AlphaSmart 3000/Neo review: accessible communication

NOTE: the AlphaSmart 3000 is a slightly older model and no longer for sale new. The model currently being sold new is the AlphaSmart Neo. You can substitute Neo for AlphaSmart in this review unless noted. I think the help sheet I reference later also applies to the Neo. UPDATE: See also: Fusion Writer AAC: alternative to AlphaSmart.

Let me start out by saying that although the (relatively) inexpensive AlphaSmart/Neo has mainly been marketed towards those with learning disabilities who have trouble with handwriting, it works for communication too. It incorporates no-brainer accessibility options that even Light Writers and DynaWrites don’t have — and those 2 are the heavy duty, often pushed, very expensive communication aids for physically disabled people. Not only does the AlphaSmart have a built-in Sticky Keys feature, it also has built-in one-handed Dvorak layouts. Seriously — why did no other vendor think of this? I mean, duh, a lot of people who have trouble communicating also have physical difficulty using a keyboard. Frequency of use layouts make a hell of a lot of sense. Not only are the one-handed Dvorak layouts useful for those who type one-handed, but they are also potentially kinder to those who type with a stick. Like me — because I cannot use my hand on a flat keyboard, I strapped a stick to my hand and set the AlphaSmart to right-handed Dvorak. (Because I am accustomed to neither Dvorak nor QWERTY, I cheated and used Dvorak keyboard stickers. However, I hear that you can also pop off the keycaps themselves and rearrange them. Just be careful if you do.)

IMPORTANT: The shortcut command for Sticky Keys  is Command Option K. But for another way to get Sticky Keys using only one finger, see this post.

Between setting the AlphaSmart to Dvorak and using the preinstalled Co:Writer word prediction applet (my Alpha is a hand-me-down), I was able to generate words with very little stick movement. I will caution you, however, that the keys have a hard touch. Many people say that the Neo’s keyboard is much more comfortable, however, so no worries. The Neo can likewise be set to Dvorak, Sticky Keys, etc.

Although you might not think so because of the small screen (Neo’s is bigger), the word prediction applet rocks. You may not think you get a lot of choices, but you don’t need that many, because Co:Writer is a true prediction program, not a completion program. I’m guilty of using “prediction” and “completion” interchangeably sometimes in my blog, but they’re not the same thing. Word completion is what most of us use; that’s when you type a couple of letters and the program inserts the rest of the word after you press a number. You do that continuously, for each word you type. Word prediction actually tries to guess the whole word that comes after the word you just typed, so that you may be able to insert the next word with a single number key.

As an aside, you can also get Co:Writer from Don Johnston as a separate program just for your PC or Mac, but I wouldn’t be in a rush — it’s pricey at $325. (In contrast, a new Neo with Co:Writer preinstalled would cost about $350.  The applet itself is $139.)

However, you could always hook the AlphaSmart up to your computer and transfer the files you typed with it onto your computer. The Alpha can store 8 files, 100 pages total. The transfer only takes one keypress and is relatively quick. The Neo also stores 8 files, but 200 pages total.

For my uses, the AlphaSmart would be mainly a text device — to make note of something without booting up my computer. As a communication device if or when I lose my voice for some reason, text is good enough for that too. But if you need speech, it’s available for both the AlphaSmart and the Neo as a $479 Dectalk speaker that plugs in. Even if you bought everything new, a roughly $850 Neo kit would still beat paying $3500-$8000 for a similar device. I encourage you to buy a new Neo if you can because the company deserves support for keeping things honest and accessible, and maybe if more people tried the Neo as an assistive technology or AAC device, more people would know about it and would be able to access it.

This access is good for those of us who may only need a basic text communication aid sporadically or for undiagnosed reasons, and thus would be ineligible for any insurance assistance. Also, it might wake up the big companies and show they don’t have a captive market anymore. I don’t want to see this company go out of business or get bought out by DynaVox or something. Whenever I can scrape together the money, I just might buy a Neo myself. Otherwise, there’s always Christmas! For the AlphaSmart 3000, there is also secondhand.

For helpful setup shortcuts, see this PDF file. For a profile of the man who thought of the Smart Speaker, see the AffordaSpeech website or this piece.

