Hi-Tech Lo-Tech: Alphasmart NEO

Hi-Tech Lo-Tech: Alphasmart NEO

My MVP Award for Writing in 2008 goes to a miniature machine that has made this year one of the most productive of my life:

The Alphasmart NEO

Behold a piece of technology that uses all the miniaturization and power-saving abilities available today to make what is essentially the typewriter of the new era. The Alphasmart NEO writes. And that’s about it. It weighs as much as a 8” x 10” spiral notebook. It runs for seven hundred hours in three AA batteries. It’s a work of genius—I feel like an old west gunslinger when armed with the NEO. Anyplace I go, I can quick-draw and write. Have NEO—Will Travel reads my card. I am absolutely in love with it.

I first learned about the NEO in connection with National Novel Writing Month. In prepping for the upcoming November of constant writing toward a 50,000-word goal, I read through the book No Plot? No Problem?, a guide to the event written by its founder, Chris Baty. In a discussion of various tools that writers find useful for NaNoWriMo, Baty made a brief mention of the device that grabbed my attention:

Some NaNoWriMo participants swear by an affordable machine called an Alphasmart (www.Alphasmart.com). This is a battery-powered, word-processing device that looks like a cross between a laptop and a children’s Speak & Spell. The miniscule screen only displays four lines of text or so so at a time, which can be helpful in warding off obsessive editing. The keyboard is large and comfortable, and you can work for up to twenty-six hours on a few AA batteries.

A few specifics about the machine have changed since No Plot? No Problem! went to press, so this description is a touch out of date, which I discovered when I went to the company website moments after reading this paragraph. I dropped the book and plugged into the ‘net to see about this machine by which people swear.

I ordered one a week later. I received it in July, and I’m still using the same three AA batteries… currently down to 86%. That’s one aspect of the Alphasmart that has changed. It damn near runs forever. You’ll never have to worry about camping near an outlet in the café or the library again, or getting slammed with legal action when your stretched cord trips some hasty bumbler who should’ve known better.

MeAs you can see from the picture here of me posing with the super-weapon (I have nicknamed it “Maximilian” after a number of Bavarian Dukes, Kings and Electors), the NEO is essentially a keyboard with a liquid crystal (LCD) screen. It weighs as much as a trade paperback. I haven’t tested its durability, but I’ve heard rumors of intense ruggedness—especially an unsubstantiated tale of it surviving a car driving over it. The keyboard writes smoother and with greater comfort than any laptop I’ve used and many desktops. It’s so easy to create words with it that it makes it almost impossible not to write when you have it around.

Hanging in my shoulder bag, the NEO is an instant call to creativity. I can pull it out anywhere where there is sufficient light (as much as you would need to write on paper) and start slamming the keys. It takes two seconds for it to turn on with a single key-stroke, and then you are ready to go. I’ve found that the NEO writes as well sitting on my lap as it does perched on a table surface. I once polished off a chapter of a novel while waiting for an oil change in the Jiffy Lube lounge.

The NEO keeps eight active files, each which can store approximately 8,000 words and which are rapidly accessed through a line of keys at the top. You can store unused files in the memory and transfer them to one of the main eight files whenever you need to work on them. I so far haven’t run out of room, and I usually have six or seven projects going at once. A simple spellchecker and find function will give most writers the only special tools they need for first drafts. There’s a calculator as well, so you can figure out the tip at the café where you’ve spent hours writing.

The NEO can communicate with any PC or Mac through the USB cable that comes with it. Included special software allows for easy moving back and forth of data between the NEO and a desktop or laptop in the form of TXT files. But the NEO can transfer files to any computer without needing software. The device acts as an external keyboard once it is plugged into a USB port, and after hitting the “send” key, the NEO types the contents of whatever file is currently active into the open window on the other computer. I often create blog entries by opening up the blog window and letting the NEO blast my spiel right into it, with no extra steps.

The LCD display looks small, and people who first see the NEO think this will be the machine’s major handicap. However, as Chris Baty notes, having a small portion of the screen available prevents unnecessary editing when you’re going for a first draft. The size of the font can be set from an enormous two lines per screen (excellent for helping children learn to type), to the miniscule six lines per screen. I prefer five lines per screen, and do most of my work on that setting.

But the small screen does mean that the NEO isn’t designed for fine-tuning and editing; you will need to transfers the files to another computer for that. However, I’ve managed to do minor editing and fixes on shorter articles with the NEO with few hassles. Once you learn how to handle navigating with keystroke shortcuts, you can putter around a NEO article with few snags.

Renaissance Learning, the manufacturers and distributors of Alphasmart devices, makes another portable device called the DANA, which costs almost twice as much and offers features that distract from the beautiful, utilitarian simplicity of the NEO. The DANA tempts you with Internet access, the great slayer of productivity. And it doesn’t have the battery staying power either.

I’m coming up on my six-month anniversary using a NEO—and I have no idea how I survived without it. Not only have I gotten more work done because of it, but my writing has improved because it gives me a freedom to write whenever, wherever, and get more in touch with emotions and perceptions I wouldn’t experience chained to either a desktop in my home or an unwieldy laptop. (I’ve never liked laptops or felt comfortable with them.) The NEO is my enchanted sword, my fantasy weapon of ultimate power.

And it’s about $220, direct order. It will pay it back a thousand times.

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Now you have me considering one of these. Thanks for the article. I’d read Baty’s book but glossed over this.

Sounds like a useful tool.

Bill Ward

I wish I could be as enthusiastic about mine. Everything you said is true — and I’d add that the sturdiness and build-quality of the Neo is fantastic as it was designed for kids in a classroom environment — but I think it depends on the sort of writer you are, and what kind of writing you are doing. I have an ‘edit as you go’ style, which means the small screen is more of a hindrance for the way I write.

Still, I’ve written several partial first drafts on it, and I haven’t given up on using it yet. I much prefer a laptop though — but the Neo is great for portability, battery life, and distraction free writing.

David Munger

Very interesting device. The only drawback for me is that I have quite the scattered brain, and when I sit down to continue a manuscript, I skim back rapidly through several prior paragraphs to get my bearing. Or I’ll frequently even forget a minor character’s name and need to hunt it down. For that reason, I like a tool like the Scrivener application, where I can even have “note cards” handy on the screen about various aspects of the story.

On the plus side, I absolutely love the concept of using the device to dump text into any window on the computer, as in your blog entry example. I had no idea it did that, and to me that’s about the coolest feature I’ve heard of.

If they made one with the same battery life and about twice the screen size, I’d be more tempted.

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