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.