivers to make the abstraction happen.

All that said I can’t imagine that there isn’t something that will provide enough feature/function to accomplish your goal. Let me see what we can find.

Bluetooth Dongle … &ShipTo=US
Wooden Laptop

Lego Laptops and Ipods

Lego Workstation
Check out the little dude on the bridge above the mother board

Laptop that costs $336,557.00

“Smart Legos”

Re: bluetooth

Usually when ‘no drivers needed’ is advertised it usually means that the drivers are built-in to the OS, not that they aren’t required to make the bluetooth work.

Also, at least in my experience, most bluetooth gadgets need to be paired, which usually - though not always - requires some interaction on the bluetooth receiving end of things.

I agree that the Apple bluetooth keyboard is a joy to use. Hope you can find something that works. :slight_smile:

Well, dammit, this is a pain.
On the heels of reading this report, I gleefully attacked my daughter’s bedroom (she is away at Graduate School) and forcefully appropriated her eight year old AlphaSmart, which she later agreed I could have. The keys stuck, so I pried them all carefully off, cleaned everything, and put them back. Wasn’t crazy about the feel, but the little thing WORKED–with the original lithium battery and all. I uploaded her old files (which she has asked me to erase) and all went well till about the last one, when it started printing gibberish. I re-uploaded the file, and it transferred fine. A minor blip, I thought. So I took the little AS up to the country with me for a week, and when I got back and tried to upload my new files into Text, I’d get a paragraph or so of clear text, then gibberish. I called AlphaSmart and we determined it was probably the 8-year-old lithium battery, which I duly replaced yesterday (unknowing that in doing so I would ERASE all my new files–oh well, easy come, easy go. Sigh.). Anyway, today I started afresh, wrote a bunch, uploaded–got the same thing. One good paragraph and then GIBBERISH again.

Anyone else have this problem? I can’t find anything on the net. I could call AlphaSmart back again, but after quite a bit of troubleshooting the first time, the only possible solution we could come up with was a new lithium battery, and that’s obviously not the culprit.

I would try using a different cable if you haven’t already. With a transmission error of variable nature like you describe (failure point is not predictable), I would suspect the wire and the socket itself. If using a different cable makes no difference, then I would try uploading to a different computer (even Windows). If that doesn’t work, I suspect the problem is going to be much more difficult to solve; probably humidity or spill damaged hardware. If the battery is really suspect though, have you tried removing the battery and uploading while keeping the AS plugged in to the wall?