If the sales figures are to be believed, we're all in love with notebooks, and the future is mobile platforms. As useful as notebooks are, they do present challenges in everyday use, none more pressing than ergonomics. Notebook keyboards are often cramped affairs that are horrible for your wrists, and notebook displays are often plonked onto desks at an angle that positively encourages a sore neck, and possible permanent damage. The solution has long been to buy a dock for your laptop and use it with an external screen and more wrist-friendly keyboard. That's still a good solution, but it can be costly, and far too often docks are specific to particular vendors and even particular notebook lines.
Design and Features
The Alto combines a fairly standard Logitech keyboard with a notebook riser in a fold-down casing designed presumably to be somewhat portable. A rubber flap connects the notebook stand part to the keyboard, with a single USB cable that snakes around the base of the notebook stand when not in use. The stand also houses three USB 2.0 ports, with the idea being that while the keyboard aspect of the Alto takes away one of your laptop's precious USB ports, it gives back three in return. There's also a power socket at the back of the Alto, although the power adaptor isn't provided in the box; it's an added extra.
The platform that your notebook sits on folds out of the base of the Alto, with a stern warning to fix the foot of the stand properly to avoid your notebook slipping away. The Alto is designed to be compatible with as many notebooks as possible, so there's no custom moulding for any specific notebook. This is a plus in terms of cross-compatibility -- and does mean you can use the Alto with multiple notebooks within a household or small office, which isn't true of too many docking solutions -- but it's also a design minus, in that unlike a dedicated dock, there's no specific part holding your notebook in place when it's mounted on the Alto. It's still secure by force of gravity and the angle it sits on, but it does invite being knocked off if you're not careful.
Setting up the Alto simply involves unfolding it, clicking the stand into place, popping a suitable laptop onto the stand and plugging the USB cable into place. The keyboard is driverless for both Windows XP and Mac platforms -- although we did have to quickly identify the keyboard layout for OS X's purposes. Adding an external keyboard to a laptop is, of course, no big thing and no revelation, and while the Alto's keyboard is reasonable -- and has a nice supporting wrist rest -- the big advantage that the Alto boasts is that it props your laptop screen up to your eyeline when you're sitting down, which is a lot better for your posture and a lot more comfortable to boot.
There are some downsides to the Alto, although they are relatively minor. Because of the placement of your laptop, the trackpad/trackpoint becomes essentially unworkable -- you'll risk wobbling your notebook off if you use it too much -- and there's no inbuilt trackpad replacement or trackball on the Alto itself. A more cynical reviewer might suggest that Logitech want you to buy a Logitech mouse to go with the Alto, but that could never happen -- could it?
The other downside is an aesthetic one, and it's a risk that's all to common with glossy black devices. The Alto picks up smudges at a rate of knots, especially as it's a device designed to be used with your hands. Even the rubber flap that connects the stand and keyboard isn't immune to this, as we found in our testing that it quickly picked up stray bits of grot and started to look distinctly less shiny.
If you're running multiple laptops and don't want a dock -- and LCD display -- for each of them, then the Alto is a good, portable solution that's well built and serves its intended purpose well enough. It's not recommended if objects on your desk are constantly in motion, simply because it doesn't lock your notebook in place, but aside from that it's a very well made solution to a very common problem.