QuickPAD Pro Word Processor vs. Alphasmart NEO
I spent a long time in the past looking for a lightweight and portable word processor that ran on normal batteries. I eventually found the Alphasmart NEO, and I purchased one. It is perfect for me except for one thing – it doesn’t have a memory card slot. I love my NEO, but every time I use it, I find myself yearning for that memory card slot. With it, it would be the perfect piece of technology.
Since the NEO had this one (in my opinion) flaw, I kept my eyes open for an alternative. Eventually, I stumbled across the QuickPAD Pro. The QuickPAD Pro is not very well known, and I had a lot of trouble finding out about it. In the end, I just decided to buy one and see for myself what it was all about. I got mine for $80 on eBay. It was in brand-new condition (other than an institutional number written on it in magic marker.) It came with a complete package: QuickPAD Pro, infrared receiver, very nice carrying case, number keypad, USB cable, serial cable, and keyboard cable.
Like the NEO, the QuickPAD Pro runs on AA batteries. However, it requires 4 batteries, as opposed to 3 for the NEO. One of the many awesome things about the NEO is its battery life. It can run for up to 700 hours on one set of batteries. This is one area where the QuickPAD Pro is left far in the dust. I’d read estimates for the QuickPAD Pro ranging from 50 hours to 100 hours to even 200 hours on one set of 4 AA batteries. In my experience, its battery life is far lower – more in the range of 20 to 30 hours at most. Compared to a laptop computer, that is very good. However, for me, it is not sufficient. It started to feel like the batteries died every time I sat down in a coffee shop to do some writing. I don’t know for sure, but I began to suspect that there was a drain on the batteries even when the unit was turned off. In any event, I was always thinking about the batteries and worrying about the batteries, and I had to always carry an extra set of batteries with me – meaning that I was carrying around the full weight of 8 AA batteries – the four in the unit and an extra four in my knapsack. With the NEO, I never had to worry about power or batteries. The batteries seemed to last forever, and I didn’t have to carry an extra set with me. With 700 hours of battery life, you knew far in advance when it might be time to change them. Even if you wrote for 2 hours every single day, the batteries would last for an entire year.
However, the QuickPAD Pro has one HUGE advantage over the NEO. It has a memory card slot. (I go into this in detail later in this post.) With this, memory essentially becomes unlimited. It also means you are much more independent. With the NEO, once the internal memory is full, you have to find a regular computer and transfer the text via USB cable. In theory, with the QuickPAD Pro you would never have to do that. You can simply store all your files on a memory card. This memory card slot makes the QuickPAD Pro a viable alternative to the NEO – assuming the much shorter battery life is not an issue for you. With that in mind, here is a description of the QuickPAD Pro with the Alphasmart NEO as a point of comparison:
To turn the QuickPAD Pro on, you press a tiny power button on the left side. It is up and running in about 3 seconds. The button is recessed, and it takes some effort to push it in. There’s no way that button could be pressed by accident if you were carrying the unit in a carrying case or knapsack. To turn the unit off, you have to exit whatever file you are working on and then press the Power ON/OFF key. (I’m not sure why this key is labeled Power ON/OFF. So far, I’ve only been able to use it to turn the unit off. It does not turn the unit on. Perhaps there is a system setting I have to tweak in order to enable it.)
In terms of width and height, the QuickPAD Pro is technically smaller than the NEO. Here are the specs:
NEO——————9.75 in——————–12.4 in
However, this is deceptive. The NEO is designed with contours and curves, and these figures are for its widest and highest points. It then curves in to the corners. So the NEO is in reality much smaller than those figures would suggest. The QuickPAD Pro, by contrast, is a solid rectangle at those dimensions, and, as such, it has a bigger look and feel than the NEO.
The QuickPAD Pro is also slightly heavier than the NEO. Mine weighs in at 2.1 pounds with the batteries installed. My NEO weighs in at 1.7 pounds. That is without any kind of case or covering. That doesn’t seem like a big difference, but when you’re talking about things that are so light, that difference of .4 pounds is noticeable.