NOTE: the AlphaSmart 3000 is a slightly older model and no longer for sale new. The model currently being sold new is the AlphaSmart Neo. You can substitute Neo for AlphaSmart in this review unless noted. I think the help sheet I reference later also applies to the Neo.

Let me start out by saying that although the (relatively) inexpensive AlphaSmart/Neo has mainly been marketed towards those with learning disabilities who have trouble with handwriting, it works for communication too. It incorporates no-brainer accessibility options that even Light Writers and DynaWrites don’t have — and those 2 are the heavy duty, often pushed, very expensive communication aids for physically disabled people. Not only does the AlphaSmart have a built-in Sticky Keys feature, it also has built-in one-handed Dvorak layouts. Seriously — why did no other vendor think of this? I mean, duh, a lot of people who have trouble communicating also have physical difficulty using a keyboard. Frequency of use layouts make a hell of a lot of sense. Not only are the one-handed Dvorak layouts useful for those who type one-handed, but they are also potentially kinder to those who type with a stick. Like me — because I cannot use my hand on a flat keyboard, I strapped a stick to my hand and set the AlphaSmart to right-handed Dvorak. (Because I am accustomed to neither Dvorak nor QWERTY, I cheated and used Dvorak keyboard stickers. However, I hear that you can also pop off the keycaps themselves and rearrange them. Just be careful if you do.)

IMPORTANT: The command for the accessibility menu is Command Option K. To turn on Sticky Keys, you will need a two-handed person to activate the menu first because those keys can only be pressed simultaneously. I explained the problem to the company tech support and suggested a shortcut like pressing Shift 5 times or putting the accessibility menu under the Applets key, and they forwarded my suggestion to the developers for a future release of the Neo.

Between setting the AlphaSmart to Dvorak and using the preinstalled Co:Writer word prediction applet (my Alpha is a hand-me-down), I was able to generate words with very little stick movement. I will caution you, however, that the keys have a hard touch. Many people say that the Neo’s keyboard is much more comfortable, however, so no worries. The Neo can likewise be set to Dvorak, Sticky Keys, etc.

Although you might not think so because of the small screen (Neo’s is bigger), the word prediction applet rocks. You may not think you get a lot of choices, but you don’t need that many, because Co:Writer is a true prediction program, not a completion program. I’m guilty of using “prediction” and “completion” interchangeably sometimes in my blog, but they’re not the same thing. Word completion is what most of us use; that’s when you type a couple of letters and the program inserts the rest of the word after you press a number. You do that continuously, for each word you type. Word prediction actually tries to guess the whole word that comes after the word you just typed, so that you may be able to insert the next word with a single number key.

As an aside, you can also get Co:Writer from Don Johnston as a separate program just for your PC or Mac, but I wouldn’t be in a rush — it’s very pricey at about $300. (In contrast, a new Neo with the applet preinstalled would cost about $350. The Alpha/Neo applet itself is about $100.)

However, you could always hook the AlphaSmart up to your computer and transfer the files you typed with it onto your computer. The Alpha can store 8 files, 100 pages total. The transfer only takes one keypress and is relatively quick. The Neo also stores 8 files, but 200 pages total.

For my uses, the AlphaSmart would be mainly a text device — to make note of something without booting up my computer. As a communication device if or when I lose my voice for some reason, text is good enough for that too. But if you need speech, it’s available for both the AlphaSmart and the Neo as a $479 Dectalk speaker that plugs into their printer ports. Even if you bought everything new, a roughly $850 Neo kit would still beat paying $3500-$8000 for a similar device. I encourage you to buy a new Neo if you can because the company deserves support for keeping things honest and accessible, and maybe if more people tried the Neo as an assistive technology or AAC device, more people would know about it and would be able to access it.

This access is good for those of us who may only need a basic text communication aid sporadically or for undiagnosed reasons, and thus would be ineligible for any insurance assistance. Also, it might wake up the big companies and show they don’t have a captive market anymore. I don’t want to see this company go out of business or get bought out by DynaVox or something. Whenever I can scrape together the money, I just might buy a Neo myself. Otherwise, there’s always Christmas! For the AlphaSmart 300, there is also secondhand.

For helpful setup shortcuts, see this file. For a great account of an autistic man using a Neo for communication, see this article from Spectrum. For a profile of the man who thought of the Smart Speaker, see the AffordaSpeech website or this piece.

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