Writing on a single-purpose device

Neo 2

A little more than two months ago, I bought an AlphaSmart Neo2 - a positively ancient single-purpose computer that works like a plain-text word processor. What spurred me to make the $39 dollar purchase on Ebay was a review which claimed the Neo turned the reviewer into a novelist. I read the review with skepticism, but on the whole, Forty dollars is too cheap for me not to mess around with a new electronic gadget, especially considering I won’t be contributing to e-waste.

The results are in. This thing (I am typing on it right now!) is cool as hell. It has a 7-inch monochromatic LCD screen, and a 8 “file” storage bank, it only lets you do one thing, write! It’s basically a digital typewriter.

I’ve used it for writing every day for the last two months, and I can honestly say that it helps me focus my thoughts. The screen can show only the most recent sentence, give or take, which forces you to remember where you are in your writing. It also helps you just write without thinking about spelling, or editing. This is something I struggle with when using a regular word processor. It’s hard not to correct my spelling, punctuation, or grammar. Or just try the most recent sentence again. With the Neo2, it’s easy not to do that.

Another useful feature of the device is that it gives me a physical space for certain ideas. I take notes on my phone, on a pocket jot-book, a notebook, on my computer through NotationVelocity, code or spreadsheets. I’ve given up on the idea of having a central space for my notes and ideas because each one of these things gives me something different. Now I can add the Neo2 to that list. It gives me a separate physical location for my ideas. When I write down some ideas in my notebook, a part of my brain remembers them as notebook-ideas - slower ideas that need to be drawn out, diagrammed, scribbled, scratched out, or annotated. When I wrote on my computer, part of me remembers those thoughts as computer-ideas. The trouble is that I use my computer for more than 8 hours a day, so there are a lot of computer-ideas in there. It’s also filled with distractions. The impulse to tab over to a fun website, or a different application is one I’ve overcome with varying degrees of success. Ask me tomorrow, it might be different. With the Neo2, I have a new brain-category of ideas that need to be typed out in a long form. This is useful, not just because some thoughts are long-form-writing ideas, but because I can force some ideas to be more carefully thought out by using the Neo2.

If you’ve got $40, give it a shot.

Here’s the comprehensive list of cool features:

  • No little wiggle-underline indicating a misspelled word. Spell checking is for editing!
  • Spell check by walking you through word by word.
  • Can’t tab over to distracting websites.
  • Sync with computer by plugging it in. It emulates a keyboard input, and you hit the “send” button, and it re-types everything character by character, right before your eyes. It feels like the device is replaying your thoughts onto the screen.
  • Three font sizes: small, medium, large.
  • Direct connection to printer via USB.
  • Copy, paste, selection, delete all work with normal command, shift, and arrow keys.
  • Uses three AA batteries. Had to change them once for after using it an hour a day for two months.
  • Display shows battery level on start up.