An Alphasmart is a digital typewriter that was designed to help teach keyboarding to grade school children in the public school system. The Alphasmart has a full-sized keyboard, is portable, lightweight and built to take a beating. It has no internet connection. It stores the keystrokes the student makes in file buffers that can later be uploaded either to a computer via a cable or to a central unit in a classroom setting. Since the children can not access the internet, they learn to write without distraction and pick up keyboarding speed with ease.
The last few years, the Alphasmart has been phased out of the school systems in favor of tablets and chromebooks (a limited laptop). Many of these tough old alphasmarts now flood eBay for a low price. For $20, you can have a self-contained writing machine with a full-sized keyboard and a small screen interface that will not get between you and your writing. I personally use an Alphasmart Neo as my drafting machine of choice, but I started out on an Alphasmart 3000 and found it more than up to the task of writing a novel.
There are three main model types of Alphasmart to choose from. Which one is right for you may not be readily apparent. Below I am going to make a comparison of the three models going over their strengths and weaknesses. I know writers that use any of these three models, so once you know the differences, you should be able to determine which is the right one for you.
The Neo is known for the sharp lettering on its LED screen and can be seen in bright sunlight when you write outside. The lines that are shown are adjustable via the alphasmart manager program. It ranges from 4 to 7 lines. I have mine set at 5 lines because I like the text to be a little larger.
You will need a book light to use with your Neo when writing at night. I always bring my Mightybrite dual music stand light with me to the coffeehouse when I write with it.
The Neo has eight compartments for your writing, each will hold approximately twenty-five pages of text. The Neo comes with a built-in thesaurus, dictionary, and word count feature. Having an instant word count on the go has been a real asset to me during Nanowrimo when keeping track of your word count is critical to keeping up the pace of your drafting.
Battery life on the Neo is fantastic. It takes 3 AA batteries and this will keep your Neo running for 700 hours. I change out mine once a year and my machine is ready for instant writing at any time. I never need to hunt for an outlet when I’m out writing in coffeehouses and I can take my Neo to the park or into my backyard for outside writing.
There is no internet connection for the Neo. This makes it an excellent non-distraction machine to use for your writing. I do bring my smartphone with me when I write so in the event I do need to look up something on the internet on the fly, I can do so, but the extra effort this takes usually keeps me from doing the act. I view this as a positive thing.
When new writers are looking over the Alphasmart line, many gravitate to the Dana. It has a slot for an SD card, has a word processor, and a larger screen to see your work. However, there are problems associated with the Dana that you need to be aware of.
First off, the palm based word processor that you can use with the Dana is no longer supported. Even if you found a free download of the program, the license keys are gone. If you have a license key from the past, you can use the word processor, but if you are a new user, you are out of luck. You can upload any palm based software into the Dana and find it compatible, but frankly, if that is your goal, I think you are better off with an inexpensive laptop or tablet. The Dana does not have the ability to save every keystroke the way the Neo does, it stores the data on the SD card. There will be times when you will lose all your text.
The screen on the Dana is larger, but it is fainter and harder to see the text. Some people have gone as far as remove the over screen on their machines in order to make the screen more readable, but this is difficult to accomplish if you don’t have the technical skills.
Like the Neo, the Dana does have the standard simple word processor, dictionary, thesaurus, and word count features. However, it does not have the battery life. Your Dana will last only a few hours on a charge, similar to a laptop.
My first Alphasmart was the 3000. It has a solid, full-sized keyboard with a good feel. My typing speed is fast on the machine and the screen has sharp, crisp lettering. The standard eight files in the AS3T only hold around 8 pages each, so when writing on it, I recommend “sending” your data to your computer each night and freeing up your space when you can. It is good to get into this habit anyway so that you store your data in a safe place. While the AS3T is a rugged machine that stores every keystroke, I feel better seeing my work in my Scrivener program on my desktop.
The desktop manager does not have a word count feature in the AS3T. It only has a simple word processor, dictionary, and thesaurus.
The AS3T uses three AA batteries and has the same 700 hours of run time as the Neo. You pop your batteries in once a year and then don’t worry about it. The AS3T is a little more square and longer than the Neo and I find it harder to perch on my lap, but if you have a tabletop to write on, you should be fine. The AS3T also will need a book lamp to light up the keys and screen when writing at night or in a dim coffeehouse.