As for thickness, the QuickPAD Pro is 1.25 inches thick at the screen and .75 inches thick at the keyboard. Because of its tilted top, the NEO is pretty much the same thickness as the QuickPAD Pro at the screen. However, it is thinner throughout the keyboard. Overall, the NEO gives the impression of being lighter, smaller, and sleeker. That being said, the QuickPAD Pro is more than light and small enough for a portable word processor.
The QuickPAD Pro’s screen is significantly larger than the NEO’s. As a result, it displays about 2.6 times more text than the NEO at the default settings. Here are the stats for the NEO and the QuickPAD Pro:
There is only one other setting that I’m aware of for the QuickPAD Pro. It displays 8 lines of text but with the same 60 characters in each line. Essentially, the letters are stretched so that the lines are taller. At this setting, the QuickPAD Pro screen displays just slightly more text than the NEO – 8 lines as compared to 6 lines, or 1.33 times more. You toggle between the 16-line display and the 8-line display by pressing the Function key + the Menu key.
There’s no question, though, that the NEO’s screen is superior to that of the QuickPAD Pro in terms of readability. The font on the NEO is much nicer and the contrast is much greater. The screen on the QuickPAD Pro does not provide as much contrast. It’s lighter and it is more difficult to read the text because of that, especially when viewing it at an angle. The contrast is adjustable, but at no setting does it achieve the crispness and readability of the NEO’s screen. The font is also very clunky and unattractive.
However, I should say that over the weeks that I’ve been using the QuickPAD Pro, I’ve gotten used to the screen and the font. Sitting high in a chair and looking straight down at the QuickPAD Pro’s screen, the text is quite readable. As soon as you start to slouch and view the screen from an angle, however, the text gets less readable quickly. You can adjust the contrast with the Function key on the keyboard. Function + up-arrow increases the contrast. Function + down-arrow decreases the contrast.
In addition to changing contrast, it’s possible to alter the basic appearance of the screen on the QuickPAD Pro. For example, you can increase or decrease left, right, top, and bottom borders. There is also an editing menu that can be visible or not. You can also put a border around the text to set it off. This border is just a box made of a thin line. Without the border/box, the text goes right to the edge of the screen margin on all sides. Pressing F10 calls up a simple menu that allows you to make all the above changes.
The keyboard on the QuickPAD Pro is full-size, like the NEO’s. The keys have a slightly softer feeling and action as compared to the NEO’s. The NEO’s keyboard is very crisp and responsive. The QuickPAD Pro’s keyboard is also very good, but different. I don’t think it’s really possible to say that one is better than the other. When I first used the QuickPAD Pro’s keyboard, I was used to the crispness of the NEO’s, and the QuickPAD Pro’s felt a bit mushy and slow. However, I quickly got used to it, and then the NEO’s keyboard felt kind of clacky and harsh. Both are good keyboards.
There are, however, many differences in the keys themselves. The QuickPAD Pro is more like a standard PC keyboard. It has ten function keys across the top (F1 to F10). And some of these are assigned in the same way. F1, for example, calls up a Help menu. The keys across the top of the NEO’s keyboard are assigned to the various files. The QuickPAD Pro has ctrl and alt keys and page-up and page-down keys. The NEO does not require these keys for any of its operations, so it doesn’t have them. Finally, key placement on the QuickPAD Pro is more like a standard PC keyboard. The ESC key, for example, is on the top left. On the NEO, it is on the bottom next to the space bar.
Some of the important keys on the QuickPAD Pro are, unfortunately, undersized. The space bar, enter key, shift keys, and caps-lock key are all smaller than on the NEO and on standard keyboards. This may cause problems for people who can’t adjust. They might find themselves hitting the wrong keys and making other mistakes.
The keyboard on the QuickPAD pro sticks up from the body of the unit and then the keys themselves stick up a little bit after that. It’s not a big deal, but I like how the NEO’s keys are perfectly flush with the edges and surface of the unit. Nothing sticks up at all. This makes it more convenient for sliding it into and out of its neoprene case and in and out of knapsacks.
The big difference between the QuickPAD Pro and the NEO is, as I pointed out at the beginning, the QuickPAD Pro’s memory card slot. It is a compact flash card slot. I read that it could handle cards up to 128 megabytes in size. I purchased a 128-megabyte card, but it won’t work in my unit. I happened to have a 32-megabyte card lying around, and when I tested that, it worked fine. I haven’t had a chance to try a 64-megabyte card, but I’m pretty sure it will work. Many people have used one with success.
