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Kendall Clark: AlphaSmart Neo's interesting for what it's _not_

On the Joys of Primitive Computing: The AlphaSmart Neo

I keep hearing rumblings about the AlphaSmart Neo, but haven’t put my hands to one yet. Anybody out there got one? Tried one? Seems a bit steep at $250, but I’d love to play with one (<accent belle=“southern”>Why, I declare: I do believe I’ve dropped my kerchief: AlphaSmart, would you be so kind…?</accent>).

Kendall Clark seems to think Neo’s part of a larger trend:

I am so over hardware, and I have been for more than a decade. I take pride in making my living from technology and doing so with very old, even decrepit hardware….

Oddly enough, the Neo is basically a computer for school children. It’s stunningly stupid and, well, primitive. I’m enjoying it so much, and being so productive with it, that it’s got me thinking about what I’ll call Primitive Computing and Power User Devolution.

The Neo is interesting not because of what it does or what features it has, but what it can’t do and the features it’s missing. It’s all about one thing and one thing only: writing. I’m most comfortable turning any task into a writing task (when all you have is a hammer…), which means I’m super comfortable with a primitive device that’s really only good for writing.

And no internet. Some days, I believe I’d find that pretty appealing.

Brian Carnell's picture

"As I said, they never...

"As I said, they never took off. One reason is simple: you can type, but you can't see what you are typing. Scrolling sucks. If you don't need to read what you wrote, don't need a paragraph overview, you're fine. But if you need to think some, re-read a previous statement, etc., they actually stink. Believe me, I've used many of them."

This is a bit like saying that hammers will never catch on because they suck if you try to use them to saw lumber.

I have owned a number of Alphasmarts and similar products from other companies, such as the Quickpad. The Alphasmart Neo is the best of these so far for a number of reasons.

First, battery life is phenomenal. I bought mine almost one year ago and despite regular use, I am still on the original set of AA batteries that the device shipped with. My laptop is optimized for battery length, but even it gives out after 5-6 hours and runs hot as hell. The Alphasmart just keeps going and going without all that heat.

Second, the weight issue. Sometimes I need to go to a meeting to take notes, and don't want to drag along my laptop, power cord (in case battery gets low), wireless mouse, etc. The Neo weights about a 2 pounds and feels much lighter than that.

Third, the Alphasmart Neo can partially adjust your issue by allowing for the size of the text display to be configured to different text sizes. I typically have mine configured to display 6 lines of small-type text which gives you about the last 50-60 words.

I'm not so sure what the objection to scrolling is, esp. as that's necessary even in a lot of PC applications once you get past very small text files. I have no problem scrolling back and forth even in very large documents within my Neo. I would not use it for producing the final version of a 30 page report, but it rocks just to take it off somewhere and type out a first or second draft in one sitting and then take that back to a computer later for more thorough editing. I know a lot of people who say they can't properly edit on a computer either -- they insist on doing all editing only on a printed version of a document. In both cases, it is something you get used to after awhile.

Finally, there's the "no internet" issue that Merlin mentions. Not only is their no Internet, but there's no solitaire, etc. It's a lot like Google, except that rather than just a simple text entry arear for search, there's a simple text entry area just for writing with limited distractions.

Which is not to say there aren't drawbacks to the Neo. The biggest one is the screen, which is not backlit. This is definitely not a solution for very lowlight situations. Second, there's no expansion -- I really wish someone would build one of these with a USB slot that I could stick a thumb drive into or perhaps just add an SD slot. The Neo also uses a dumbed down file system that probably works great with kids but really sucks for adults.




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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