I’ve always thought it would be pretty neat to use an AlphaSmart Neo or Dana word processor as a wireless keyboard. AlphaSmart devices have long been able to connect to computers that support wired USB (or PS/2) keyboards, allowing users to upload text to Windows, Macintosh, and Linux computers, as well as new Android devices. But AS devices do not include Bluetooth, the wireless protocol that is about the only dependable way to connect a keyboard to an iOS device these days.*
Since becoming an iPad owner a couple years ago, I’ve become quite interested in the possibility of somehow converting a USB keyboard to a Bluetooth keyboard. Unfortunately, no amount of fervent Googling could lead me to such a solution, beyond finding a few mechanical keyboard enthusiasts who had hacked their old IBM model-Ms to send signals to a Bluetooth keyboard encoder. That solution wouldn’t work with an AlphaSmart device because it wouldn’t allow the transfer of text files that were saved to the internal memory. But recently I came across a YouTube demonstration of a little gizmo that claimed to do exactly what I’d been wanting to do: convert a wired keyboard to a wireless Bluetooth keyboard by translating the signals from the keyboard’s port. The “Bluetooth Keyboard Adapter” from a small company called Handheld Scientific was pretty pricey at $60, and there was no guarantee that it could handle the super-fast keyboard pulses coming from Neo. Still, I wanted to try, so I pulled the trigger before I could think twice. I ordered on a Saturday evening, and the little package arrived from California by Wednesday.
So how does it work? Well, in a word: flawlessly. Really. Plug Neo into the adapter using a short USB cable, turn on the adapter, and then pair the new Bluetooth keyboard to your mobile device using the settings menu. (It’s the same process as pairing any other Bluetooth keyboard to a mobile device; you need to enter a code on Neo to affirm the pairing.) Once paired, Neo works just like any other Bluetooth keyboard. Typing, keyboard navigation, selection, etc all work great. Tapping a key on Neo will power on my iPad. But the best trick is that the “send” feature of Neo works perfectly, allowing me to transfer long or short text files very quickly into a word processor or email app on my iPad. You can even send text across rooms and around obstacles. (I was in another room, around a corner, and was able to squirt a long text file into Writings, my favorite text editor on iPad.)
The adapter has two keyboard ports, one for USB and one for PS/2. At the other end, the power button sits next to the mini USB charging port. Popping off the back cover reveals a basic BP-6M battery pack, used in a number of Nokia cell phones. (The pack runs at 3.7v, so I did wonder how easy it might be integrate the adapter into the case of my AlphaSmart Dana, powering it with the 3 AA rechargeable batteries.) There’s also a tiny speaker in the device somewhere, because it gives a loud beep when it’s waiting for one to enter the pairing code.
So that’s the Bluetooth Keyboard Adapter. Works exactly like the mythical gizmo I’d been searching for the last few years. (I almost can’t believe it’s real.) It’ll help anyone with a Neo or Dana connect to a mobile device, whether an iPad, iPhone or older Android device that doesn’t have USB keyboard support. (Newer Android tablets and phones have USB OTG support, which is a cheaper way to connect a wired keyboard.) Great little gizmo!
*iOS devices have a sort of love-hate relationship with USB, offering some limited support for importing photos from cameras and SD cards, but no official support for keyboards. The correct USB driver seems like it is still buried within the OS, and some users have been able to connect an AlphaSmart to their iDevice using a powered USB hub. Why is there a USB keyboard driver, but no real support? Best guess here is that it’s just leftover from when Apple released their wired keyboard dock for the 1st generation iPad. Later iOS updates cut off support for that accessory (and other wired keyboards) by limiting the power provided to the 30 pin port.