Rating the Three Alphasmarts
Of the three machines, I feel that the Neo is the best choice for an author. The keyboard is the most ergonomic, the screen is the sharpest and easiest to read and it holds more data. The word count feature is a real plus too. Being able to turn on the machine and start writing in around two seconds is a real plus.
My second choice is the Alphasmart 3000. While it doesn’t store as much data as the Neo and the keyboard is slightly less comfortable, it is a solid and dependable machine. I own one as a backup and will not part with it.
Finally, I feel that I should give a word of warning about the Dana. While I do know of people that own and prefer them, I feel that due to their age and that much of their palm OS software is difficult to come by, makes the Dana a poor choice. Spare yourself the headache and look at the Neo or AS3T.
28 thoughts on “Comparing 3 Alphasmart Digital Typewriters”
I never thought of using one of these to write! Other than not being distracted by the internet (grrrr), why would you recommend that someone make the switch from laptop to a digital typewriter?
I use the alphasmart strictly for drafting. It is a lightweight machine, instant on/off, and with excellent battery options that allow you to write on the go without searching for an outlet. If I need the internet for research, I use my tablet or smartphone, otherwise the internet is turned off. I find when I use my laptop for writing, because I have easy access to facebook, twitter and other distractions, I don’t write as much. I tend to output 1/3 to 1/2 more words when drafting on the Neo Alphasmart.
Wow! This is opening up a whole new writing world to me–thank you!
Besides the being distraction free, an Alphasmart Neo is less likely to be stolen in a coffeehouse environment than a thousand dollar laptop. It’s like the difference between an expensive bike and and an inexpensive ugly bike.
I also started my love of Alphasmart with the 3000 (for $12) a few years ago. It was great, except the keys were clunky. Then I bought the Dana (used) and Neo (new). The Neo was exactly what I was looking for. I’m sad they’re no longer made. I didn’t think I needed it, but ended up getting a Neo2 off eBay and found that I love it even more. The letters are even clearer than the Neo. I wish they kept making them. My perfect word processor would be like the Neo2 with WiFi to send to computer/printer and an e-ink screen. I love the Neos so much I bought two of each version for backups.
I have not picked up a second Neo, but I have considered doing so. I am not sure how my drafting process would go on without one! Thanks for your story here on the blog. It is good to hear from another Neo fan.
After a few years on the shelf, my NEO totally died. New AA batteries didn’t help. But by unscrewing the case, I was able to remove and replace the backup battery that holds the keystrokes in memory as the AA batteries get removed and replaced every 700 hours of typing. The replacement battery–a little flat silver thing the size of a nickel–is sold two for a dollar at.Dollar Tree.
Yep, there are two batteries in the Neo. You don’t need to change the flat one often, maybe every couple of years, but it is there to save your data between the changes of regular batteries. I’m glad you were able to fix your issue with the Neo.
This is really interesting Wendy. How do you get your writing from the Neo over to your laptop with no internet? Is there a flashdrive?
No flash drive. Alphasmarts are not designed to use them. Instead, you use a common printer cable to “send” your text to your laptop or desktop. The alphasmart types your text into whatever window your cursor is in. You can even use the alphasmart as a spare keyboard. When I am drafting, I am in the habit of sending my text into Scrivner once a day. I preset Scrivner files for my novels even before I start writing. That way the project stays organized. You could write an entire 50k novel in the alphasmart and leave it in there, it would likely be safe, but I am a creature of backups.
Thank you so much. I’m trying to decide between the 3000 and the neo2 and this article is exactly what I needed. I’ll go for the Neo2 even though I miss the cool see-through colorful designs of the Turn of the Millenium.
The Neo2 is an excellent choice. I use one myself for drafting. 🙂 Have fun!
I eschew the data cable and beam my files through the infrared facility. You can even beam them Neo to Neo, etc. Fast, simple, effective.
I’ve done the infrared beaming before with one device that still had that capability, but most modern laptops and tablets do not have this feature any more. I understand that there are more patches to use to transfer your data or to use the Neo as a keyboard. Perhaps I’ll do an article on that in the future. Write on!
Hello! Do you feel the file size of the Neo or 3000 is limiting? How often, say for the Nanowrimo were you copying the files off?
I don’t find the 3K to be limiting at all, but the file sizes are smaller than that of the Neo. When I draft with an alphasmart, I tend to upload my daily words each night onto my desktop. I’m not afraid of the alphasmart failing, more afraid that in the coffeehouse environment there is a chance of someone taking off with the machine!
