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.