In Praise of the Alphasmart Neo

If you’re not familiar with the Alphasmart Neo, then check out this great overview from David Kadavy, or this historical review on Hack Education. It’s a keyboard with a screen, and nothing else – a portable word processor that saves text files and cannot connect to the Internet.

18775331385_ef9f2a6d7b_hAlphasmart Neo (Photo credit: Robert Burdock on Flickr.

I first discovered the Alphasmart Neo while looking for a cheaper alternative to the Freewrite, which recently received funding on Kickstarter. I wanted a single-purpose writing device for those moments when I waste time on the Internet to avoid writing. I tend to write a lot of first drafts on paper with the computer shut off, but this can be inconvenient. Sometimes I want the convenience of typing without the distractions inherent on a laptop.

I found out about the Alphasmart Neo and bought one on eBay for $14. I’ve been hooked ever since. Here’s why.

It’s dumb technology, but dumb for a reason.

If you’re writing, you don’t need much more than a decent keyboard and a screen. This device has a full-size keyboard with a little LCD grayscale screen. Its only software includes a basic spell checker, calculator, find/replace and some “applets” teachers can use to make quizzes or create typing exercises (which I won’t use). It is a single-purpose device to an extreme. You can store up to 200 pages worth of writing in eight “files,” which you switch between using keys located where function keys go on a standard keyboard.

It can connect to a computer via a USB cable, allowing you to send your text to the word processing software of your choice. That makes it easy to move back to your computer when it’s time.

It promises 700 hour battery life.

Yes, 700. Seven hundred. Hours. Can a laptop, smartphone or tablet last that long on one charge?

This thing is powered by 3 AA batteries, and nothing more. (You can use NiMh rechargeable batteries as well, but why bother? AAs are cheap.)

Some people online have reported using their Alphasmart Neo for more than a year without having to replace the batteries. They’ve written more than one novel on the device and still had battery life to spare.

Being a single-purpose device has its benefits, for sure.

It only shows 3 to 6 lines of text on the screen at a time.

Having such a limited screen means you can’t see a full page or more of text. This is beneficial when you’re drafting because it helps you avoid self-censorship and unnecessary editing. You have to go to the trouble of scrolling up the document to change text. It’s still possible to go back through your document if you need to because all of the keyboard shortcuts available on a computer keyboard work here. Find and replace works as well.

The Alphasmart Neo is a first-draft machine. You wouldn’t want to do any heavy-duty revising or editing, but again, that’s not the point of using this, is it?

It’s super portable.

It’s as light and about the size of the 11-inch Macbook Air. It’s not as portable as a tablet or a hybrid device like the Microsoft Surface, but it won’t be inconvenient to take it to a coffee shop or the library for some distraction-free writing.

Why use a single-purpose device for writing?

Writing, like most creative skills, requires focus. I can’t focus when I have notifications coming through or browser tabs open. And if you’re like me, you might pretend that you need access to the Internet to conduct “research,” but this research devolves into random Internet searching or social media lurking. I remember the times when I’ve been on deadline only to end up wasting hours on Wikipedia “researching” stuff I already knew. I wonder how much better my writing could have been if I’d used that time drafting and revising.

A process that works for me.

I used to write brainstorming notes and a rough draft on paper then type it up on my computer and revise from there. I still do this on some projects. But now that I have my Alphasmart Neo, I hope to type out a rough draft on the Alphasmart and send the draft to my word processing app on my computer, revising and reorganizing from there. This won’t work for every project, but it will be perfect for those moments when I need focus, simplicity and flexibility.

There is something nice about having multiple writing options and not feeling tied to a computer. Maybe I will find my moment of writing zen with my Alphasmart Neo in hand.

reposted under a CC license from Critical Margins

About Kevin Eagan (1 Articles)
Kevin Eagan is a freelance editor and writer living in Central Florida. He edits book manuscripts and articles for local and national publications. Critical Margins is his place to share his interests.

14 Comments on In Praise of the Alphasmart Neo

  1. Wow, it’s a word processor! Haven’t seen one of them in 30 years. I remember in my intro to computers class at tech school watching a young secretary sit down in front of her first PC and recoil in terror, calling out “I want my Wang.” I agree with the writer, this is a great piece of old tech that can still be a good tool.

  2. Thanks!

    The crazy thing is, Alphasmart manufactured this and supported it until 2014. Yet the tech in it is no different than the 30 year old word processor my grandma uses to type up her recipes. (And I remember sitting on her lap as she showed me how it worked — and it was top of the line at that time!)

