Not all Alphasmarts are created equal…

Back in 2018, I acquired an Alphasmart Neo2, a wonderful little device considered a holy grail by procrastinating writers. I wrote about it here, where I mentioned the way it mimics a USB keyboard, and I quote: “this makes the device almost entirely future-proof – for as long as USB remains an active computing standard, you have not trouble at all getting your work off the machine”.

It turns out I spoke too soon, at least as far as some Alphasmarts are concerned. All is not quite as it seems. I’ve used Windows 8, 10 and 11 since I bought my Alphasmart, on two different computers, and I’ve had no issues at all. However, my son has just bought one, and he could not get it to connect to either his Windows 10 or my Windows 11 machine at all. We were initially very confused as to why, but it’s down to software. My Alphasmart runs system software version 3.9 and Small ROM 1.2. His is 3.15 and 1.5 respectively – both newer versions (it goes 3.9, 3.10 etc). For some bizarre reason, Alphasmarts running those newer software versions will NOT connect to Windows 10 or 11 computers. These later Alphasmarts look different to newer versions of Windows than earlier ones in a way that makes them refuse to connect. It seems there’s no fix for this.

This shows some of the many problems that can be caused if you use old tech in everyday life. An OS update that goes unnoticed by pretty much everyone can stop your setup from working, and you’ll be left unable to fix it. While my Alphasmart is currently OK, it does make me wonder if a future Windows update will stop it working properly too. It’s now bit of a worry. Support for these devices stopped in 2012, and there’s no way anyone at Microsoft is going to make allowances for them when hacking away at legacy code.

While my son’s Alphasmart currently works just fine when he boots his PC into Linux, and also with his Android phone, that may not always work either. I have a friend with a 3.15 Alphasmart that works with a Mac too, so this is definitely a Windows problem, but all those other platforms update regularly as well, so who knows what the future will bring?

There’s very little documentation for this anywhere, and it seems to be a problem that very few people are aware of. The only way to change software versions is by using a Windows utility that is now so out-of-date I (a) had trouble finding it and (b) couldn’t get it to work, because it requires an ancient version of the MS .NET framework you can no longer get hold of. Arrrrghhh!

I think this is why we need to get someone to design a new version of the Alphasmart that overcomes these issues, without massively over-complicating things. A recent attempt to come up with an alternative “distraction free writing tool” is the Freewrite, but you don’t really want to get me started on that. I was recently sent one to review for my magazine column, and it’s very disappointing considering it costs SIX HUNDRED POUNDS – yes, you read that right. It’s annoyingly flaky and inconsistent. It does work, though, and it’s also supported by the manufacturers, so if you have problems, there’s someone on hand to solve them (at least for the time being).

My ideal solution would be a modern version of the Alphasmart, with much the same functionality, but carefully engineered so it looks EXACTLY like a USB keyboard to whatever you plug it into. It could act as a USB keyboard too. It should run open-source software so that anyone who wants to write drivers or modify any functionality has the freedom to do so. I really wish this was the sort of approach the Freewrite had taken, rather than focussing so much on the keyboard and screen, and neglecting to get the functionality right.

Are there any other Alphasmart users out there who have had any issues, and have you resolved them? Do let me know, I’d love to hear from you.

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