Tag Archives: alphasmart neo

Comparing 3 Alphasmart Digital Typewriters

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.

Alphasmart Neo and Samsonite Shuttle Case

Alphasmart Neo

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.

Alphasmart Dana

Alphasmart Dana

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.

Alphasmart 3000

Alphasmart 3000

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.

Novel Reference Journal

Neo and Notebook

Every author has their own process of writing a book. Mine has developed over the past six or seven years to use National Novel Writing Month to jump start a single long term project each year. I use the energy of my fellow wrimos to push myself to writing, but there is more to the process than simply showing up for write-ins during the month of November. I also set aside the month of October to plan my novel and December to do the first rough editing of it.

One of the first things that I create for a new novel project are an outline, character sheets, location and object descriptions. I start by brainstorming ideas in a composition book, writing these down by hand with my fountain pens in ink colors that suit my mood. I condense these ideas into plot points in another section of the notebook until I have a rough story line.

At this point, I move the plot points into my computer, using each bullet point as a scene file in my Scrivener program. I don’t name chapters or try to lock them into position, I’ll wait and finalize that once the rough draft is completed. My file names are simple descriptions of what happens in the scene with a little more detail written into the “index card” portion of the Scrivener file. In the research section of Scrivener, I set up my reference files. This is not the final step in my process, although I realize that for many people this is the point where they would start drafting because they write their stories in Scrivener via a laptop.

I find that I do not enjoy writing my novel draft in Scrivener, there is too much temptation in the internet or other distractions if I am in front of a computer. Instead I like to draft with a digital typewriter, a machine known as an Alphasmart Neo. The Neo has several advantages in the drafting process. First, it has zero internet connection and it keeps me from distraction when I write. The machine is difficult to edit on so it keeps me moving forward in the writing process. I tend to write around 50% more words when I use the Neo as apposed to writing a draft on my desktop. Finally, the Neo has the advantage of not needing a power plug. I can write anywhere on a couple of AA batteries for 700 hours. However, without a laptop to view Scrivener, I also have no access to my reference notes when I’m on the go. This is especially critical when I’m out at write-ins for Nanowrimo in November.

Filofax Writing Journal with NeoMy solution is to create a second reference book, but instead of keeping it digital, I write it on paper. This way my information is always available to work along side my Neo and I don’t need to rely on finding a power plug or to rely on my smartphone. In years past, I’ve used a personal sized Filofax to organize my notes. The personal size was small enough to tuck into my writing kit and the rings allowed me to move the papers into a different order. However, after a year or two of this system, I began to discover that the smaller page size was too small for all the notes that I like to bring. It forced me to write everything smaller or to print my information by cut and paste onto pre-punched paper that was not suitable for the fountain pens that I enjoy writing with. I longed to move up to an A5 size Filofax, but the binders are rather expensive.

This year, I was browsing the A5 sized Filofaxes, intending on picking one up for my yearly reference journal, when I happened upon the Staples ARC system in Junior size. Junior is the same size as A5. I could choose covers of polycloth (plastic) or of leather. The pre-punched paper came in lined notes, quads, or projects. A “notebook” purchase with a polycloth binder came with .5” rings and 60 sheets of notepaper. It was the right size and more than enough pages to create a workable reference journal for my novel project, with room to expand if need be. The price was a mere $14. I decided that it was time to try something other than a Filofax.

I purchased the following for my 2014 Nanowrimo Journal:

    A black and white polycloth cover
    .5” black rings
    Black A5 plastic dividers with stickers
    One plastic ruler
    A pair of large rubber bands designed to keep the journal closed

When I brought the journal home, I organized it with the black section dividers and labeled each section with the following:

    Outline
    Characters
    Locations
    Objects
    Notes

ARC Journal - Outline IndexAt the front I placed a 2014 Nanowrimo Sticker to decorate the journal a little. I labeled the project, my name and the year. It will make this easier to look over years later when it is in storage. My Outline section has two parts. The front of the section has a checklist of all the scenes of my novel. Behind this index, I write the scenes again, but I also put in a paragraph description of what the scene is about, basically the information that is in my Scrivener “index card”. My ruler stays in the scene summaries at the point where I’m writing the story to make that section easier to find.

At the end of each writing session, I will upload the text from the Alphasmart into Scrivener on my desktop. I check off each completed scene in the journal index so that I know it is done when I’m away from my computer. No more accidentally writing the same scene twice, I can see my progress in my work, and I gain the satisfaction of writing that check mark. It is a little reward for me.

