One of the comments on yesterday’s Search Term Safari inquired about the usability of the Alphasmart Neo versus a netbook. Since Neo searches are among the most common terms popping up on my blog stats page, I figured I could address that issue briefly.
The obvious point first: if you need Internet connectivity, or indeed any functionality other than simply hammering out text, then the netbook beats the Neo, because the little Alphie is a one-trick pony. (In the words of Michael Caine, however, I have to say that it’s a pretty good trick.) With a netbook, you get wireless Intertubes, a web browser, and most of the trimmings of a laptop in a smaller package that has enough horsepower for the computing needs of 90% of Intertubes denizens. (Some people say that the Atom CPU in netbooks doesn’t have the wheaties to serve as an everyday computing system. These people are wrong. I’ve been on an Atom-based ION box as my main computer for months now, and other than not being able to run very demanding games at high frame rates, I don’t have any performance issues with the little thing.) If you need functionality beyond simple text input, the netbook wins, hands down.
If you only need a mobile novel-writing machine, however, the Neo runs circles around the netbook. It’s much lighter (1.75 pounds to the average netbook’s 2.5 to 3 pounds), has a hundred times the battery endurance of the longest-lasting netbook on the market, and can take treatment that would trash a netbook. The keyboard is bigger and easier to type on than the vast majority of netbook keyboards—I’ve only ever played with two or three netbooks that had acceptable keyboards for heavy-duty typing.
For word-processing duties, the Neo is so much superior to the netbook that it’s no contest. Still, every once in a while, you need to hop on Wikipedia or check stuff online, so how can you combine the advantages of the Neo with Internet capability on the go?
When I went to Viable Paradise a little over a year ago, I came up with an idea I called the flash-based mobile office. I took along the Neo and an iPod touch, to have both a robust writing tool and a mobile Internet device with me. The combo of Neo and iPod touch runs entirely on flash memory, and it’s highly portable. I brought my MacBook to VP as well, but ended up using it as an ad-hoc wireless router for our little townhouse, since the hotel only let us have one high-speed power line modem per unit. For the entire week, the MacBook played router, and I used the Neo for all my computing needs—mostly writing, and surfing my usual lineup of social bookmarks in our rare downtime. It worked very well—I had a tough little writing pad that never needed to hit the outlet, and a teensy-weensy netbook without a keyboard I could take out of my pocket for quick Internet access on the go.
The iPod touch and Neo have corresponding strengths, and the combination of the two devices gives you netbook-like mobile access and worry-free typing away from a power source. Moreover, using the Neo in tandem with the iPod touch keeps the Internet accessible, but away from your main writing machine. You can still get online if you need to, but it takes an extra step or two, and you won’t be tempted to just alt-tab out of your work in progress to check Facebook or Twitter “for just a second”.
For computing on the run, I’ve become a big fan of the Neo/iPod combination. You get the whole package—typing comfort, long battery life, and Internet utility—in two robust devices that are easy to use, individually superior to the netbook for their specialized tasks, and just about unbeatably useful together. I wouldn’t use the Neo as my only machine for a week on the road, but I can’t think of a netbook or laptop that would be more useful than the Neo paired with an iPod touch, and maybe a little wall charger to top off the iPod when it runs low on juice.
So there you have the somewhat roundabout answer to the “Neo vs. netbook” question. Of course, a new Neo and a new iPod touch together cost as much as a higher-end netbook, and answering a ton of email is still faster from a laptop, but for my mobile usage pattern away from home, the combined strengths of both flash-based devices would justify the expense. If you don’t write all that much, and you need a device to do it all in one small package, then the netbook would be the better choice for you….but if you need to have a distraction-free, heavy-duty writing device and just occasional Internet access, then the Neo paired with an iPod touch is a ridiculously efficient solution.