Alphasmart Neo Review

November 14, 2009

Alphasmart Neo

Imagine sitting down to write and not having to wait for your laptop to boot up. Imagine simply pressing a single ON button and jumping instantly to the last place in your story where you left off. Imagine 700 hours of typing time on just three AAA batteries or 30 hours on a rechargeable powerpack. Imagine the increased productivity of not having distracting access to games or the internet. Imagine not having to worry about saving a file because every single keystroke you make is automatically saved as you make it…

You’re imagining the Alphasmart Neo.

The Neo is a tool designed primarily for classrooms, a durable, simplistic “laptop” for education purposes, but it is also the perfect tool for portable writing. It is basically a keyboard with a screen built into it, rugged, very basic, and perfect for the on-the-go fiction writer.

Needless to say, when I heard about the Neo I had to have one, so I scraped up my pennies and purchased one. Since you can’t buy them in stores this was a blind buy from online, something I’m not personally very comfortable with; in this age of crappy build quality, I generally like to touch and feel a product before I drop cash on it. But when my Neo arrived promptly – just one day after placing the order – I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised. It was well packed, well built, and all the components were there. For the first time in just about as long as I can remember, I felt like I’d got my money’s worth from a company.

So on with a quick review, for anyone who might be considering one…

First up, it’s light… 1.75lbs. Even lighter than a typical Netbook, but it feels tough in your hands, like you could drop it and not worry about breaking it, which for a klutz like me is a very good thing. The Neo provides a comfortable and quiet, full size keyboard, which was much easier for me to type on than even a standard laptop keyboard. It has enough storage room for about 130,000 words – a good sized novel. I’m discovering that it’s very intuitive to use. I didn’t even have to refer to the instruction manual to get started on it. I basically hit the ON key after I’d put the batteries in and I was typing within seconds.

It comes with a CD of software called “Alphasmart Manager” that you install on your PC. After that, you plug in the Neo with the provided USB cable, hit “send” and your whole story dumps straight into Word. Not too shabby at all. You can also send word documents to your Neo and control the settings from the software, but I haven’t messed with that much yet so I can’t comment on it.

On the slightly negative side, all the pictures I’d looked at of the Neo online made it out to be black, or at least a deep, tasteful green. So I was a little surprised when I pulled it out of the box and found it to be a fairly ugly forest/olive green instead. In the name of accuracy, I Photoshopped the pictures you see in this review to more accurately reflect the color. Not that the color really matters for such an awesome writing tool of course, but I can’t for the life of me figure out why the company didn’t just go for a sleek black paint job instead of an offensive green.

So the color is one little gripe, and a very minor one at that. The only other small issue is that the Neo doesn’t have a backlight on the screen. This is not a problem in any room with even minimal lighting or outdoors where you can adjust the contrast of the LCD to be clearly visible, but if you’re wanting to write in the dark, say in a smoky bar, then you’re going to need a flashlight. I understand in part why they did this – because if you left it on it would suck your batteries dry in no time – but the option would have been nice. I can only hope they include it in a future model.

Alphasmart Neo ScreenThe LCD screen provides six lines of visible text (at its smallest setting) which I find is just right. One of my concerns before buying it was that I wouldn’t be able to see and feel the “white-space” flow of my story the same way I can on a word document, but I haven’t found it to be an issue so far, and I’ve already written 7,000 words on the thing.

Alphasmart Carry CaseFinally, for an extra $25 I purchased a portfolio style carrying case which is really quite excellent. It’s stylish and protective and has plenty of room for pens, business cards, usb drives etc.

Some writers have a hard time with distractions. I can say this with authority because I am one of them. On my home PC I’m likely to spend fifteen minutes of every “writing” hour playing on Facebook instead. But if you take the Neo to a coffee shop then you have no choice but to sit and write. You can do nothing but press that ON button and let your imagination fly, and to me, that’s priceless.