This year, I’m continuing work on a novel I started back in 2011. Several of the scenes for the story are already completed. They are in a different Scrivener project file so I don’t count them toward this year’s word count, yet I want to see them in my outline so I get a good idea of where all the scenes fit in the story. They are incorporated in my checklist and summaries, but I have pre-checked them in the index and wrote a note in red ink in the summaries to let myself know that these scenes are already finished. Again, I don’t want to accidentally write scenes that I do not need to.

ARC Journal - Outline SummariesThe other sections of my notebook contain my character sheets, location descriptions, object descriptions and a section for notes. Mainly the note section holds blank pre-punched note paper for the ARC Journal so that I can add new pages on the fly.

One of the surprises I had with the ARC Journal is that the paper is of a heavy grade that is very friendly to my favorite fine nib Platinum Plaisir fountain pen. The Coleto Gel Pen that I use for color coding also works well with the paper. I like the way the note paper is printed. I feel it gives my journal a more professional look. The final extra I purchased for the journal were the rubber bands. I use one to keep my ARC Journal closed and it works flawlessly. The ARC tucks into my writing kit smoothly, never opens or mangles the pages, and the polycloth seems to slide into my bag far easier than the composition notebooks or Filofaxes I’ve used in the past.

I write with a lapboard under my Alphasmart Neo and I’ve discovered that the pull out mouse board that comes with it makes a perfect ledge to hold my ARC Journal. It keeps it off the tabletop at coffeehouses so my notebook doesn’t get smudges or wet if a coffee drink happens to spill nearby. I’ve been very pleased with this year’s journal during my writing adventures.

What sort of notebook do you use? Let me know in the comments.

Preparing Your Nanowrimo Writing Kit

Writing Kit 2013Every October I prepare for National Novel Writing Month. Nanowrimo promotes the act of writing 50K words toward the rough draft of a novel. People join together all over the world to support their fellow writers and to help all of us cross the finish line toward success. Most of the writers of Nanowrimo are beginners. The participation in Nanowrimo can be a submergence learning experience where new ideas, techniques, and tools are all explored at a rapid rate to get the beginner writer off in the right direction. Although I am now a published writer, I still look forward to Nanowrimo because it gives me that huge energy boost and camaraderie that keeps me going on a new project.

One of the main things that I do to prepare for the event is to put together a writing kit. It allows me to participate in the local write-ins that take place at various hotel lobbies, coffeehouses, and libraries. Every writer has a unique kit that they assemble to aid them in the writing process.

I start out my writing kit with a designated bag. I will keep this bag packed with all my writing gear at all times. It allows me to pick up the bag and go on a moment’s notice. I know that everything I will need will be available in the bag. I’ve used everything from a grocery sack to a cloth tote bag. My current writing kit bag is a Solo Laptop Tote. It looks like leather and is stylish, but not extremely expensive or heavy. It is large enough to hold all my gear and offers my electronic devices a bit of padded protection. Any laptop bag or backpack should work for this purpose.

Next, I pack in my Alphasmart Neo. I prefer the Alphasmart to a laptop for drafting. An Alphasmart has been my go to device for Nanowrimo for the past four years. I started with a $30 Alphasmart 3000 for my first Nanowrimo write-ins because at the time I could not afford a laptop computer. The AS3K has a run time of 700 hours on 3 AA batteries. Basically, I pop in the batteries and I’m good to go for the year. The screen is LCD and easy on the eyes, unlike bright computer screens or tablets, and it has no Internet capability. Unless I deliberately turn on a device to access the Internet, such as my cell phone, I am not distracted by Facebook or other on-line time wasters. I credit the AS3K for helping me reach my 50K word goal for the first time. The following year, I upgraded to the Alphasmart Neo. The Neo has a more ergonomic keyboard, the 8 built in files can hold more data and the screen is somewhat bigger than the AS3K. I find that my typing speed is faster on the Neo. It makes a great keyboard for computers and tablets, needing only an USB connection to operate. The Neo is about the size of a small Mac Air laptop, but is much lighter in weight and far more durable.

