May. 29, 2009

Things I Love: The AlphaSmart Neo

What writers need more than anything else is quiet. Not physical silence, but a quiet mind. I can work happily in a crowded coffee shop or rattling along on the Acela from New York to Boston. When I am writing well, I work in a sort of trance. What is around me does not matter. I’m hardly aware of it.

Of course, the human brain resists that sort of deep focus. It wants to wander. We are rigged to notice, to investigate, to root around in the bushes for something good. It is in our nature to skip from one thing to the next. Hey, what’s over there? Maybe it’s an evolutionary thing: a few million years of living in dangerous wild places has taught us to be alert always.

And the web is perfectly designed to exploit this instinct to sniff about. The dope in front of his computer at midnight, his mind fogged, clicking link after link on Facebook or Google Reader, bored and demoralized but still clicking away — let’s not judge him too harshly, the poor monkeyman.

So what is a writer to do? His job is to type, but his keyboard is connected to the noisiest distraction machine ever, the internet (and, to a lesser degree, the computer itself — great toy, the computer). The answer, of course, is simply to look away, to direct his attention elsewhere. To disconnect from the whole ringing, rattling, honking mess.

The best way to do this, short of writing everything with pen and paper, is a little gadget called the AlphaSmart Neo.

The Neo is a sorry thing in technological terms. It looks like a glorified calculator, with a QWERTY keyboard instead of number keys below a small LCD screen. It is not smart enough to be called a computer, nor dumb enough to be a typewriter. It is somewhere in between, a simple, stripped-down computer that can only be used for one thing: typing plain text.

I have been shamelessly pimping this thing to my writer friends since the day I got mine. No more waiting for the computer to boot up or shut down; just turn it on and it’s ready, turn it off and it’s off. No more worrying about battery life or finding a plug for your laptop at Starbucks; it runs on plain double-A batteries which last at least a year. (The company claims a battery life of 700 hours. I’ve had my Neo for eighteen months and have never replaced the batteries, though I don’t use it every day.) No more lugging around a heavy laptop and adapter; the Neo is much lighter that most laptops and, because it has so few moving parts, tougher too. There is no Save button; your document is automatically saved after every key stroke, a process that is completely unnoticeable. The full-size keyboard has a nice, solid feel comparable to a good laptop keyboard. Best of all, there is no internet, no operating system, not even a word processor to distract you. Just a perfectly clean, quiet work space. I know — sit down, the idea of it can make you a little lightheaded.

The Neo was originally designed for use in schools, to teach kids “keyboarding skills,” which I think means typing. Last week, my niece and nephew were delighted to discover me using the same machine that they use in school. (They are in grades 3 and 6.) But the Neo has been taken up by writers of all kinds. It has a devoted online following. There is even a group on Flickr where people post pictures of their beloved Neos, some tricked out in different colors or displayed in exotic locations.

The Neo is not perfect. Porting your files from the Neo to your computer is a hassle. Files can be transferred using a cable or an infrared connection, though I doubt many people are using the infrared link since computers capable of receiving infrared are now few and far between. The cable works well but is unnecessary. The whole process would be much easier if the Neo simply had a USB port that could accept a thumb drive. Another quibble: the LCD screen is not illuminated, so it is hard to read in dim environments. But, to be fair, the low power consumption of that screen is, in part, what enables the Neo’s miraculous battery life — a smart tradeoff.

The Neo is one of a class of machines sometimes called “portable keyboards,” which include QuickPad and the Neo’s slightly more complex older sibling, called Dana, plus a few more aimed more squarely at the school market. But the best, because the simplest, is the Neo.

If you are a writer — and I use the term broadly, to include anyone whose work involves a substantial amount of writing — you must try this machine. It is the silver bullet you’ve been looking for.

(One last thing. To preempt a few questions: Yes, this was written on my Neo. No, I have no affiliation with the people who make the Neo, and I have nothing at all to gain by recommending it to you. And yes, the monkeyman described above is me, though I’m not proud of it.)

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