Sunday, November 11, 2012


I am writing this on my newest writing 'tool': an AlphaSmart Neo. (I'm the first to admit that I often have trouble distinguishing the difference between a tool and a toy. But it lends more cache when we refer our toys as tools.) It's pretty awesome so far.

I went through an Android tablet phase a while back. One of the main things I tried to make work was a system for writing on the tablet, so I could do things like write my Sunday morning blog post in bed on Sunday morning. I also wanted to be able to write fiction on the go (at least first drafts). I installed a pretty decent text editor called Jota (none of the web browser played nicely with Blogspot, so I had to do the text of my posts in a separate application). I got a nice portable USB keyboard. I was able to do a few posts this way, but eventually gave up due to the clunky nature of the whole enterprise. Plus, I really hadn't achieved the portability I wanted.

In the spirit of fairness, I will note that battery life for tablets is generally quite impressive. Also, the keyboard, a very Apple-ish one sold by Perixx, is wonderful. I have several Perixx keyboards and they are all well made an fairly priced. Also also, in my limited experience, Jota (now available as Jota+) is the best free text editor on the Android platform.

Side note -- I've pretty much abandoned any hope that Android will become a worthwhile operating system any time soon, being basically an attempt to remove functions from Linux then charge the end user to reinstate them. And the constant, intrusive, usage, data, and identity tracking is creepy. DRMania. But that's a whole 'nother post.

I've seen AlphaSmarts, the Neo2 mainly, which from a writer's point of view is functionally identical to the older Neo, advertised on various writing websites occasionally. I always thought the device was a rip-off. At around $170 USD for a keyboard attached to a glorified calculator screen, I'm still pretty solid in that assessment. I do understand that their primary market is a niche educational one, so I don't fault them for the high price. Economics is what it is.

But I certainly wasn't interested.

However, a chance comment by a writing acquaintance (about her AlphaSmart) ignited an interest in them. I am an obsessive person, and sometimes a nudge is all it takes :) I did some research and found out that older AlphaSmart were often sold in online auctions for much cheaper than the retail price. And the more I read about how other writers used them and how well they worked as portable first-draft machines, the more interested I became.

I found one for $55, emailed the link to my wife as an X-mas present suggestion, and she ordered it immediately. IMHO, the retail should be a lot closer to that price. If It wasn't intended as a present (a splurge, if you will), and if I didn't have a narrow-focus writerly use for it, I wouldn't have asked for it at all.

We have a lot of trouble holding on to gifts in my household. Life is short. My wife gave me the Neo as soon as it arrived, a few days ago. Thanks, babe. You're the bee's knees.

I've written at least 5k on it so far. It's definitely helping me make the most of my time for NaNoWriMo. And it makes the perfect Sunday morning blog draft machine. Assuming I continue to get the same level of use out of it, it will definitely be worth every penny.

The Neo is light, easily portable, and totally self-contained. The keyboard feels great. It gets 700 hours of battery life out of three AAs. Boot-up time is about a second. It opens in the last file I was working on, exactly where I left off. It saves every keystroke. When I'm on the go, I'm basically using it for the notes and ideas I would've written out longhand and had to type up later. It's a real time-saver in that sense.

I love it.

It's not perfect. The screen is a reflective LCD, so the text is black on light green. No backlight. I installed some add-on fonts that unexpected_human made (do a search for them if you have a Neo, highly recommended), so I can do as many as 11 lines of teeny-tiny text, but ultimately there is no way to fit enough legible text onscreen to do more than light editing. Even with larger fonts and much less text visible, I get more eyestrain than I would using a PC and decent sized monitor.

The screen limitations are forcing me to think in a different way when I write, to plan ahead and hold more structure in my head. I think it will be beneficial for my writing on the whole in the the long run. I think I can learn to do drafts that don't require heavy revision, but I don't expect to ever turn out finished copy on the Neo. But for notes and first drafts, it's a welcome addition to my arsenal.

Batman says "Boom!"

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