2.19.2010

The AlphaSmart NEO and Me: A FAQ Review

Back in January, I gushed with anticipation over my newly ordered toy: a portable word processor, the AlphaSmart NEO. I have since had a few weeks to play with it and am happy to answer questions. If you have any that aren't covered here, leave a comment!


1. How easy was this to order and did everything arrive in working condition?
The Neo-Direct website is very straightforward and no-frills. I think this was a plus. Sometimes you just want to order your damn item and move on with life. Myriad graphics and links are not necessary. The NEO model is $169 (or $192 for the rechargeable model, which I think is unnecessary, but more on that later) and shipping is $10.95. I think this is very fair. I received an order receipt about 30 minutes after I ordered the device and a shipping confirmation a day or two later. The package arrived on my doorstep about a week after I ordered it, as advertised, and it was packaged very well. The box contained the unit, 2 CDs, a USB cord, and a very easy to read instruction manual.


2. How light and/or thin is the NEO?

The NEO weighs about a pound and a half. It is a little heavier where the screen is, but it is lighter than my computer keyboard. It is also about a half-inch at its thinnest, and about an two inches at the screen. The NEO is about as portable as a notebook...of paper.


3. How durable is the NEO?
Granted, I have not dropped it yet and I really don't intend to test it out, but other reviews state that the NEO can survive a 4-foot drop. Just from a standard usage standpoint, the device is incredibly sturdy. I am not the most gentle typist, but the keyboard can take the beatings I give it with no trouble at all. There is no reason to think that with regular use, the NEO couldn't last several years. There is no complicated software to bog it down, and you can order replacement keyboards for them.


4. I'm concerned about the small screen on the NEO. I'm so used to typing on a big monitor at home. Does that get in your way at all?
This was also my main concern about purchasing one of these devices. I have a 19-inch monitor, and I am used to being able to see an entire page of words before me as I type. Let me explain why, ultimately, the screen size became a non-issue for me.
First, it's not nearly as inhibiting as you might think. The NEO screen displays 4 lines. AlphaSmart has a DANA line that displays 6-8. It is easy enough to scroll up through the document or use the "Find" function to skip around your document. I have not missed being able to see more lines of my document at a time, and in fact find it to be less of a distraction, which brings me to my second point:
The reason I bought the NEO was to write first drafts. I didn't buy it to revise or read my work. I bought it to get from Point A to Point Z. All the rest will happen on my regular computer. On a first draft, the only thing that should really and truly matter is what you can see on those 4 lines in front of you.


5. But what about the display brightness? Is it an issue in low-light?
If I could ask for one thing on this unit, it would be a backlight. However, the lack of light has only been an issue while trying to use it in my living room in the evening with only one lamp on across the room. Even with a backlight, the lighting conditions would have been less than ideal. Otherwise, the brightness of the screen is not an issue. The contrast is good (and adjustable) and the default font is big (and also adjustable). I use it at the office and in my house, and at no point have my eyes felt the strain.


6. Is the lack of a pointing device a problem? I can't do anything without drop-down menus, icons, and a clicker!
Pish-posh! A mouse is unnecessary on the NEO. Standard keyboard shortcuts for highlighting (shift + arrows), copying (ctrl + C), cutting (ctrl + X), and pasting (ctrl + V) apply. The bottom of the device has additional shortcut commands written on it for a thesaurus, word count, find/replace, and changing the font size. Buttons exist separately for printing and spell check.


7. How many files can you store on the NEO?
The NEO has 8 file slots. When you turn it on, it goes immediately to where you were last typing, which is something that not even the latest version of MS Word can do for you without a macro (lame!). Each file slot holds a maximum 51,200 characters or about 25 pages. Most novel writers designate each file slot to a chapter and then upload it into one big document when they are done. I have not yet tested the memory capacity of this device on my own writing, having only written short stories on it up to date.*


8. Speaking of uploading, how easy is it?
When you want to transfer a file on your NEO to your computer, you connect the device with your USB cord and press "Send." BUT (and this is important, because I learned this lesson the hard way the first time I tried it), you have to have your preferred word processing program open first. Because the NEO aims to be truly universal, it uploads files not as a storage device, but as a virtual keyboard. This means that it will simply "type" each line into the Word (or OpenOffice or whatever) document you have open. If you DON'T have Word open when you press Send, it will type the words in any field you have available, whether it's your internet address bar, Blogger/Wordpress window, or whatever. So, when you're uploading files, you really can't do anything else with your computer that involves typing. It also can take awhile. I estimate that the device probably "types" at about 200wpm, so you do the math on about how long it will take for your whole book to upload. Some people may be annoyed by this, but it's not a huge deal. If it didn't do it this way, it would cause a whole lot more software conflicts. So just be thankful and go make a pot of coffee or cook dinner while it does its thing.

