AlphaSmart Neo 2

Two years ago we mentioned a device called the AlphaSmart Neo 2, which we thought of as a sort of honorary typewriter. It is a primitive word processor, but less primitive than the popular Freewrite, whose editing capabilities are deliberately limited to a backspace key. The Neo 2 was the last in a line of AlphaSmart word processors, of which Dr. Boli also has one of the earlier models:

AlphaSmart 3000

These things ended up selling in large quantities to school systems, which is why the used ones available today often have permanent-marker scribblings on them.

AlphaSmarts have not been made for several years. Two years ago, we mentioned that “the company may have given up too soon,” since the success of the Freewrite suggests that writers are looking for a dedicated machine that only writes, and used AlphaSmarts are selling well on auction sites. We often see them mentioned by writers as a favorite tool.

Well, we just glanced at the Freewrite site while working on an essay about typewriters, and look what we found. Not only is it remarkably similar in design and capability to the AlphaSmart, but it’s even called an Alpha, just in case you missed the point that it’s a revival of the thing that writers have been talking about so much for a few years. The site introduces the machine with a video in which a trendy young American woman named Jane is writing notes for a simply awful novel while a string quartet plays in the background and a narrator with a showily British accent describes Jane’s writing flow state, which is the state you get into when hoary bromides from your high-school creative-writing class and snippets of recycled narrative run through your brain one after another like a constant dribble of vegetable oil.

Like the AlphaSmart, the new Alpha has some limited word-processing capabilities, a few lines of text on a pocket-calculator-like LCD, a good keyboard, and a long battery life. It has some advantages over the old AlphaSmart: Wi-Fi file transfer and cloud backup, and much more storage (you can only type about 40,000 words on the AlphaSmart before you connect to a computer to dump the text). On the other hand, the AlphaSmart Neo 2 has search and replace and a primitive spelling checker, a larger display (believe it or not), and much longer battery life. The new Alpha brags about its 100 hours of battery life, which is very good; but the AlphaSmart claims 700 hours on three AA batteries, and in Dr. Boli’s experience that is no exaggeration.

Dr. Boli has not seen the new Alpha, so he does not know anything about it. The company’s other devices have a good reputation. He mentions it only as another piece of evidence that writers are desperate for machines that do nothing but write, and a good capitalist can make some money by tapping that market. The mechanical typewriter still has advantages that no electronic machine can match, and the investor who set a factory making good typewriters and marketed them as trendy distraction-free writing machines for young women who think they’re Jane Austen would probably clean up.