Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

Further Thoughts on Writing the Alphasmart Way

by Andre · 4 Comments

Neo in Car 250 x 200A few weeks ago I wrote about my raw experiences with a used Alphasmart 3000 (AS3K) I picked up for a song on eBay. In theory, the AS3K is an ideal writing instrument: essentially a paperless typewriter with no network access or media player of any kind. It’s just under two pounds, has an LCD embedded directly in the casing of the keyboard, and uses 3 AA batteries to yield a 700 hour battery life. It’s not uncommon for writers to go for a year without changing batteries.

In the same article, I hinted at some dissatisfaction with it. Some writers continue to use the 3000, and would replace it with the same discontinued model if anything happened to theirs. The newer models don’t solve any problems they had with the 3000. The main problem for me is that I hated the heavy action of the keyboard. I would describe my typing more as banging, and my vain hope that further use would break the keys in was vain indeed.

Then there were a couple of smaller problems. The LCD is fairly narrow, displaying four lines of text, which can get a little claustrophobic. For some writers this is a dealbreaker. For me it was a “narrowly” acceptable constraint. The translucent bondi-blue chassis that was fashionable industrial design in the late Nineties has a Fisher-Price factor that made me slightly self-conscious about using it in public.

Then there was the AS3K’s infrared file transfer. Files can be transferred wirelessly via IR to a PC, but not to a PDA or smartphone. I wanted to be able to beam my writing directly to my Palm Centro, where I could email it for downloading to my laptop.

Upgrading to the Neo

After deliberating between Alphasmart’s current models, I opted for the Neo 2. The two main contenders were the Neo and the Dana. The Dana is based on an earlier version of the Palm OS, and as such runs any Palm application that’s compatible with black-and-white Palm devices — still thousands of titles. There’s even a wireless version of the Dana. The older browser does a poor job of handling today’s graphics-intensive websites, but the Dana is a good choice for anyone with managing email as a priority. The Dana’s higher-resolution screen enables it to run WYSIWYG word processing apps, whereas all other Alphasmarts use unformatted text.

I chose the Neo over the Dana because:

  • The Dana’s screen contrast is noticeably softer. While the Neo’s display lacks the Dana’s backlight, its contrast is sharp enough to be readable in virtually all environments I would consider writing in
  • The Dana has a 30 hour battery life. That’s impressive by laptop standards, but the Neo’s 700 hour battery life is the difference between not having to think about the battery at all, and monitoring it during the week
  • The Neo’s simplicity. Having no internet access or other software to run means no crutch activities at hand to avoid writing
  • The Dana’s deprecated Palm OS 4.1. While the back catalogue of compatible Palm applications won’t vanish for at least a year, newer releases are unlikely to run on the Dana

What’s the point?

Many writer’s don’t see the point of buying an over-$200 keyboard exclusively for word processing when they could buy a laptop with dozens of additional features for under twice the price.

Writing on a Neo is more like writing on a legal pad than on a laptop. When it’s the only tool you have available, it never occurs to you that you could be doing something else, reinforcing my believe that constraints are more reliable than self-discipline.

Often when I’m in the middle of a sentence when writing on the Neo, I’ll reflexively pause at a point where I lack a certain piece of knowledge I think I need to continue. On a laptop, I’ll switch to the browser and do a quick lookup before continuing. On the Neo that’s not an option, so I have to either restructure the sentence to bypass the need for the fact, or write a note to look it up after finishing the draft and add it retroactively.

Quite often the fact that I “needed” to look up was gratuitous anyway, and each time I have to add information afterward, I learn more clearly that I need to do my research more rigorously on the front end. My goal is to reach the point where I can complete a draft entirely offline, with printouts as my only reference. I never had trouble avoiding “just-in-time learning” in the early Nineties, before the age of ubiquitous internet access, when I did all of my drafting in longhand.

Due to the Neo’s instant-on and its lack of a cumbersome clamshell form factor, I can take advantage of windows of time that I would never consider with a laptop. A couple of days ago I parked in front of a restaurant where I was supposed to meet a friend for dinner. While I was still in the car, she called to tell me she would be 10 to 20 minutes late, so I immediately took out the Neo and proceeded to write for the next 30 minutes before she showed up, typing right in the driver’s seat. No walking to a nearby café for a table, no time lost to operating system boot-up.

Interestingly, when I do write with the Neo in a café, I no longer feel the need to drown out the establishment’s loud music with headphones and iTunes. I think I do this on laptops (a) because I can and (b) because I need one distraction from the laptop to sublimate the impulse to jump online or indulge in another distraction. It’s as though by using the laptop at least as a jukebox, I’m getting my money’s worth.

Human factors

Oh, and then there’s the keyboard. For many writers, the fluid action of a well balanced pen or well designed keyboard has an almost erotic satisfaction. Far from avoiding writing, I’ll often create work for myself just to have an excuse to type on the Neo. Unlike the Alphasmart 3000, which seems like resistance training for typists, the keys on the Neo have the best travel of any keyboard I’ve worked on since the TRS-80 Model 100, and have that wonderful light click I love to hear while typing.

The Neo also features a 50% larger display than the AS3K. The font sizes are adjustable so that it’s possible to see anywhere from two to six lines at a time. The AS3K’s fixed font size renders a constant four lines. This means that in most cases, I’m able to view enough of a paragraph to see it as a compositional element. Some writers find that this is still too small; they need a whole page view for an effective sense of perspective. Most writers find that an Alphasmart is excellent for writing, but unacceptable for editing. Editing is difficult on the Neo, but not impossible. Since the Neo supports direct printing, I’ll often print out my drafts and edit on paper.