Mighty Brite Duet LED LightI store the Neo in the laptop portion of my bag and I bring along a few accessories to go with it. I keep my USB printer cable in the bag, it is the way that my Neo accesses my computer at home. I use it to upload my writing at the end of each coffeehouse session. I also have a Mighty Brite Duet light system that I clip to my Neo in dark situations or to write at night when I’m camping. The Mighty Brite has two LED lights that can light up my keyboard evenly. It was originally designed to be a music stand light for musicians, but many Neo owners equip their digital typewriters with this light because the clip is strong enough to grip the back of the Neo’s housing. Finally, I bring along a rubberized lap board. It provides a grippy place to perch my Neo if I’m writing on my lap or gives a more stable surface for my device when writing on a table. The Neo never gets hot, but the bottom is a little slick. The board keeps my Neo from sliding off my lap. The board I use is a Logitech Portable Lapdesk.

Logitech Lap Board

I bring several paper bound books with me. First is a composition notebook with the outline, character sketches and other notes for my novel. With it I have a pouch with a fountain pen and a Coleto Mult-pen for color coding. Perhaps it is old-fashioned, but I find that when I’m brainstorming new ideas, I do it better on paper. I index the front of my notebook so that I can easily find the sections inside where my notes are and I always have blank pages available for writing down new ideas on the fly. The other two books I bring are a Pocket Webster’s Dictionary and a Pocket Thesaurus. I like having the means to look up words without having to rely on electricity or wifi access in a pinch.

The final device I like to bring is my iPod Touch with earbuds. Usually, the general din of the coffeehouse is fine as background noise, but sometimes the PA system is not playing something that I find pleasing. When you put on earbuds or headphones, people also take this as a signal that you do not wish to chat and you can carve out more writing time for yourself that way. My iPod Touch is set up with several apps that I use for research, including a dictionary, thesaurus and an app called Lists for Writers. I also carry a cell phone, but I tend to not bring it out unless absolutely necessary because it is too easy to pull out a game or to read Facebook when I do so.

All writers have unique items that they like to bring to write-ins during Nanowrimo. The key is to keep all the items in a single, portable, bag and only bring what is necessary to promote good writing habits while you are away from home. Do keep in mind that local write-ins are a great place to talk about writing and gain advice from your fellow writers. Do not close yourself up completely when you attend a write-in. Most of the habits that I have as a writer were learned as a Nanowrimo participant. Open yourself up to the information available during the November writing push and most of all, have fun!

Beach Party Author Write-in

newport beach pedestrian walkNewport Beach in California is a well-known tourist attraction to most of the United States. People come here to enjoy the sparkling white beach, the cold waves of azure water, and the beach community that hugs it. There are over ten miles of beaches in the public park system in the city, including the Balboa Peninsula where my writing group decided to hold a Saturday write-in, complete with a bonfire, hot dogs to roast for dinner and inspiration to write. I do not go to the beach often, even though I live a scant forty minutes away, and I felt enthusiastic about the write-in because I had intended to visit the beach at least once this summer, but had not gotten around to it.

I did not want to bring my laptop or Alphasmart Neo to the beach. The idea of sand blowing into the keyboards of either of my machines worried me. Instead, I pulled out my composition notebook and loaded up my leather pen case with a fountain pen and a Coleteo multi-pen. As a backup, I brought two Pilot G-2 pens, one in black and the other in red that I popped into my flashlight’s case. I have a rubberized lapboard that I like to use when I’m going to be balancing my writing on a chair and I thought that it would provide a good writing surface at the beach. It took time to figure out how to carry it. I ended up stuffing it in my lime green, soft-cooler bag.

I arrived at the Balboa Peninsula in the late afternoon. I drove through the parking lots that were near the pier, but there was not a single space to be had. It was late June and a Saturday, so the beach was packed with tourists and locals out to enjoy the coolness of the day. After driving around the parking lot for forty minutes, I gave up and headed toward the residential area a good mile distant from where my friends gathered. I found a free parking spot in front of a house with a ceramic plate featuring hot chile peppers. I unloaded my vehicle, holding the two tote style bags in one hand and putting the straps of the encased folding chair and umbrella over my other shoulder.

California in the summertime is often called paradise. The sun caresses you while the salt laden wind cool your skin. Overhead, palm trees rustle in the sea breeze and the scent of BBQ combined with spice competes with sour stench of seaweed and salt. As I wandered down a pedestrian and bike path along a row of beach front homes, I was striding by private rose gardens full of delicate pink blooms, beige stucco walls covered with magenta bougainvillea and picket fences of wind distressed grey wood. I smiled to see a tiny hummingbird dancing in among the flowers, drinking in the nectar while it defied the brisk seawind. On the other side of the path were the azure waves of the Pacific and the white sand that the city of Newport Beach is famous for.

