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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.

Rob Donoghue's picture

Ok, first thing to note...

Ok, first thing to note is that alphasmart's products are mostly designed with education in mind. You're paying for durability and battery life more than functionality and, sadly, you are paying a bit too much.

A few years back, I got myself an Alphasmart Dana, which is the somewhat more powerful version of the Neo - similar form factor, but running an older version of the Palm OS, modified to use the widescreen. End result was that you could do some fairly powerful word processing without worrying too much about the device. I can attest to it's physical durability - it will casually survive drops of a few feet, and its battery life, which is phenomenal. What's more, it was full of smart design decisions. The KB felt pretty solid. The built in battery was the same size and shape as 6 AAs so you could swap it out as needed.

Unfortunately, for all those benefits, it's something that fell by the wayside for kind of sad reasons.

First, the display is simply not that hot. Think Palm V sort of LCD and you've got the right idea. While the font and size controls helped address this to some extent, it never really overcame the fact that the screen was basically short and narrow (Doubly bad since that's the reverse of what is most comfortable for people to read).

The form factor was great for typing and use, but awkward for transportation. The upcurve of the screen meant it sat awkwardly in any bag, and would frequently get turned on accidentally, and while the battery life was good, nothing could take that kind of abuse.

Did I mention it was also expensive? About $500 at the time. I justified it thinking that the distractions of a laptop would be counterproductive, and I just wanted something simple, and I ended up with serious gadget remorse.

In the end, it was too much to pay for what was a single-use tool. Ironically, what I ended up replacing it with were these neat notebooks I found at a small bookstore, Moleskines or some such. ;)

I actually tried to break it out again recently, specifically to contrast to my experience writing on laptops of a variety of sizes and oh sweet god, it felt limiting. The instant on is nice, but not when it's Dig out of my bag, instant on, open up a new tab, type something, peer at it, save it to be safe, then put it away again. For that, paper or a convenient handheld is going to do much much, much better.

Now, lest I imply it's all bad, I do have to admit that it may be the single best note-taking tool I've seen short of a full-on tablet PC, so I think it is still very well suited to its intended purpose (students) but not so much beyond that.




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