In Praise of My Alphasmart Neo

Alphasmart Neo
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Recently, I bought the strangest little device: an Alphasmart Neo.

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

Alphasmart Neo
Alphasmart 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.

Kevin Eagan (@KevEagan) 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. You can also check out his professional website, KevinThomasEagan.com.