the alphasmart neo: a long-term review.

Alphie and Sammy 2

The Alphasmart Neo next to a Samsung NC10 netbook with 10″ screen.  The NC10 has a great screen, built-in WiFi, and offers all the Windows XP amenities.  The Neo has a better keyboard, lasts a hundred times longer on a single charge, and weighs just a little more than half of the netbook’s already svelte 2.8 pounds.  For mobile all-round computing, the Samsung is the much more capable machine.  For writing, the Neo is far superior.

Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while know that I’ve talked about my little green writing companion more than once. A year and a half ago, I got out the credit card and ordered a brand new Alphasmart Neo from the manufacturer, after reading dozens of gushing reviews from other writers. It arrived, I started using it, and it has since become my most indispensable gadget, and the best $219 I’ve ever spent on anything.

The Neo, as I’ve mentioned before, is a full-sized keyboard with attached monochrome LCD. It won’t do email, YouTube, eBay, or Twitter. It only lets you crank out text that you can later pour into your favorite word processor on your main computer. The screen is about the size of a candy bar, and it displays from two to six lines of text depending on your preferred font size. The simple monochrome LCD is readable in any light condition except complete darkness, and it does not wash out in direct sunlight, making the Neo very suitable for working outdoors, where most laptop screens become unusable due to reflection.

The main limitation of the Neo–the fact that it only does text on a monochrome screen–is also its biggest asset. There is absolutely nothing on the machine to distract you from getting your writing done. In addition, the hardware makes it easy to carry it everywhere: it weighs less than two pounds, turns on and off instantly (and drops you right back at the spot where you left off), and saves every keystroke automatically. Despite its low weight and small size, it sports a full-sized keyboard, and there are no moving parts or big screens to break. Next to a Neo, most laptops feel burdensome, fragile, and needlessly complex for the task.

The main reason for the Neo’s status as the best mobile word processing system on the market, however, is its incredible battery life. If you do your writing on a laptop, you’re used to a few hours of battery life, and proprietary battery designs that lose their capacity after a few years and are expensive to replace. You know that you can’t use your laptop at an all-day conference without sitting near an outlet, and that the juice in your mobile system is not enough to keep you working on a coast-to-coast flight unless you bring along a charged spare battery or two.

The Neo, on the other hand, completely frees the writer from the wall outlet, in ways you can’t imagine if you have not experienced that kind of mobile freedom. The battery compartment of the Neo holds three standard off-the-shelf AA batteries, and they power the system for seven hundred hours before requiring replacement. (That’s a factory estimate, but I think it’s a bit pessimistic: I’m still on the set of batteries that were in the factory box, the ones I inserted into the battery compartment on my first day of ownership, and the battery meter still shows 80% remaining after over a year. I have written most of an 89,000-word novel, many chapters for other novels in progress, about twenty articles, and countless blog entries on this Neo, and I’ve just barely made a dent in the battery endurance.)

The second major advantage of the Neo over any laptop is its portability. It weighs less than two pounds, and there’s no hinged screen, so it can be used almost anywhere, even behind the wheel of a (parked) car, or on the tray table of an airline seat. Yet despite its small size and light weight, the Neo is ridiculously rugged. Its well-designed case, protected screen, and solid-state design make it capable of surviving treatment that would break any but the most ruggedized laptops. There are no hinges to weaken, no doors to pop off, and no latches to fail. The Neo was designed to survive years of frequent use in a school environment, and I can’t imagine a more harsh and unforgiving existence for a piece of technology than to be passed through the hands of hundreds of grade or middle school students in the course of a school year.  (I took my Neo to Viable Paradise, and demonstrated its ruggedness to fellow students by dropping it from chest height onto the floor repeatedly, without ill effects.)