Using the compact flash card is very simple. You simply push it into the slot. You can do this at any time – when the unit is off or on, when you have a file open or not. This makes no difference. The memory card slot is treated as a separate drive. By default, the QuickPAD Pro saves files to its internal memory. To save a file to the memory card instead, you simply press “X” when in the menu. This stands for “Exchange drive.” If there is a memory card in the slot, the QuickPAD Pro will simply switch to the card. If there is no card present, you will get a message saying that it is unavailable.
Note that the memory card does not, unfortunately, go all the way into the QuickPAD Pro’s body. It sticks out quite a long way. This means that you can’t keep a memory card in place when you put the QuickPAD Pro into a carrying case or knapsack. You have to remove the card each time and then insert it again when you need it. There is no ejection or “umounting” process. You simply pull the card out. Still, it would have been much better to be able to put the card all the way into the QuickPAD Pro. Then you could just leave it there and forget about it until you want to copy and paste files to and from a computer.
By using a compact flash memory card, memory on the QuickPAD Pro essentially becomes unlimited. You can store tens of thousands of pages of text on each card and use as many cards as you like (21,000 pages of text will fit on one 64mb card by my calculations). The number of files is also unlimited. You choose an 8-character name for each file yourself, and you can have as many files as your cards will hold. The QuickPAD Pro adds a txt extension to each file.
One “gotcha” that I encountered is that even though memory is unlimited using a compact flash card, individual file size IS limited. It is limited by the unit’s memory buffer, i.e., the amount of text that can be loaded into memory at a time. My rough calculations tell me that the limit is about 20 pages (10,000 words). That means that if you had a 100-page document, it would have to be divided into five 20-page files. You can’t load 100 pages into memory at once.
I’m not entirely clear about the QuickPAD Pro’s internal memory yet. However, I believe it can contain between 600 and 700 pages of text (300,000 to 360,000 words). That’s a lot of memory, which means that for most people, the internal memory will be more than sufficient. However, you can still use the memory card for backup of all those files. You can go into File Manager and copy all of your files to the compact flash card for a backup.
You can also use a compact flash memory card to simply transfer files back and forth from a PC. You simply save the file (or copy it) to the memory card. It is saved as a standard txt file. You then pop the card into a memory card reader on your computer and copy the file. You can then open it in whatever program you wish. It will, however, have to be resaved as a txt file for the QuickPAD Pro to be able to retrieve it and read it.
You can also go the other way quite easily. You can copy any txt file on your computer to the memory card and then open it on your QuickPAD Pro. Note that it is also possible to transfer files to a PC via the infrared receiver. The QuickPAD Pro comes with an infrared pod that you plug into any computer. You aim the QuickPAD Pro at that receiver and press “send.” The NEO has this same functionality, of course.
Finally, the QuickPAD Pro can also “send” a file to a computer via a USB cable. Just as with the NEO, you attach the QuickPAD Pro to any computer with the provided USB cable. Then you open any kind of text window on the computer. This can be in Microsoft Word, Notepad, Wordpad, an email program, your blog, a comment window on Flickr, essentially any window in which text can be entered. Then you press “send” and the QuickPAD Pro “types” the entire file into that open window on your computer. The QuickPAD Pro is essentially functioning as a keyboard emulator, just as the NEO does.
I haven’t done an official test, but the QuickPAD Pro seems to retype files at a much faster pace than the NEO. As the NEO “sends” the file to a computer, I can read along as it types and keep up with it. I can’t keep up with the QuickPAD Pro. It types too fast. That would be an advantage when transferring files to dodgy computers in Internet cafes around the world.
When you connect the QuickPAD Pro to a computer using the USB cable (to “send” a file through the keyboard emulator), it connects to the computer automatically. There is no need to install any kind of program. Therefore, it can be used with any computer. The NEO also does not require any kind of program to be installed. I’ve attached the NEO to a wide range of computers and never had a problem. It always worked flawlessly. So far, the QuickPAD Pro works well with my home computer, but I haven’t used it with any other computer.