By the way, the document will upload in your program's default font, but you will need to edit the tabs out (very important for those looking to properly format a manuscript) and reset your margins and line spacing. In other words, the NEO is not a formatting device.


9. But I want to transfer something I started on my computer and finish it on the NEO. Can I do this?
Absolutely. The unit comes with a CD containing the AlphaSmart Manager software. Run the exe file and it will do a very quick install. Under the "Alpha Files to Send" tab, you can cut and paste your work to the proper field. Then click on the "Send List" tab and click the "Send" button. A word of caution. Make sure you check the box on the screen that designates which file slot the Manager will send the work to on the NEO, otherwise it will default to File 1 and overwrite whatever you might have there. I learned that the hard way too. Thankfully it wasn't too heartbreaking. I noticed the first time I tried transferring it that it didn't show up on the device, but after the second shot, it worked great. I don't know if this is a fluke or not, but further use should bear this out.

The NEO also supports infrared transfers back and forth between devices or between your computer and the NEO, or from the NEO to your printer, provided of course that your computer and/or printer has an infrared receiver. I have yet to play with this particular feature, but will let you know when I do.


10. Does the NEO have any other features besides just the word processor?
Yes. Because these devices were originally designed for the classroom setting, there are a few different applets preinstalled, such as one for making quizzes. There is also calculator and the ability to set passwords. In the Control Panel, there are options for adjusting screen brightness and keyboard layout. There are QWERTY, Dvorak, and One-Hand (right or left) settings. You can also set a delay before it accepts characters, etc. The NEO is built for users of every age and ability level and can even be connected to a Text2Speech device.


11. How's battery life?
That is, I think, the best selling point of the NEO (and its sister devices). The NEO runs on three AA batteries, and reportedly they can last more than 700 hours at one go, which is roughly 698 hours longer than a laptop can last on a single charge. And when the batteries die, they are cheap to replace. Or better yet, invest in some NiMH batteries with a recharger and you will always have a fresh set ready to go. In my opinion, I wouldn't spend extra money on the "rechargeable" version of the NEO. Spend that money on a separate set of rechargeable batteries that you can also use for other things.


12. What are some gripes you have about the device?
Some have complained that the "On" button is too easy to press and that there is no locking mechanism for the keyboard. However, this is not true. While there is a One-Button On option, you can also go in through the Applets menu and into the Control Panel and choose an option that will allow you to turn on the device by first holding down "Enter" and then pressing "On." This is just as good as a Lock button. Still, you should get a carrying case and not stack things on top of your NEO. This will not only preserve the condition of the device, but also prevent it from turning on unexpectedly.


13. Would you truly recommend this device for writers?
In a heartbeat. I am so happy I purchased the NEO. As I discussed before, when I was pricing new laptops, I had a sinking feeling in my gut that I wasn't so much buying a writing machine as I was buying a $600+ distraction FROM writing. Others might not have this problem, but given what I have learned about myself as a writer and as someone with a weaker-than-average attention span, this is the best electronic investment I have ever made for myself as an author. The NEO is ultra portable, durable, and attractive (I have gotten a lot of compliments on it already). Netbooks and laptops are great for email and internet usage, but I can now do most of those things on my cell phone. The NEO has all I need to write anything from a blog to a short story to an epic novel without any shiny doodads to get in my way. $169 well spent.
*Correction: I had originally stated that the Neo's storage is 200 pages per file slot. In fact, it is roughly 20 pages, or 51,200 characters. Thank you to commenter John below for correcting me on this!

25 comments:

  1. Interesting. I still write my first drafts in a DOS-based version of XyWrite (now defunct word processing software). I love it because it lets me keep each chapter in a separate file and stil print them one after the other with continuous pagination. It's all keyboard/coammand line based ad provides a fast way to just pound out text. Once I've finished the first draft, I run a macro to transfer it to Word and still preserve most of the formatting. You are quite right that the needs of a first draft are very different from the revision stage. I actually loathe Word but it has become a standard, unfortunately.

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  2. Great review! The portability and battery life are the big draws for me on this device. When my daughter gets a little older she'll start writing papers for school, and this would be just right for that. Also, if you ever have to wait for your kid during lessons or practice it would be good for that, too. Easy on and off, unlike a laptop.