    It’s a great device, though, because it forces me to focus on the words I’m typing and nothing else.

  3. Nate,

    I think the Freewrite/Hemingwrite is designed for mechanical keyboard enthusiasts or people who think the cloud syncing is worth the extra few hundred dollars. I love the device, but the price after the preorder period is $500! That’s crazy. A used Neo: $13–70 on eBay or Amazon. Better deal!

  4. Wow! $15? I paid about ten times that for each of my two. Yeah, I have two. One of ’em was a few thousand miles away, see, and I had this story to write….

    I do love the Neo. I’d rather it had a slightly larger keyboard (my hands are overlarge), but other than that it’s perfect for my needs. I got some extra fonts somewhere or other a few years ago, so I can actually fit eight lines of text on the screen–but the font I most often use is “Klingon.”

    Imagine my inner peace as I get weird looks in a coffee shop or fast-food place (yeah, I like free refills when I’m writing). “What the hell is that guy doing? That’s not a real laptop. Is it a toy? Why is he smiling? How come he’s staring off into space so much? Should I be worried? Is he carrying a gun? Damnit, where’s that tinfoil?”

    Yeah. See, I can’t actually read the Klingon font at all. Helps keep me from looking at whatever it might be I’m typing. Or if I do look, I smile at the futility of all attempts at editing.

    I got through my first novel without one. The next two, I used the Neo for almost all of the first-draft work. I’m beginning to get better at dictation, but my fourth novel’s almost done, and once again the Neo is the first-draft champion.

    I’m actually typing this comment on the Neo, too, which I didn’t even notice until I was halfway done. I have my laptop in front of me, but I’m looking at a larger monitor that I have plugged into it, which works better with an external keyboard and more distance between me and the laptop. So, since the Neo was already plugged in, I’m typing away on it. Go figure. But mostly I use the Neo independently. Except, come to think of it, a couple of days I also used it to tell the TV what I wanted to watch on Netflix when my “air mouse” quit working. There was this USB port in back. It worked. Who knew?

    Thanks for the post!

  5. @David, Yeah, it makes a great USB keyboard! $15 was for a used unit on eBay, and it didn’t come with the original USB cable, manual or AC port, but I didn’t need those things 🙂 I’m going to try out the coffeeshop writing experience tomorrow; we’ll see if I get weird looks!

  6. Looks like an alright device, but I don’t know how to type without the “home”, “end”, “page up” “Page down” where I like them on a standard keyboard set up.
    I hate the laptop style configuration used on this device. Give me my home/end keys where I want them! But yeah, otherwise I would buy one for sure. Are there any similar devices with different keyboard layouts anyone?

  7. @David, do you find dictation faster than typing?

  8. Love my AlphaSmarts: I have both the Neo and the older Dana, which runs the Palm OS and lets you write in plain text format using Card Text — while the Dana’s battery life is “only” 25-30 hours on a set of AA batteries and the screen is much harder to read, it has two SD card slots so you can save and transfer files back and forth without using any special software, especially if you use plain text.

    Both are outstanding “portable writer’s studios” and, being designed for the education market, they can take an enormous amount of abuse without breaking.

    An incredible value since they can be had for $25-30 on Ebay.

    Because of their durability, I would not hesitate to buy a used unit, too, unlike most consumer electronics.

  9. I’m going to try one of these. I Picked one up on eBay for 20 bucks. It’s a good test to see if this would work for me before considering something like the Hemmingwrite. I do far more “research” then actual writing. Having everything on one device isn’t nearly as useful as it should be.

  10. Thanks for the tip! I’m going to have my eBay expert start looking for a used one – holidays are approaching. My wish list now has an addition. This looks like it would be great on medium and long-haul flights where my laptop would just shrivel and die after a couple of hours.

  11. Does anyone know whether the keyboard can be switched to other defaults (such as from EN to DE)? The only ones available on eBay come from the US and before I shell out (I found one for about $50 including shipping), I’d like to know if I can switch the default keyboard. I appreciate any help on this.

  12. Thanks, Nate. I’d find it hard to switch between DE and EN as I’ve gotten used to (20 years in Germany and counting) the switched Y-Z on the German keyboard. And I’d probably miss being able to use the umlauts (could use a workaround on that, though – wouldn’t be too problematic – search and replace within Word for oe ue, etc. Could even do a macro). Hmm. Will have to think about it. Would love to have one and the price isn’t too bad.

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