Distraction Free Writing


The Alphasmart Neo is a slick piece of retro tech that is a great addition to the writer’s toolkit. The Neo is all about word processing and portability -- it’s fast, weighs next to nothing, solidly built, lasts forever on three AA batteries, and has one of the sweetest keyboards I’ve ever used. All the stuff the Alphasmart Neo does not do -- Internet access being the major difference between it and a laptop -- are as much virtues as they are weaknesses in the design. Virtues because the Alphasmart Neo is probably the absolute best tool for distraction free writing since monks were first cloistered in cells with pen and parchment -- something that cannot be overlooked in our present Age of Distraction.

What is the Alphasmart Neo?

Essentially the Neo is a keyboard with a memory. That is what it does, memorize your keystrokes, so that if you make a correction in document -- say backspace twice to delete a letter, then replace it with another -- the Neo actually remembers that sequence and plays it out again when it spits out your file. It’s virtually identical to the experience of using an old word processor, minus the bulky typewriter, expensive ribbons, and horrible clacking sound.

Instead of all that, the Alphasmart Neo depends on your computer for advanced word processing and printing. This makes it essentially a first draft machine -- you write your rough draft in the Neo, then download (via usb cord) the results into whichever word processing program you prefer to use on your computer. Watching the file download you can see the keystroke memory in action -- it literally looks as if someone is rapid-fire typing your file into the processor.

The Neo sports a retro-sized 512Kb of memory -- which is still enough to hold about 130,000 words. Storage is divided into files that are accessed simply by hitting buttons that run along the top of the keyboard (roughly where the function keys would be), which lets you keep up to eight files going. Its rather small screen can display an adjustable number of lines, depending on how you set the display and font size. The screen itself is not back lit but is of sufficiently strong contrast that you can use the Neo in less than perfect lighting conditions. While this does mean you cannot use it in the dark, the lack of a back lit screen also reduces eyestrain -- in a world where we already spend too much time looking at computer monitors, that can be a welcome change.

More Portable Than Any Laptop

The first truly great thing about the Alphasmart Neo is its portability. While the comparison between the Neo and a laptop may in some senses be an apples to oranges one, the truth is that, in the niche of portable word processing, the Neo has tremendous advantages over almost any laptop. For one thing, you will never be vying for one of the few outlets at your local coffee shop with the Neo because it has no cord -- and runs for up to 700 hours on three AA batteries.

Yes, 700 hours. Not a typo.

I have not tested this completely because I have not spent 700 hours with my Alphasmart Neo. I will say that in the two years I’ve owned one I’ve probably put a good 100 hours into it, and the battery charge graphic has yet to dip below the three quarters mark. Alphasmart also has a set of rechargeable batteries for the Neo that are reported to run up to 200 hours -- but honestly, with battery life like that out of a trio of Duracels, why bother?

Combine this with the Neo’s ultra-light weight (less than 2 pounds), low profile, and durability, and this little green machine is the ultimate in run and gun word processing. And a further word about durability -- the whole suite of Alphasmart products are designed to be used by schoolchildren and they are built to take a beating. While they might not be up to Tuff Book standards of unbreakability, their solid state construction and rugged plastic design mean that they can be treated far less delicately than a laptop or netbook. All of this has the net effect of making them feel great to use as well, as there is no rattling or looseness when bashing away at the keys.

The Alphasmart Neo’s Keyboard is One of the Best

To me, a keyboard is a make or break piece of word processing equipment. Many laptops have keyboards that are perfectly adequate for net surfing, email, and the like, but really are not designed for a lot of typing. I have no idea why the makers of the Neo thought that kids needed a world class keyboard on their word processor, but they certainly outdid themselves with this one. The keyboard is full-sized -- please note that many laptop keyboards are not! -- and has a great, solid feel to it. I like my keyboards to be a bit hard and ‘clacky,’ and the Neo is just about perfect in my book. I’ve used Dell Latitudes and IBM Thinkpads, and I would rate the Neo as better than both -- about the only keyboard I’ve used that compares favorably to the Alphasmart’s in the Microsoft Ergonomic keyboard I used on my desktop.

But the One Thing that Makes the Alphasmart Neo Truly Great....

You see that cool guy sitting in the corner of the coffee shop, sipping his soy chai latte and brooding pensively over his Mac Book? He wants you to think he is writing the next great piece of post-modern fiction, but all he has managed to do all day is beat his high score in a flash game involving penguins and watch about forty youtube clips of backyard wrestlers dressed as ninjas. In other words, he has done nothing but waste time all day, because the tool he uses to write also happens to be the world’s best designed distraction device.

The Alphasmart Neo cannot check your emails, balance your check book, or look something up on Wikipedia for you. It is not a laptop. But this is in reality perhaps its greatest strength, because it simply demands that you write. When you leave the house with the Neo in tow, or even sit in your favorite chair in a room without your computer, you distance yourself from all the distractions that the Internet provides. It truly makes getting work done and focusing on the task at hand that much easier.

The Alphasmart Neo makes a great note taker and first draft machine. While it has rudimentary word processing functions (spell check, word count, and some other applets available from third parties), its primary use is to lay down words fast and thick. The small screen size -- which is admittedly sometimes frustrating -- also keeps the writer focused on writing, not editing. From a productivity point of view it cannot be beat.

Currently the Alphasmart is going for around $170, which is less than what I paid for it two years ago. For anyone that needs to write a lot of copy it is the perfect tool -- in fact I find it ideal for articles such as this one, which was typed entirely on my Neo. Now that I’ve finished I think I’ll just go refill my coffee, and maybe just sneak a quick peek at cool guy’s youtube videos, some of those ninjas really seem to know what they’re doing....