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  3. Really inspiring review.

    I really appreciate your comment about the "$600+ distraction FROM writing". So true.

    I write on a bare-bones word-processor in Windows. I know when I'm writing and I know when I'm flighting. The ratio isn't exactly perfect but I'm working on that, and a rhyme for ratio.

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  4. I love hearing how everyone writes their stuff! IT seems we all have our own really unique techniques.

    Karen -- I would probably be using OpenOffice right now if I hadn't gotten Word 2007. It totally changed the interface and actually made it better, particularly for editing. Because of that, I find I am unable to leave it behind. So until they add some additional plug ins to make OpenOffice or some other open source word processor as editor-friendly as Word '07, I'm stuck. :(

    Sherri -- I am going to get one for the kids too! I think it's perfect for them. I also love the portability. I could take the thing camping if I wanted to. I still have the same batteries in it when I got it, and the indicator is still at about 97%.

    Anton -- I find I can still edit and revise on my regular PC with no problem, but there is just something about finishing that first draft that has to be done apart from everything else.

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  5. I LOVE my Neo--it is GREAT for first draft writing.

    Instant-on operating system, GREAT keyboard, perfect for stream of conscious writing, batteries last forever (I got my Neo in November and my original set of three AA batteries are still at 96%!!!).

    This is my third AlphaSmart and the Neo is wonderful.

    I bought an older version, the AlphSmart 3000 back in 2001, upgraded to the AlphaSmart Dana back in 2008--this has a larger screen and runs an older version of the Palm operating system but I was only using it as a glorified word processor.

    The AS 3000 was a God-send at the time but I find the keyboard tends to be a little too stiff. Still, reliable, perfect for "on the go" writing, instant on, durable (endured many falls over the years with no damage), use anywhere, batteries last for 200 hours. And now CHEAP on Ebay.

    The Dana is a nice machine but its screen is too dim to use in all but perfect lighting--there is a backlight, but it drains the batteries quickly, so you only get about 20-30 hours out of a set of AA batteries. But the keyboard is great and it has smartcard slots, so you can save your files to a memory card, which is a nice touch.

    The Neo itself is sheer simplicity, a great minimalist writing tool.

    One way I edit is to print my documents (just connect the Neo to a printer by USB cable and hit print). I hand mark my corrections and then edit the file--which is the same work-flow I use for traditional word processing documents on my PC.

    There is a software package online that allows the Neo to display more than four lines of text:

    Just go to www.flickr.groups/alphasmart and do a search for "unexpected human's fonts" -- this member created several optional fonts that allow 6-9 lines to be displayed on the Neo's screen. (He also has Klingon!) I personally prefer 6 or 7 lines--not hard on the eyes but many more words are displayed.)

    Great review!

    Bill Smith
    Author of the Outlaw Galaxy series
    http://www.BillSmithBooks.com
    billsmithbooks.blogspot.com

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  6. My bad, bad link in my post:

    www.flickr.com/groups/alphasmart

    Or go directly to the thread link:

    http://www.flickr.com/groups/alphasmart/discuss/72157594184501348/?search=unexpected+human+fonts

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  7. Wow Bill! It's awesome to meet a fellow Neo user and to get even more tips! That's fantastic about the fonts especially. I am definitely going to check them out!

    I should have mentioned the instant-on thing even more. That is really the beauty of the machine right there. It turns on like a calculator. Absolutely love it.

    Thank you for coming by!

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  8. Great review, Allison. I have used a Neo 2 for draft writing for a couple of years now. At 57, it actually allowed me to write and finish a whole novel ( agree with you on Word 2007 for editing-- Novel has been through 3 drafts)

    Wanted to clarify one thing about the Neo's memory (same for both Neo and Neo 2-- Neo 2's additional memory is only for classroom stuff, not files). Each file space is set by default to a minimum of 512 characters and a maximum of 51,200 characters (about 25 pages). You can muck with these settings using the Alphasmart Manager and up the max filesize to 102,400 characters (about 50 pages). However, there is probably not much point in doing so as the Amount of memory in the Neo stays fixed.

    My approach is a chapter per filespace. I keep up to two previous chapters on the Neo for reference and offload previous chapters. I then use a filespace for notes that occur to me as I am writing and maybe one more for character notes.

    Cheers for putting out the good word. Drop by the Flikr Alphasmart board sometime. Someone there picked up on this review, which is how I found it.

