AlphaSmart Neo – A New Writing Toy

Christmas is over, and we’re well into 2019. You might be despairing at the thought of spending even more money on another gadget, but if you’re into writing at all I’d urge you to read on.

It’s (Still) Alive!!!

If you know me at all, or are a long time follower of this blog, you’ll be well aware of my occasional obsession (oxymoronic, perhaps?) with old technology. I’ve always been a fan of getting the absolute most out of my money which can involve a lot of forum trawling, and watching obscure YouTube videos on old devices. The HP Jornada was the subject of my obsession several years ago, and I had it connected to WiFi and browsing the internet, something it didn’t exactly excel at. I also squeezed in a little real time strategy gaming with Warfare Incorporated, but the elderly refresh rate of the display was never going to make for a seamless experience. Nevertheless, it shows how much you can do if you’re willing to work things out.

Warfare Incorporated – one of the original mobile C&C rip-offs, but a pretty enjoyable one (Running on the HP Jornada 720 HPC)

A few years ago I had my eyes on the Kickstarter campaign for an intriguing writing device. Part of my difficulty with writing on a modern PC is that they are excellent procrastination machines. What was that word I was thinking of? I better look it up. I wonder what the etymology of that is? Fascinating. Perhaps I should take a look at the history of that on Wikipedia. And so on.

I am easily distracted. I was toying with the idea of using my old Toshiba Portege Windows 95 laptop for writing, but the hassle of moving files on and off with floppy drive (short of fitting a CF card reader) was enough of a deterrent for me to abandon the idea. My HP Jornada 720 also provided a writing platform for a while, but the cramped keys made prolonged sessions intolerable. Then I would pick up my laptop and marvel over a comfortable experience, once again. Then I would get distracted, and the cycle continued.

Back to the Kickstarter campaign. What if there was a way of typing on a computer without the distractions of games and web browser? What if that same device had a mechanical keyboard and e-ink screen? Yes, it’s the Hemingwrite, which was later rebranded as the Freewrite, made by Astrohaus. I very nearly justified buying one of those. Nearly, but not quite. They are a thing of beauty, and as such carry a hefty price tag ($549 at time of writing).

The Freewrite, née Hemingwrite (Source: getfreewrite.com)

I am not (no matter how much I kid myself) a professional writer. This is a hobby, and not one that is going to consume all of my resources. I shelved that plan, but have always had the idea in the back of my mind. I enjoy typing on my IBM Model M keyboard, but that requires my laptop or desktop, and ideally I would like to have a discreet portable device for drafting and a little editing.

Whilst looking at a forum post discussing the Freewrite, I came across comparisons to the AlphaSmart Neo. This was a device I had never heard of, let alone seen in the wild. Essentially it’s a digital typewriter, or a basic wordprocessor, and offers a distraction free writing experience for drafting. Documents are uploaded to your PC using USB, though some basic editing functions are present including a spell checker.

The AlphaSmart Neo

Looking at the pictures I was concerned the keyboard would be cramped, and the display too small. After using it for a little while, I’m delighted to say my concerns were unfounded. The keyboard allows for a reasonable typing speed, with crisp action, and a good experience for a scissor keyboard. The screen only displays four lines of text at a time, which at first feels like a limitation, but then you start to get it. Without being able to see what you’ve written before, it forces you to continue and not worry about it so much. There’s no blank page to stare you down. No writer’s block or anxiety. Just a manageable goal – get through these four lines of text, and see what comes next.

It’s lightweight coming in at 907g, and don’t worry about dealing with another proprietary charger – it takes three AA batteries. If you run out, just pop into the corner shop or pretty much any shop in the world and you’ll be writing again in no time. I wish I had this thing when I was travelling around Asia. The actual writing experience is far more enjoyable than a cramped tablet keyboard.

It’s packed with a Motorola Dragonball VZ running at 33 MHz, though the specifications don’t really matter. Bottom line, it’s fast when it needs to be. It takes about three seconds from switching it on to being able to write.

What’s particularly nifty is the way it works. Does it act like a mass storage device when you plug it in? Nope. It behaves as if it’s a USB keyboard. Seems weird, right? This allows it to plug in and be recognised by any computer, then when you choose to send text from it, it types it into the document in front of you. It can be time consuming, but it reminds me of capturing DV tape from a camcorder. You just walk away and let it do its thing.

And where can you buy this machine, you may well ask. Nowhere on the high street. It was made in 2004, and despite being long discontinued it still has an active userbase and is beloved by many a writer.

I bought mine on eBay for a the grand total of £24.98, which is several hundred pounds cheaper than the Freewrite. I won’t lose sleep over £25, and I’ll happily spend £250 on a fictional blender, but nearly £400 on an indulgence is too much.

So, if a year from now my Neo is collecting dust in a cupboard, at the very least it gave me something to write about.

Check it out!

A side-by-side of the AlphaSmart Neo and the Astrohaus Freewrite. I have a soft spot for the Freewrite, but I just couldn’t justify it. (Source: http://orcutt.net)

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