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.)
I was going to reply on twitter but I can leave a much more detailed comment here, and the comment section looks all lonely and that’s a sad thing, indeed. 😉
I don’t have a Neo, I can’t afford one. In Australia they go for around $600 which is rather a bit. However, I have won an Alphasmart 3000 off Ebay which should, hopefully be here early next week (fingers crossed). What I really wanted to say, though is that people have been using battery powered LED booklights velcroed or strapped onto their Alphasmarts to fix the no backlight issue. (backlight strains ones eye, anyway.)
My NEO is costing me $297 and I live in Australia. I’ve ordered it from Spectronics. Can’t wait to get it.
William Landay says
Steph, Love your solution to the backlight issue. I’m surprised to see these things selling for such a high price in Australia. $600 is about three times what they cost in the U.S. and much too high for such a simple gadget. Also I see from your own blog that I’m not alone in my AlphaSmart obsession.
I think the light most people use is called… Mighty Bright. This one, I think. And yes, it’s silly but you can only get them from one retailer here, who makes about $200 dollars profit per machine. It’s kind of lousy, and AS Direct doesn’t sell to Australian buyers. And indeed, I’ve wanted one for two … three years.
Vera Robbins says
There is a whole big wide world of people that you could and should buy this from, Steph! What has held you back?
Steph, if you can trust people you’ve not met, there are a bunch of willing folks over at the AS Flickr site that would be glad to buy the Neo and ship it to you. I’d do it myself. Paypal, FedEx, you know.. kind of like getting it from Ebay.
Bobby Joe says
Has anyone heard of The Writer or the Fusion. These products “seem” comparable, but I wasn’t sure. They have lower prices if I am not mistaken. Just wandered what anyone thought of them.
William Landay says
They do look similar, it’s true. I have not used either the Writer or Fusion, but judging from the web site one big difference is that the new Fusion USB has the ability to transfer files using a USB thumb drive, which is something the AlphaSmart cannot do. It would be much easier to transfer files that way, as compared with the AlphaSmart’s clumsy cable method.
Rob Centros says
I’m now using a QuickPad IR (not the Pro). I tried and liked the AlphaSmart 2000 and would have been happy with it had the QuickPads not shown up on Craigslist for next to nothing.The QuickPad, in my opinion, has a slightly better keyboard, but more importantly it’s even lighter and smaller than the AlphaSmart machines. Weighs 1.5 pounds.
I’ve also looked at the ads for the Writer Fusion, Laser PC6 and the NTS Dreamwriters (now out of business), but I like the way the QuickPad and AlphaSmarts transfer files — like typing it in. Besides, there aren’t as many of these other machines in the used market. My brother is writing a screenplay on his QuickPad (for a contest, due at the end of the month) and he is amazed at how much writing he is getting done without distractions and, more importantly, without worrying about format, fonts, or editing as he goes along. What’s more, since it inputs text like a keyboard (the QuickPad also doubles as a wireless keyboard) he can input the text into Movie Magic Screenwriter and it formats perfectly. Better than an RTF and cleaning it up after importing.
Now I’ve got a Dana (very inexpensive, non-wireless, 8MB one) on order from eBay. I don’t know if I’ll use it, or put it back up for sale, but I wanted to see how much better the keyboard is than the earlier AlphaSmarts. I understand that the Neo uses the same keyboard — and, ultimately — if the keyboard is quite a lot better than the QuickPad, the Neo is the direction I’ll probably go. Though that keyboard is going to have to be *awfully* good to beat out the QuickPad.
Now that I see what these things can do, I think the simplest method of inputting text is the best.
BTW, liked your review.
Rob Centros – Just in case you happen to get this message, I have a question. In the late 1990s I used a Quickpad IR quite happily. It eventually was replaced by a series of other devices (with ever decreasing keyboard size). I came across the old Quickpad IR the other day and thought “hmm… great keyboard…maybe I should reactivate it.” I picked up a PS2 to USB converter and plugged it in. Very disappointed – despite all my adjustments to upload speed, keyboard buffer on laptops (tried it with windows 2000, win xp and win 7 machines) the upload is unacceptably garbled (3 out of 5 words require retyping/editing on the laptop after upload). Also – “pc mode” for the upload doesn’t work at all – just ends up with a few characters followed by endless keypresses. “apple mode” works as reported above. Strange. I see on the web that some people are still using Quickpad IR and don’t seem to have as much trouble. What is your secret?
Do you know whether you can import word files onto the Alphasmart 3000 so I can edit them on the go?
William Landay says
Hi Martin. No, you can only edit plain-text files on the AlphaSmart. You can convert your Word files to plain text and import them to the AlphaSmart, which will allow you edit the content, but obviously all formatting will be lost. That’s why I use the Neo for first drafts only. At some point you have to switch over to a real word processor to do your final editing and formatting. But those are things that really only become important after you’ve produced the text to begin with.
Thanks for that, sorry about the late reply, I bought one off ebay and it is fantastic, the fact that it starts when you press on and you can get into writing in 2 seconds has got to be the thing that makes you want to write as opposed to thinking I can’t be bothered. People always give it a double take when they see it, “What is it? Is it a Laptop – no is it a kindle – no, oh well better get back to my Iphone.”
Bill Landay says
Congratulations, Martin. Happy writing. Remember, the blank page is less intimidating when it’s just a tiny window on the AlphaSmart.