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  9. Thank you for the clarification on the memory space, John! I will make the changes. I was going off the top of my head and even thought I might have been overestimated. I was running late getting out to see Shutter Island yesterday, so checking that particular fact fell by the wayside. lol

    I'll drop by the boards for sure!

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  10. I am thinking about buying a Neo and wondering if there is a difference between the Neo and Neo2. I read somewhere that the cursor was difficult to see with the Neo. Are there any bugs with the Neo2? They seem to be the same price in my neck of the woods.

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  11. S.J.B. -- From everything I've read, the differences between the NEO and the NEO2 are only skin deep. The NEO2 is a different color and has some other applet software, but you won't get additional data space or any major changes in the word processing software.

    As for the cursor, the only time it gets difficult to see is if you are moving it very fast (as in scrolling), but otherwise it hasn't been an issue here.

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  12. Hi Allison, Great review!

    I have a neo as well and I love it. I also do all my first drafts there. I wanted to say something about the file size. I have file right now that's just over 53K and the file is 52% full. I didn't do anything (intentionally, anyway) to change file size so maybe it's a fluke singular to my machine, but I also wanted to comment that that particular file takes a bit longer to open than my other files. 2 seconds versus 1/2 a second. A small thing but I thought you might be interested.

    Thanks for the review!

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  13. I LOVE my Neo. I've written about five novels on it, and countless short stories. It feels like a Speak & Spell, but it acts like a hardcore typewriter. The best, distraction free writing tool an author could get, other than a paper and pen.

    I've brought it to use at my local Starbucks, and I never cease to get envious looks, LOL

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  14. My Neo is like a samurai short sword, a complement to my main weaponry. It's not my computer, it's a force multiplier that extends my word processor into places it would not otherwise go, like under high noon sun at a picnic table. That monochrome display is no trouble in bright light, where laptops just wash out.

    However, I'm distraught there is no 64 bit support for the Neo. I had to replace my laptop and all the computers on the retail shelf these days are 64 bit systems - and the Neo Manager won't work.

    Keyboard mode, dumping into a word processor, still works like a champ, but I can't upload a work in progress to the Neo.

    Word has it 64 bit drivers will be out shortly. I sure hope so.

    By the way, the eight file slots aren't a limit - you can save as many files as you want. You can open any eight of them at a time.

    I can't wait for 64 bit support, particularly if I senselessly fling myself at NaNoWriMo.

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  15. Just popping back by with an update - 64 bit support is now available and works great. Woo-hoo!

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  16. Thank you everyone for the feedback and information regarding your personal experiences with the Neo. I urge anyone reading this to continue posting anything that might not have already been covered both in the article and the comments. This continues to be this website's most popular blog entry and your information will be helpful to many!

    -A

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  17. Great review. I love my NEO. Just wanted to add for anyone considering a Neo that I've had my original rechargeable Neo (not the Neo2) for just over six years now and it's still working as well as it did the day I got it. No battery problems, no data problems, nothing out of the ordinary. Over a million words worth of writing and several sales, my Neo has paid for itself several times over and shows no signs of stopping.

    The one 'problem' I do have is that the A and S stickers on the keyboard are almost completely work away. I need to find some replacements, sometime.

    Also, I picked up the neoprene case for it six years ago and the case does the job (though I've found that the case is a huge cat hair magnet). I did notice that there are branded briefcases, satchels, and the like out there for the Neo, so I may investigate one of those.

    At any rate, I love my Neo and am happy to hear others love theirs too.

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  18. Allison, you wrote: "Or better yet, invest in some NiMH batteries with a recharger and you will always have a fresh set ready to go. In my opinion, I wouldn't spend extra money on the "rechargeable" version of the NEO. Spend that money on a separate set of rechargeable batteries that you can also use for other things."

    NOOOOO, don't ever do that. I always used regular disposable AA batteries, but one day I decided to go with store bought NIMH rechargeables that I had recently got. I noticed something wrong right away when I found that the NEO was bleeding power fast. In four days, it went from 98% to 37%, which is ridiculously quick for the Neo. Then on the fifth day, I turned the NEO off after a writing session, and after that, it wouldn't turn ON!! Nothing, just a dead screen. Thankfully, it turned on temporarily when I plugged it into the computer using the USB wire (the NEO pulls charge from the computer when attached via USB) so I was at least able to extract all my writing to my computer. But after putting regular batteries back in again, it continues to refuse to power on.

