And so it ends. The AlphaSmart Neo is no more, not that anybody noticed.
I am writing these words on such a funny little device; an AlphaSmart Neo. It is a machine from another time. Here’s a picture:
(This ‘picture’ was made by lying my Neo on an A4 flatbed scanner, so it gives a good idea of the size — a bit bigger than an A4 page — and of course it looks lousy, but I am lazy. Better pictures elsewhere.)
So what it is is a keyboard with a small(ish) LCD screen. The screen holds, depending on choice of font, between three and six lines of text. The keyboard is full sized and responsive. The machine has no internet capability, no text formatting capability (I just type _italics_ and *bold*) and no backlight. It needs external light but also works in full sunlight, unlike a laptop. It runs on 3 AA batteries. I’ve had mine for a year, bought on ebay, and have not yet had to replace the batteries.
They’re not being made anymore. I won’t pretend I am surprised. They are designed for creation of content, and most of us a predominantly consumers of content — even creators of it consume more than they create, unless maybe they are J. E. MacDonnell or Lionel Fanthorpe.
Strengths of the Neo:
* Instant on. Almost as instant as a pocket calculator. Great for taking a quick note, and in fact these things are sometime referred to as ‘note takers’.
* Huge battery life. LCD screen is monochrome and like a big calculator screen — which I don’t mind but some might not like — but draws very little current. Go on holiday for a week, or hiking into the bush, and never need to recharge.
* No need to save. Convulsively hit Ctrl-S? Forget it. It feels funny not doing it, but the Neo remembers character-by-character.
* Robust. Small screen, no hinges. I just stuff it into bag with my logbooks, netbook and other gizmos.
* Compatibility: To get files off it, I plug it into a computer, any computer with USB: It mounts itself as a USB keyboard, so I just open my favourite editor/word processor and hit ‘send’ and it types my file into the application. Very handy for writing blog posts then dumping them straight into the web interface.
* The usual built-in tools. Spell check, word count, cut, paste, etc. Holds at least 8 active documents, and can send directly to (some) PCL printers.
* I can upload files to it to work on — but see below…
* It cannot browse the web, so can avoid distractions of email and web browsing, and actually get some work done.
* It cannot browse the web so fact-checking and research is inhibited.
* Limited screen real-estate makes it lousy for editing. It is really for first thoughts, initial drafting on the go. Second draft is much better on desktop to laptop.
* No real formatting capability. Sometimes a document just does not work without the formatting. As a scientist I write a lot of documents with equations and subscripts and the like. It is useless at that. I can try entering LaTeX code into it directly, but I’m likely to make a lot of errors that I can’t remedy till I download the text and try to compile it.
* No graphics, none. Not any. Again, limits the kinds of documents that can be prepared on it.
* Similarly, no fancy utilities like reference management or anything.
* To get files onto it I have to download and run an application from the manufacturer, and it only works on windows as far as I can tell. I’ve tried using wine and a virtual machine, but so far no luck.
What the Neo excels at is creation of plain text in almost any location. Even if the larger document is complex and highly formatted, I can knock out a few useful paragraphs and just dump them into the full document when I get back to the office.
It is good for knocking out badly-thought-out blog posts while watching TV, since it sits nicely on my lap. It is good for working on in bed, since it does not get hot (have you ever put a Macbook on your lap? You need an asbestos blanket!). The keyboard is pretty good to type on, although the placement of the delete key is not what I am used to.
In short, for someone who writes a lot of text for a wide range of purposes, but does not have the luxury of working in their well-organised office whenever it suits them, the Neo is quite likely to fill a niche.
Commercially, it’s traditional markets are, apparently, schools, particularly those where the students have issues with literacy and the simplicity and inflexibility of the device become pluses.
A secondary, and much smaller, market has been writers. And people like me too, I guess.
In form factor, the Neo is descended from machines like the Kyocera/NEC/Olivetti/Tandy/Radio Shack thing from the early 80s and later the Amstrad NC100, and was manufactured in parallel with the Dana, all rather hybrid halfway-houses between word processor and portable computer, some more the former, some more the latter. All sharing the benefits and limits of screens that draw little power but are monochrome and of low resolution. All with devoted but small bands of followers.
The ‘small’ is important, because I suspect devices like this never quite manage to benefit from economies of scale. Sales are just not that big. Compared to a netbook or a low-end tablet, the Neo seems overpriced, underpowered and hideously outdated. It only comes into its own when typing is the central act, not reading, not editing, not browsing, not listening, not drawing, not gaming.
Hopefully, something to replace it will come along, Perhaps with an e-ink screen and a switchable backlight, perhaps with an ARM chip and an equally good keyboard, like a Raspberry Pi built into an IBM M. But for now there are plenty of second hand versions for sale, more than enough, I suspect, to, for some years yet, fulfil the needs of the small handful of devotees who want to be able to sit at a park bench, or hike into the wilderness, and type.