Next on the list of the Neo’s advantages is its simplicity. It’s instant-on, and needs no time to boot. It will drop you right back in the document you were working on when you last shut the Neo off, with the cursor right where you left it. The word processing software built into the Neo is bare-bones simple (it doesn’t even offer any italics or bold formatting), and there’s nothing to get between you and your writing. If you want formatting, you need to do that part after you upload the text to your main PC. There are just the bare essentials built into the Neo’s word processor, like a word count, a Find function, and a spell check. You save your work in one of eight numbered file spaces, each of which is accessible by pressing its corresponding button at the top of the keyboard, and you can hop between those file spaces at will and work on several projects (or chapters) at once. Each file space holds twenty-five pages of single-spaced text, roughly 9,000 words, for a total of two hundred pages, or 72,000 words. That’s enough for a fair-sized novel, although most Neo users I know usually upload their chapters or articles to the PC as soon as they are completed. I rarely find myself able to write over seventy thousand words without access to my computer for offloading files, so the capacity limit of the Neo is largely theoretical in nature. (Crafty Neo owners with IR-enabled cell phones or PDAs have used the IR beaming capabilities of their Neo to offload files to those other devices while traveling, and you could conceivably use a cell phone to receive text files from the Neo and then email them through the cellular network, turning a Neo paired with a cell phone into an ultra-mobile dispatch filing system for journalists.)

There’s another benefit to the Neo that generally doesn’t get mentioned in reviews: it’s absolutely silent (except for the noise generated by the keys when typing), and it generates no heat at all. Most laptops can function as lap warmers in the winter, and even the quietest laptop still has some noise-generating component in it somewhere. The Neo is totally silent, and stays as cool as a pocket calculator even after hours of use.

Offloading your work to a computer is easy. You open the file you want to transfer, plug a standard USB cable into the Neo, and connect it to a free USB port on your computer. Then you open your word processing program of choice, and hit the “Send” button on the Neo. Your text will flow into the word processor as if you were tying it in directly, only at speeds even a great typist on six cups of coffee couldn’t manage. This transaction involves no driver installs on the PC, since the Neo appears to the system as a standard USB keyboard, and it’s platform-independent. I’ve used the Neo to transfer text into word processors on Windows XP and Vista, Mac OS 9 and X, and Ubuntu Linux. (If you love the feel of the Neo keyboard, and you don’t mind the lack of a dedicated numeric keypad, you can even use the Neo as your main computer keyboard.)

The Alphasmart Manager software that comes with the Neo also lets you transfer all the text off the Neo at once, and send text files from the PC back to the Neo, but for simple and convenient transfer of text off the Neo, all you need is a plain USB cable, and no software install is necessary. In addition, the Neo can print directly to many USB printers through its built-in printer port without having to send the text to a computer first.

The Neo is a masterful example of single-purpose technology. It’s not a jack of all trades, but it is master of one, and that’s easy and distraction-free writing. It will only let you do one thing–generate plain text–but its unique set of advantages make it far better suited for that single purpose than any other gadget on the market. It’s lighter and more robust than a laptop, it’s more portable due to its smaller size, and its battery life is so ridiculously long as to make the user independent from a power source. It generates no heat or noise, holds enough text for a complete novel, and interfaces with any system that has an available USB port, with no software needed, and no special configuration necessary.

The Neo won’t let you do email or streaming video, but if you’re in the business of writing, and you want a device that lets you work anywhere, there’s simply nothing else that has the same combination of uniquely writer-friendly attributes. It’s simple, reliable, highly portable, robust, power-independent, and easy to use. It’s also affordable, at $219 directly from AlphaSmart.

If you want your writing tool to also offer the distractions of Internet, instant messaging, email, and a quick round of Solitaire, the Neo is not for you. If, on the other hand, you only want to be able to write, and do so anywhere and with a minimal amount of fuss, you will find that the Alphasmart Neo will become an indispensable tool for your work, and you’ll come to consider it the best invention for writers since the notepad and pen.

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31 thoughts on “the alphasmart neo: a long-term review.

  1. Ya know, I bet you could sell a copy of this post to the Neo people.

    Jus’ sayin’…

    Hell, I now want one & I don’t “write”!

  2. pax says:

    Sounds like a great product for a fiction writer.

    For good or bad, us non-fiction folks are usually tied to the web.

  3. ibex says:

    If you weren’t busy with child-rearing and novel-writing, I’d recommend a career in marketing. I have practically no use for a Neo, but whenever I read your raves about it, I want one.