    I wrote to Alpha Smart, and here's what they said: "From what you have
    described the issue could be in the battery compartment. The unit would
    require to be sent in for repair.... Also, we do
    not recommend using rechargeable AA batteries in the unit."

    There is no mention of this anywhere on their site, but I guess I'm proof that its not recommended to do this, so PLEEEASE update your article to remove that bit, incase somebody else ends up frying their beloved NEO :) (There is remote chance that the rechargeables may not have been the cause, but I can't see any other reason. I've used my Neo in all kinds of conditions for almost six years and this was the first time I used store bought rechargeables. Besides, the Alphasmart people affirmed this in their reply )

    As of this writing, I am without my Neo :(

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  19. Thank you for your review. I am looking at purchasing this for my high-functioning autistic kindergartner. The school district will provide an Alphasmart (I think an older, more limited version) but they require it back before the school year is over. I want it available to him over the summer. He very much LOVES to type and hates to write so I am thinking that this is a perfect fit

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  20. I've used a secondhand Alphasmart 3000 (the model previous to the Neo) for three or four years now and have loved it. Am just upgrading to a Neo; I'm looking forward to the larger capacity, among other things. The AS3K only holds about half as much as the Neo--12.5 pages per file for a total of around 100 pages, which is still much, much more than I am likely to fill in one sitting. At the end of a day or maybe a couple of days, I usually download my work into a regular computer for further editing and storage.

    I agree with what you said about the Alphasmart being a writing tool vs. the "distraction-from-writing tool" that a regular computer can be. It's wonderfully portable and durable as well; you might never have deliberately dropped yours just to test the manufacturer's durability claims, but I will confirm that yes, this unit can take a fall--more than one, in fact--from tabletop height to a hard floor and not appear to hold a grudge.

    A person can also keep a list of all the interesting places s/he has typed since acquiring an Alphasmart. This lightweight, battery-powered unit can go places where an ordinary laptop would be difficult or impossible to use. I especially like its versatility when I'm up against a deadline and every minute seems precious. With an Alphasmart, even a long line at the post office or the grocery store can be a writing opportunity instead of a source of frustration.

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  21. have just purchased a alphasart 3000 older version second hand from eBay. love it!!! so glad to read this post. I actually bought it for my kids to stop them fighting over the new apple we bought. was very relieved to hear it is so sturdy. am thinking already of upgrading for myself. am a novice writer who spends a lot of time on the sidelines at sports practice and can now picture myself filling in the time with a newer model. thanks for all the great posts.

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  22. I picked up the NEO about a week ago, and I based my decision heavily on your recommendations and detailed descriptions. This is exactly what I needed! I don't have time to write at home because I have a one-year-old boy to take care of, and I can't write during my breaks at work because my employer has a legal right to claim as its own anything I create on its computers. My laptop is portable, but it has all the distractions of the internet, games, and just keeping my files organized. Now I have a solution.

    With the NEO, I just turn it on and start typing. Transferring to the computer was just as smooth as you said it would be, though I'm glad I read your explanation of how it "types" the text to the computer because I caught myself several times thinking about doing some web browsing while the NEO did its transfers.

    Anyway, now I can get caught up on my journal, make some of my own blog entries, and eventually get back to my fiction projects. Thanks for the help!

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  23. I've owned a NEO for 3 years; and my granddaughter dropped it on a concrete floor - no problem. Works as if it hadn't been dropped. Fits in a backpack. Stuff it in the overhead compartment of an airplane, or under the seat; it's OK. If you want to work, it fits on the fold-down tray on the back of the seat in front of you. Use a battery-powered book light with it if there's no other light. Performs flawlessly wherever I've been. I just changed the original AA batteries; even after 3 years, they still had about 50% of their original power. Am I happy with the NEO? What do you think?

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  24. I was looking for a product I could use to write with when on the move. In the past I have used DOS laptops that were heavy - and spent most of the time worrying about the battery giving up than writing. I used a Cambridge Z88 years ago - files vanished on it - useless. A Psion Series 5 MX - good, but fragile. An Amstrad NC100 (bit like the old Tandy). But nothing has really been up to the job. I was looking for an old Psion on the Net last week and somewhere, someone mentioned the Neo. Well, less that a week later I now own one. Battery life fantasic, wonderful keyboard... I cannot believe these devices are not well known! I wish I had one years ago. I truly believe this is one of th most fantastic products ever invented for aspiring, and indeed, any other writer. I have an 8 hour coach journey tomorrow, and boy am I looking forward to it! Write on you people!

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