AlphaSmart Neo

Last year about this time, I ended up dissing laptop alternatives such as the AlphaSmart 3000 or the QuickPad. I liked the AlphaSmart 3000, but the display was just not up to snuff for serious word processing. The QuickPad had a better display, but a number of other issues (including, IMO, an unstable OS) that rendered it less than ideal. Last year I was recommending buying a laptop or, for a truly ultraportable writing environment, going with a PDA and keyboard combination. The best laptop alternative at that time was the AlphaSmart Dana, but by the time you paid $400+ for that, you could buy a color PDA plus keyboard.

I’m still a big fan of ultra-light (but generally ultra-expensive) laptops and the PDA+keyboard option, but the AlphaSmart Neo has changed my mind about the usefulness of laptop alternatives for word processing.

The Neo pretty much solves all the problems I run into with word processing away from my desktop. First, it’s got an incredibly long battery life. AlphaSmart claims it can get up to 700 hours off of three AAs. I’ll update this page when I actually have to change batteries to give my estimates.

Second, it’s got a full-sized keyboard that I like better than the AlphaSmart 3000 or Quickpad in a very small and light form factor.

Finally, while it’s stuck with a non-backlit monochorome LCD display, it has an adjustable font feature so you can figure it to display two lines of very large text all the way through six lines of smaller text (still very readable, however, even at the smallest setting.) You really need to see six lines of text — about 50-60 words — to write long, complex documents.

The Neo has 512mb of memory, which can’t be expanded. It would have been nice to see an SD card slot, but 512k is plenty of space for straight text files (a back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests thats close to 350 double-spaced pages, so unless you’re planning to write a novel at one sitting . . .)

Like the AlphaSmart 3000, it hooks up to a desktop and you can send files as a dedicated keyboard — i.e., open up your text processor, hit send, and the keyboard “types” out your file. In addition, the Neo includes the AlphaSmart Manager which allows direct transfer of files which is far more useful (I *hated* the AlphaSmart 3000’s reliance on emulating a keyboard to transfer files, especially given any number of Windows’ programs habit of rudely interrupting the current program and changing the program context).

Finally, the price is right at about $250 — $230 if you’re with an educational institution.

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