    WANT.

  4. ckbasi says:

    Pax–depends on what you’re doing.

  5. mmoreash says:

    One thing not mentioned in the excellent article: for those of you who like to write outdoors, screen visibility in bright sunlight is superb.

  6. pax says:

    ckbasi ~ As I said, “usually”. ;)

  7. HansW says:

    At last, a realist! Bravo!
    No longer needing to travel and ignoring the jeers of those foolish enough always to insist on using Microsoft’s latest entomological contribution, I still use an old (1993!) DX4/99 running under DOS 6.2/Windows 3.1/Word 6.0 (which doesn’t spend most of its time trying to second-guess me like the later versions do) with a scrungy little 15″ SVGA screen, for text-adventure programming and serious writing. The other four (AMD) computers are set up under a variety of operating systems and are used only when needed.

  8. Nick (The Other White Nick) says:

    Looking back to my 4th grade year (and shortly into my 5th grade year..my 5th grade teacher hated technology) I used something similar. My hand-writing was atrocious..and still is. This was back in the mid 90′s. It was awesome, I felt badass.
    And it was supplied by the school.

  9. Carlos Rosa says:

    You forgot that Neo have a calculator that perform the basic operations and it is possible to transfer
    your calculations for any of the eight files.

  10. [...] You can learn more details from this very happy customer. [...]

  11. I agree that the AlphaSmart has an incredible battery life. Its light weight can’t be beat. And, it’s true, it’s excellent for straight drafting and notetaking. For getting your ideas down fast, it’s perfect. The main frustration for me is not being able to cut and paste too easily and the only cable I have doesn’t connect to my Macbook. Also, the keys stick a little bit – I can’t type quite as quickly as I can on a regular PC or my Macbook.

    It definitely turns on faster than an PC or Mac.

    I think its best uses are for straight notetaking and getting drafts down quickly – yes, it excels for just straight writing. Once you have your ideas down, then you do need to send them to your PC or laptop to edit and refine.

    I have had mine for 6 years at least. I like taking it on vacations to write my travel journal because it’s so much lighter than my laptop and if I were to lose it or have it stolen, the damage would not be so great. The Alphasmart definitely serves its purpose!

  12. Andrew Slack says:

    Reading this and all the other amazing reviews, I’ve ordered a Neo yesterday. 20 hours later it arrived – alas it beat me to my parents’ house so I don’t get it till tomorrow.

    Can’t wait!

    thanks particularly for the confirmation that it is silent and cool – these are important features for me and helped my decision. Trying to write PhD, have NO willpower and would like to put myself forward for the title of world’s worst procrastinator/internet-time-waster. So hopefully the Neo is just the ticket.

  13. Andrew Slack says:

    P.S. anyone that does want basic formatting – HTML tags are the way forward, or if you just want bold and italic use *bold* and _italic_ and Word’s autoformat will do the rest as you “type” it in with Send. If you have OpenOffice these give you *bold* and _underline_ instead.

  14. For compatibility with my word processor, I need the NEO to have separate characters for open and close double quote signs. Does it? Or does it work in good ol’ 7-bit ASCII?

    - tobias d. robison
    tobyr21@gmail.com

    • Andrew Slack says:

      It doesn’t appear to do smart quotes automatically (though it’s possible there is a way I don’t know to enter specific ascii characters), however this may not be a problem – if you use the USB keyboard emulation to “type” your text from the alphasmart to Word (even really ancient versions – I use 98 for Mac) or OpenOffice or any other of a number of word processors, they will auto-correct (if set to do so). So for example, although my Neo doesn’t have smart quotes, by the time I’ve transferred the text to my Mac the quotes are separate open/close signs. This seems to work 99% of the time. I’ve had one glitch involving some other formatting characters (I use *bold* and _italic_) but that seems to be specific to this one document and to word 98.

      • Okay, I think I get it. The NEO acts like a keyboard to feed the text into a PC wordprocessor, so it’s easy to make the word processor fix the quote signs on the fly. Very neat.

