The key to wider access

20th October 1995 at 01:00
The AlphaSmart Keyboard, Portable keyboard with liquid crystal display screen which can connect to Apple Macs (all models except Mac 512 and Mac Plus) and Research Machines and IBM and compatibles. Pounds 199. From Tag Developments, 25 Pelham Road, Gravesend, Kent DA11 OHU. Tel: 01474 537886, Fax: 01474 332667.

Chromasonic, 2 The Crest, Hendon, London NW4 2HW. Tel: 0181 203 8989.

Every available computer keyboard in the school is occupied; geography coursework has to be handed in tomorrow; tempers are fragile. The teacher is trying to recover a project from a battered floppy, the anxious owner awaits the verdict calculating whether there is enough time for a complete rewrite: "The information technology room closes at 6 pm, three hours to go, if only I had a portable computer at home."

Another familiar scenario is the time children waste formatting their text before they have even written a sentence. They are beguiled by titles displayed in ornate fonts with a touch of bold, underline and shadow. The technology gets in the way of the writing process despite pleas to "get your ideas down first".

The AlphaSmart Keyboard may seem like a backward step in glitzy computer technology but it provides an elegant, simple solution for text and data entry, which are still the main use for computers in schools. There is no fiddling about with software, just switch on the keyboard and start entering text.

A clear, four-line by 40-character liquid crystal display reveals the text as you type. There is no formatting to worry about. You can set tabs to enter columns of numbers which can be placed in a spreadsheet later. This no-frills approach makes pupils concentrate on content and quality of writing.

Eight separate files, storing a total of 20 A4 pages, can be opened by selecting one of the first eight function keys. When a file is full the AlphaSmart prompts the user to open another. This file structure can support multiple users or help organisation of work into sections or chapters.

The keyboard is powered by two AA alkaline batteries which last for up to 100 hours. If these batteries run out the internal lithium battery preserves any stored text. Files are deleted by pressing the Clear File button and can be recovered by pressing option-command-R. An AC adaptor is also provided.

Once the text has been written, the keyboard is plugged into a Macintosh (with an Apple Desktop Bus port) or DOSWindows PC, the send key is pressed and the text flows (slowly) line by line into an appropriate word processor on the computer. The children love this bit but impatient teachers can use the faster turbotransfer option. There is little to go wrong and even the most technophobic teachers can succeed.

The AlphaSmart Keyboard is well built, compact and can withstand fairly rough handling. It weighs 1 kilogram and can substitute as a text-only portable computer without printing capability. Three or four can be bought for the price of one portable. We may be one stage further to providing at least a keyboard for every child's desk by the year 2000.

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