Either the Neo or the 3K will work for Nanowrimo. I won on an 3K my first year without any issue. I simply like the keyboard of the Neo a bit better. That is why I decided to upgrade.
Hello there! Hope all is well. I don’t know if you are still checking the comments on here being that this was posted in 2015, but hey can’t hurt to try. Is the Neo still good to use with all the new tech since? Like windows 10? I also noticed many scrivener programs which one would be the one I get. I’m an aspiring writer and I get distarcted on my laptop. I even get distracted with actually writing with pen and paper beyond notes here and there. I begin to doodle and go on a drawing binge. I noticed that when on my memo pad on my phone it is easier for me to keep focused so I looked into devices used solely used for typing and this came up. I found several neos So I am excited to try it if they still work.
Hi Avianemelle. Yes, I’m still here and kicking. 🙂 One of the great things about wordpress is that it notifies me of responses on any post on the blog…even one as old as this one.
Yes, the Neo is still good to use with current technology. As long as your cursor is placed in a word processing screen (Word, Scrivener, Jotter, you name it) Neo will send your text to that format. What it does is act as a “keyboard” and send the keystrokes to your main computer. It doesn’t matter if the computer is Windows, IOS, or Linux. It just works.
I still draft my manuscripts on my trusty Neo and send each chapter into pre-formed files in Scrivener. Then I do my revisions and editing in Scrivener before I send it off to a magazine or format it into an ebook.
Neos have come down in price since I wrote this article, you can get one off of ebay for around 20 bucks. Doesn’t matter if it is used. They are built like tanks and stand up to plenty of hard use.
Also do you know anything about the quickpad?
I have not used one, but it looks similar to the Alphasmart Neo. I found this article about the device: http://www.techtoolsforwriters.com/tag/quickpad/
I would ask around and see if you could find any users of this device before you buy one. Sometimes the programming is so obsolete that it becomes a problem. This is the case with the Alphasmart Dana. The wordprocessor in it no longer exisits and you can not get file keys to use the software any more. It renders the machine almost useless. Thankfully, the software for the Neo is still around and available.
I Tried the QuickPad but it bled its batteries super fast even when I hardly used it and kept it turned off pretty much the whole time. I gave it brand new batteries too. It may have been just my unit. It seemed like a decent pad otherwise. I also have the Neo2 and the 3000. The 3000 is frustrating to use but I got it just because I’m nostalgic for that Turn of the Millennium style. The Neo2 is the most practical choice. It’s not as cool looking as the 3000 but it gets the job done.
Thanks! I used to have one of these, the 3000, I think. I’ve recently have needed to spend less time in front of screens but I make my living on the computer, so I was going to buy one of these. This article cleared things up for me. I know which one I want to get now. 🙂
I’m glad to have been of help to you. Which one did you decide on?
I found and ordered a Neo. 🙂
Thank you for the comparison, Wendy. I’ve used Danas for years for drafting my books, particularly toward the end of the story. Besides being free of the distractions of the internet, I’m not as likely to try to edit as a I go along so the word flow is faster. I wore out one Dana and I’m a little concerned about the one I’m using now, but Danas have become very scarce on Ebay so I reluctantly just bought a Neo 2. I like the larger screen of the Dana, but from the other research I’m doing, including here, it looks like the New will work fine and has some pluses as well. Thanks for sharing your knowledge!
I’m glad to have been of help. Personally, I love my Neo and would never give it up. If you are an alphasmart lover, you might want to pick up a second machine to stow away for the future. Eventually I fear the Neo’s will be in short supply too.
It’s July 1, 2022, and so it might be a case that I’m being foolish … but here goes just the same!
Thanks Wendy for writing this great review of these machines; I will be searching for a Neo2 in a few minutes!:-)
If you see this, Wendy, can you say if the Neo2 is still a machine that’s not so old as to make getting one not a good idea at this point in time?
I thank you in advance, and have a great summer!:-)
I still use my Neo2 and it is going strong. The machines were built like tanks and will last for a long time. You don’t need software to upload your data, just plug it into your computer and set your cursor in your word processor of choice and press “send”. They don’t make them anymore, so you’ll have to find one used on ebay or other aftermarket sites. Prices are going up on them a bit, but they are still much more affordable than a laptop. Good luck!