  15. Lola says:

    Hi, I just ordered this today on the neo-direct site. So are all the NEOs green??
    I didn’t see an option where you can choose the color. I was hoping for that grayish/black one.

    • Andrew Slack says:

      Neo1 are dark green. Neo2 are very dark blue/looks black.

      Other than that, there is minimal difference. The Neo2 has more memory, but when I asked about ordering one, RenLearn said that you don’t really get the benefit due to the additional software using the space. Not sure if that’s correct, but I do know I love my Neo1 and have got pretty used to the green.

  16. mand says:

    Thanx for this. I found you by looking for reviews – i hadn’t looked into this kind of tool though they sounded nice, as there’s no way i could afford one. But i have a chance at a competition with a Neo 1 as first prize so i’ve been finding out about it… aaagh, you’ve given me serious Neolust!…

    For me, the weight, or lack of weight, is the best feature as it would weigh about the same as my laptray upon which i scribble (in exercise books) while in bed – a quarter the weight of our household laptop. I’m bed-bound for the first couple of hours every morning and can’t move a laptop on my knees, so this would save me having to type up my scribbles later in the day.

    Andrew Slack – “Word’s autoformat will do the rest as you “type” it in with Send. If you have OpenOffice these give you *bold* and _underline_ instead.” – Do you mean OpenOffice doesn’t format these at all? I’m a newbie to OpenOffice. Thanx! :0)

  17. mand says:

    That was quick, Marko, thanx. I’d forgotten about the text being sizeable. Trying to imagine it, but i’m pretty sure i could work with four lines, allowing for needing something a bit bigger than the smallest.

    Now to dash off a competition-winning piece of writing!… erm… ;0)

  18. I have heard nothing but good stuff about the Neo, and I’m pretty sure I want one. Are they available only direct from the mfg., or can you get them at stores? I’m not finding that info on line, so guessing only by Internet ordering, but thought I’d ask.

  19. I forgot to ask my other question: can I download to a thumb drive as well as to my desktop?

    • Marko Kloos says:

      No, not with the Neo. You can only transfer via USB cable to a desktop.

      They make a PalmOS-based unit called the Dana that has a built-in SD card slot for backups and such, but it only has 30 hours battery life vs. the 700 hours on the Neo.

      That said, the Neo holds a novel’s worth of text. The lack of on-board backup slots has never been an issue for me, and the thing is about as reliable and robust as a pocket calculator.

  20. [...] the alphasmart neo: a long-term review. « the munchkin wrangler. (tags: alphasmart hardware typing writing nanowrimo) [...]

  21. Maxine Flam says:

    Thank you for your comprehensive review. My PC tech friend has been trying to talk me out of purchasing the NEO. “Netbooks are only a little more and they do so much” he says. However, he fails to understand that I am trying to start my second book and need something like the NEO that just writes. The formating and other issues can be dealt with on my PC at home plus the battery life is tremendous. Thank you again. I will be ordering the NEO shortly.

  22. PJF says:

    Couple of things I found with the Neo.

    The small screen is a bonus, you are not continually looking back at your writing to read and edit little bits. You seem to be empowered to keep moving forward. 5 Lines of text is perfect. 6 lines and the font looks a little funny. Editing is a pain but this is another bonus. Don’t like the sentence you just formulated. Then just rewrite it. After a while they start to formulate better in your mind before you commit them. i.e. It is exercising and improving my ability to create sentences on the fly rather than edit them until they feel right. When I press send (to word doc through usb) I can’t believe how many words pour out. i.e. seem to write 10 times more using this machine than sitting on the computer and the quality seems better, more natural and flowing. Just my 10c worth.

  23. Mick_P says:

    I’ve had a Neo for 18 months or so and love it for all the reasons laid out above – especially for the lack of distractions, its immense battery life, its portability and the high-quality keyboard (never been able to type quicker than the keyboard can cope with, and I’m pretty quick).
    It’s correct that you can’t see the screen at night, but get one of those small LED-based reading lights that you can clip to the Neo and problem solved. And LEDs eat very little power, so the batteries in the lamp will also last well. It’s a neat solution.

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