A very interesting aspect of the QuickPAD Pro is that it basically operates in a DOS environment. The word processing program, spreadsheet program, contact list, and file manager all operate as programs running on top of DOS. As such, using the QuickPAD Pro is more like using a standard computer. To start writing, you have to select “Word Processor” and then open a file or create a new file. If you create a file, you have to give that new file a name (with the standard DOS 8-character limit). Changes are also not saved automatically. You are prompted to save the file (and thus save your changes) when you exit the file. You can also press Ctrl-s to save the file at any point while you are writing.
(It’s worth pointing out that the NEO operates in an entirely different way. On the NEO, you never have to save anything. Everything you type is saved automatically. When you are finished writing, you simply turn the unit off. Whatever you’ve written is already stored in memory. When you turn the NEO back on, you are automatically returned to exactly where you left off. It’s a smooth and flawless process, and I find that it does make writing feel smoother. You aren’t distracted by all the mechanics of searching through menus, selecting and opening the word processing program, selecting files, opening files, moving the cursor to the end of the file, and then saving your changes – and running the risk of losing your writing if you forget to save the file. You simply press the ON button and start typing.)
All the standard text-editing keyboard commands are available on the QuickPAD Pro: Ctrl-A (select all) Ctrl-C (copy) Ctrl-X (cut) Ctrl-V (paste) Home (go to start of line), End (go to end of line), Ctrl-Home (go to start of file), Ctrl-End (go to end of file), Find/Search, etc. Just like a computer, when something goes badly wrong, the unit can hang. You can then reboot it with Ctrl-Alt-Del. This has never happened to me when using the QuickPAD Pro normally. The one time I had problems was when inserting the 128-megabyte compact flash card. For whatever reason, the QuickPAD Pro couldn’t locate it, and it froze. I had to use Ctrl-Alt-Del to reset it. After resetting, the unit was back to normal and presented me with the top-level menu of programs as usual.
It’s possible to exit the top-level program and go directly to DOS. You do this by pressing Ctrl-Enter. Then you get a standard DOS prompt. One difference, however, is that there is no blinking cursor. For someone used to DOS from the old days, it’s weird to see a DOS prompt without a blinking cursor. I understand that it’s possible, though, to track down a program that will give you a blinking cursor. There are four drives on the QuickPAD Pro: A: B: C: and D: The A: drive is a ROM drive of 1.4 megabytes. All the system programs are stored here. The B: drive is a flash drive of 1.9 megabytes. All the files you create are stored here. The C: drive is a RAM drive of 256 kilobytes. The unit stores open files here, including, I assume any txt files you are working on. The D: drive is mapped to the compact flash memory card slot. (To those unfamiliar with this terminology, this might sound very scary, but you don’t need to know any of this or even be aware of it to use the QuickPAD Pro. All this happens behind the scenes. To use the QuickPAD Pro, you simply turn it on, choose a file, and start typing.)
When you press Ctrl-Enter and get the DOS prompt, you can use DOS commands, such as Format D: to format the memory card in the memory card slot. You can also copy and delete files, make and delete directories, and view contents of directories using standard DOS commands. You can also modify system files, and work with batch (bat) files and config.sys files, etc. Of course, it’s best not to if you don’t know what you’re doing. These are the files running the QuickPAD Pro and its programs, and if you modify them or delete them, the QuickPAD Pro’s program might just stop working.
Ultimately, it’s a personal decision whether the NEO or the QuickPAD Pro is the better word processor. For me, the shorter battery life of the QuickPAD Pro makes it a poor choice. The whole point of one of these units has to be its simplicity, its durability, and its long battery life. The QuickPAD Pro does not impress me on any of these points. It really isn’t that simple. My impression is that it isn’t nearly as durable as the NEO either. And it certainly does not have great battery life. Therefore, you might as well just buy a full netbook computer. I don’t see that the QuickPAD Pro offers any advantages over a netbook. You’d get better battery life – maybe 20 hours as opposed to 5 to 8 for a netbook. But that isn’t much of an advantage. The NEO doesn’t try to compete with netbooks or anything else. With its 700 hours of battery life on 3 AA batteries, it is a completely different beast. It wins any comparison hands-down.