One of the biggest advantages of writing with a Neo is what’s often considered a disadvantage: the lack of a backlight. You’re not staring into a light source. The Neo’s LCD is more like that of a pocket calculator than a laptop, so it’s possible to look into it for hours without getting eye strain. I can imagine some low-light situations where the Neo’s display would be a liability, like taking notes during a PowerPoint presentation, but since it never occurs to me to write in the dark, the lack of a backlight is a nonissue.

So what’s not to like?

The Neo is solidly constructed (I’ve dropped mine twice without incident), but the molding process needs better quality control. When I receive my Neo, the unit would rock when I typed due to a slightly raised corner. Looking up the issue in a forum, I discovered that rocking Neos are not rare. Many users have attached small adhesive pads underneath one of the Neo’s feet.

I followed the recommendation of one intrepid user who bent the entire keyboard into proper alignment. Though many forum commenters were aghast, it sounded more reasonable than sending it back for what would possibly be another problematic keyboard. So I bent the Neo, and it fixed the rocking problem in five minutes.

All Alphasmart keyboards are designed for and sold to the educational market. The fact that writers rhapsodize about them doesn’t seem to influence their design. My biggest gripe is the lack of any outliner. Alphasmart’s cathedral model of software development keeps the hacker community from extending the Neo’s functionality.

Years ago, an applet (or “SmartApplet”) called Inspiration Outliner was developed for the AS3K, but Alphasmart stopped including it after discovering how little it was used. Their demographics came from elementary school students, not writers, and though I’m not a teacher, it would seem that outlining isn’t taught as universally as it was when I was a kid. That’s too bad, since digital outliners are nowhere near as rigid as paper outlines. The ability to reorganize line items on the fly makes them great brainstorming tools, and consequently they’re frequently called thought processors. Chalk up one for the Dana — you’re not off my radar entirely.

The lack memory card support is another annoyance. The legacy IR transfer is poorly implemented in my opinion, right down to the awkwardly angled alignment of the transmitter. The Dana, on the other hand, makes it easy to stick in an SD card and sneakernet your files over to your PC without the hassle of USB cables. Chalk up two for the Dana.

Conclusion

Despite the absolute simplicity of the Neo, I’m still in a learning curve. I have to recover the ability I once had to write without an ocean of information at my fingertips, which means I have to be more disciplined at the research and outlining phases. I also need to be more on the lookout for windows of time that were impractical with a laptop — sometimes I recognize them, sometimes I don’t. After I finish a couple of writing deadlines this month, I’m going to spend a week writing on the Neo exclusively and report back.

Tags: Technology

Comments

  • Greg ClintonNo Gravatar // May 27, 2008 at 9:36 pm

    Brings back fond memories of the manual typewriter I used in college.

  • Charlie Gilkey | Productive FlourishingNo Gravatar // Jun 3, 2008 at 2:56 pm

    You’ve peaked my curiosity on this one, Andre. I doubt I’ll be a word processor, but I love the insights. Let me explain:

    I can no longer write in Word. There are far too many distractions and it just doesn’t do it for me.

    I switched to Mellel, and I liked it better than Word, but it wasn’t the rough tool I was looking for. I still use it for polishing my papers, but the rough writing award goes to…

    Textmate. I love that there are no toolbars, sidebars, or any other widgets to mess with. Just a screen and simple key commands.

    I’ve tried Writeroom, which is much like Q10, but I still did too much fidgeting. For my workflow, nothing beats Textmate.

    The ability to keep my hands on the keys (via key commands), focus on the writing (no toolbars, sidebars, wordcounts, etc.), and such in many ways give me the simplicity of the word processors you mention.

    And I write on a Macbook – so my screen is small enough that I can’t have fifteen applications open at once. I shut Mail.app off – it doesn’t autocheck anyway, but having it there makes me wonder – turn on my trusty, no-fiddle background playlist, and get rockin’. The battery lasts as long as my ability to focus on one piece, anyway, so there’s no need to worry there either.

    It works really well for me, but I’ve mustered some self-discipline and don’t have to consciously fight off the distractions.

    Great review – not being able to sneakernet data would be a showstopper for me on any word processor. Is it too much to ask for a USB port to thumbdrive on the wordprocessor itself?

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Jun 3, 2008 at 3:26 pm

    The USB port seems like a no-brainer. The Neo is essentially a keyboard with a text buffer, so you’re not really moving a saved file from a mountable directory to the PC’s hard drive. Its text files get dumped into an empty document. The output streams across the screen one character at a time, though rapidly. With Q10′s typewriter sound effects, transferring text is rather like those science fiction films of the Seventies.

    I think the real issue for Alphasmart is the company’s target market: elementary schools. I suspect the typical use case in a classroom setting is distributing the keyboards before a group assignment or test (additional rubrics and quiz applets are the selling point of the Neo 2), then collecting them afterward; so there’s no need for the majority of users to transfer files to a PC via memory card.

  • Kevin MillsNo Gravatar // Oct 20, 2008 at 9:01 am

    Great review! I finally hunkered down & grabbed a used Dana Wireless on eBay for under $100 (there’s still some left, FYI, if you do a search. Here’s the seller’s link: http://tinyurl.com/5gkta5)

    I can’t wait to enjoy the freedom of composition without distractions (or a burning hot MacBook on my thighs). :)

    Kevin