Saturday, February 23, 2008

AlphaSmart Neo: Sophisticated Simplicity



Unclutterer has a good post about the benefits of using tools to write with undistracted simplicity:
Two ideas recently converged for me in one device. The first idea is the notion of self-imposed limitations, and the second is the concept of retro-computing. The device is the AlphaSmart Neo. Here’s how it all fits together.

I discovered the AlphaSmart Neo, in part thanks to Paul Ford’s writings. What is the Neo? It’s a full keyboard with six-line LCD attached. That’s it. No distractions. It’s a thing of beauty.


At two pounds, I take it everywhere. Instant-on, and automatic save of every keystroke make it even more appealing. Some other retro advantages:

  • At an all-day conference my three-hour battery on my Mac isn’t much help and I have to be on the hunt for limited power outlets. (The NEC MobilePro wouldn’t fare much better.) The Neo’s frugal processor and simple screen, on the other hand, gets me 700 hours from 3 AA batteries. That’s about a year’s worth of normal use.
  • The keyboard is amazing. It’s a real, honest-to-goodness keyboard with satisfying travel and quiet clickitiness. It really feels better than my Apple Bluetooth Keyboard, which is the same design as the Air’s. It also beats out the MobilePro’s slightly cramped keyboard.
  • AlphaSmart was started by two former Apple engineers and it has overtones of the eMate 300. Like the eMate, the AlphaSmart was designed for the education market, and it shows in the build quality. If it’s tough enough for kindergardeners, it’s tough enough for me.

Most important, though, is that it keeps me focused. If I go to a coffee shop to get some work done, the only thing I can do with my Neo is write. There are no distractions. There isn’t even bold or italics (something I get around with Markdown). When writing is the only thing you can do, you get it done, and it remains an enjoyable activity because it’s not the thing that’s keeping you from Twitter.

At some point in our technological past we perfected word processing. Every feature since then seems to have subtracted from the experience. Do yourself a favor and look into some single-purpose, “underpowered,” and self-limiting tech.

I've read many reviews of the Neo in the past and all of them have been glowingly positive. I've even had a post on it before.

Some very clear benefits I see to using the Neo in lieu of a laptop:
  • Lack of distraction. I will be the first to admit to having weak willpower in a wi-fi equipped classroom when a professor's lecture gets a little dry. Taking notes on the Neo instead of a laptop would help remove the temptation to e-mail and web surf.
  • Truly untethered computing. With 700 hour battery life from 3 AA batteries, this thing can go for about a year before needing to swap out batteries. No more needing to hunt for a spot against near an outlet at the coffee shop. (The battery life is more like that of a calculator than a laptop.)
  • Instant On. This would allow the Neo to serve more closely as an electronic notebook. As soon as inspiration hits, turn it on and immediately start typing. This also would allow you to turn it on, type in a quick idea, and turn it off again.
  • It saves as you type. No need to constantly save whatever file you're working on. As you type, it saves whatever you input. It's like OneNote in this regard.
  • Infrared. If I understand correctly, you can beam files directly from the Neo to a smartphone and e-mail them out from there. (One journalist now uses the Neo and a Nokia 95 for his traveling toolkit.)
  • Cool running. Unlike my laptop, the Alphasmart Neo doesn't put out any heat. It would be comfortable to use in your lap for hours at a time.
  • Ruggedness. This device can supposedly take quite a beating and still work brilliantly. (It was designed to be used by elementary school kids.)
  • Lightweight. It weighs about 2 pounds and doesn't need any kind of power adapter since it has such great battery life. Carrying it around would be much less burdensome than carrying most laptops.
  • Outdoor use. The combination of super-long battery life and ruggedness would make this perfect for taking to a quiet spot outdoors to do some writing -- something I would be reluctant to do with a laptop.
  • Travel. This would make a great travel journal. I've tried numerous things for recording my thoughts on my journeys around the world. Notebooks certainly work well, but I can type so much more quickly than I can write. The Neo is cheap enough, I wouldn't worry as much about it getting stolen as I would a laptop, the ruggedness of it, and its light weight would make it easy to carry around and (unlike a laptop) I wouldn't hesitate to use it almost anywhere. I can think of many trips when having something like this would have been ideal for jotting down thoughts and reflections -- lounging in a hammock while going down the Amazon River, riding trains in Europe, sitting on a deck chair on a cruise ship in Alaska, traveling across the US by car, etc. The fact that it's essentially windproof is a big advantage to using it outdoors as well. Obviously, I wouldn't use it in the rain, but I wouldn't do that with paper either. The ability to hook it up to any computer via USB and have it automatically type things into the computer would make this perfect for using at Internet cafes. (Type up your e-mail ahead of time, connect it to the PC, open up GMail, push a button, and watch it automatically type your text into whatever program you have open on the PC. If I understand it correctly, you can also use the Neo as an external keyboard for your computer.)
  • It's flat. The fact that this is flat instead of a clam-shell like most laptops is also an advantage. It makes this much easier to use in a wide variety of situations and makes it less of a barrier between you and other people during meetings and social gatherings. I can think of several seminars and debates I've attended in DC where this would have been ideal for taking notes on, but would hesitated to use my laptop because of boot-up time and unwieldiness. This would also make it great for using on an airplane tray table without having to worry about the person in front of you cracking your laptop screen when they lean their seat back. I could also see myself using this on the subway riding into DC or sitting on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial.
Like other reviewers, I wish the Neo had an SD card slot for file storage and transfer, and a backlight for the display, but otherwise it seems like a near perfect tool for writing.

While the Neo certainly wouldn't substitute for a laptop in all situations, I think it would it would in many and would also be a good compliment to another computer. I love the simplicity of the device and am intrigued by the concept of it. As I continue to make progress in both my PhD and JD program, writing will be a big part of my life -- particularly as I start work on my dissertation. I will have to seriously mull over the possibly of getting one of these well-loved devices.

Here is a Flickr group with many photos of the Alphasmart. Notice how many of these shots are of people using this outdoors or while traveling, situations where people would be highly unlikely to use a laptop.

Read another highly positive review of the Neo. More reviews here.

5 comments:

Kevin said...

Wow, all these advances and they ended up back with a TRS-80 Model 100. :-S

Jeff said...

Can a TRS-80 model 100 be plugged into any PC and recognized as a standard keyboard?

Can a TRS-80 model 100 run on two AA batteries for 700 hours?

Does a TRS-80 model 100 have as *few* distractions as an Alphasmart?

I suggest you educate yourself further about the Alphasmart. It's a modern device designed to interface with modern computers.

Neil @ Looking Towards Home said...

I'm currently having a love affair with the Alphasmart Dana!

Anonymous said...

It's so hard to find one of them nowadays.

Do you get eye strain while using it, as many get while using conventional pc LCD screens?

Nice review!!! Thanks!

Brian Hollar said...

No problems w/ eyestrain. It's an LCD screen -- like on a calculator or a digital watch. Different from a computer screen.