A long mile of walking brought me to lifeguard station B and a mass of fire pits already ablaze with wood provided by old cargo pallets or supermarket purchased bundles of split wood. Many grills were cooking dinners, scattered out on the sandy beach or on the grassy lawn of the park. My writing buddies were in the center of this sand filled chaos and gave me a hearty wave as I came around the bend on the cement pathway. They were a band of women dressed in cotton clothing, sunhats and sandals, arranged in a circle facing each other, but without a fire in the center. As I set up my folding chair and umbrella, I wondered what had happened to the promised bonfire.

“The school next to us took three of the fire pits for their kids.” The young, dark-haired woman that had organized our event gave me a sheepish expression. She had worked hard to gain us a fire pit, but in the end she was unsuccessful. Looking around our small patch of sand, I noticed that we were indeed surrounded by large numbers of frolicking teenagers in various states of undress. They were all part of the large school group that were having an outing that day.

As I pulled a cold drink from my cooler, I seated myself in my umbrella shaded chair to relax after my long walk. This was the beach after all, a natural place for young people to come and play. No one was bothering our group of eight writers and while a bonfire would be wonderful, we could improvise. I dug my bare feet into the warm, white sand and felt any remaining tension from the walk melt away.

photo by Jennifer Levine
Authors DeAnna Cameron and Rebekah Webb write in their notebooks
“So how long did it take you all to figure out what to write with tonight?” asked the author next to me in the circle. She was a woman of middle years, with two tween-aged children, and a strong personality. “I was at it for hours and couldn’t decide what to bring. ”She held up a notebook into the air. “I went with this.”

Everyone at the write-in was armed with a bound notebook and pen, except for the new writer who had arrived on a motorcycle and seemed prepared to take on the world. She had her hair pulled back in a ponytail and had a black backpack that reminded one of Mary Poppin’s carpet bag; Endless items seemed to emerge from that bag. She wrote on her laptop under a blanket to block out the sun and sand.

I extracted my lapboard, fountain pen and composition book from my bag, but discovered that I had neglected to double check the ink in my pen. It was empty. I was forced to pull out my backup Pilot G-2 pens instead. I was not planning on working on a draft that night, I wanted to brainstorm new ideas to use for future flash fiction projects. I had written down a pair of writing prompts and was going to let the beach inspire me.

Although we did not have a bonfire of our own, the third fire that the school group had built was unused by the kids, and was next to our circle. The kids preferred to cluster around the other two bonfires. We were close enough to the third fire that we stayed warm as night descended on the beach. I used my small pen light to continue writing in the dark. Later, a larger flashlight was stuck in my beach umbrella and pointed up at the material to bounce a soft white light for the rest of the party.

Super Moon at Balboa Beach - photo by Jill Carpenter
Super Moon at Balboa Beach
As the moon rose from the horizon, the two photographers in our group pulled out their cameras. One had a professional looking Nikon DSLR with a lens longer than my hand and a metallic red body and the other woman, a tiny point and shoot Canon. The two ladies razzed each other in a friendly way about the brand of camera they used and why their brand was the better one.

Both of our self appointed photographers took shots of of the “super moon” that was upon us that evening. While I do keep up with astronomical terms, I was unfamiliar with what a “super moon” was. As it turned out, it is a layman’s term for when the moon was at perigee, when a full moon is at its closest point in its orbit to the Earth that year. Near the ocean, the city lights are dim and you can see the stars and moon clearly. Our super moon was very bright, but not large as a harvest moon may appear.

As the darkness enclosed us, one of our party suggested that we ask to borrow the third, unused fire to cook our dinner. We sent our representative teenage writer over to use her sad smile and winsome ways on the school party. It did not take her long to gain us access to the bonfire. Our write-in coordinator strode to her car and returned with a large wheeled cooler. She was trailed by her Mom who had been sitting out in their car, preferring to take an on-line school course on her iPad instead of being out on the sand. However, dinner drew her out to join us authors at last.

The hot dogs were roasted. S’mores were distributed. The women writers fought playfully over a bag of carrots. As the night wore on, we all departed from the beach one by one. I was grateful to be offered a ride back to my SUV, sparing me the long walk back to my car with all my gear.

It was the first time our group had gathered for a write-in at the beach, but I think that it will not be the last time we do this. While most of us did not do a great deal of writing, the camaraderie and the relaxation was well worth the day.

photos by Jill Carpenter and Jennifer Levine