AlphaSmart vs. Netbook (Or: Should I Dust Off My Old Tech?)

While I was looking for a picture of my version of the AlphaSmart for yesterday’s post I came across a post touting the superiority of the Neo (that’s what they’re calling AlphaSmarts these days) over netbooks. To say I was shocked is an understatement. In these times when netbooks flow from the heavens like water, why in the world would anyone still use an AlphaSmart? I was doubly surprised to discover that this guy is an SF writer (he went to Viable Paradice). Thinking on it, I’ve probably met him. But that’s neither here nor there, my main shock remains: AlphaSmart over netbook? No wai!

He even has the same netbook I do, a Samsung NC10. Yet he still feels that the portability and usability of an AlphaSmart is far, far better. He also cites battery longevity. Though I’ll agree that years of battery life is better than a few hours, ever since I got my NC10 I haven’t felt chained to an outlet. (It’s the 7+ hours of battery life, I love it, so.) And while it is great to have a machine that allows you to concentrate on just one thing, writing, the device is just a little too unitasking for me.

One of the reasons I stopped using my AlphaSmart is that it was crap for editing. Sure, it would allow you to get some words down on the screen and drive forward. However, you certainly can’t edit really well on that thing, or go back through what you’ve written and try to take stock in a meaningful way. And only seeing 4 lines of text at a time felt like far too little. You can’t edit already-existing text. And if you’ve typed a major chunk of your novel on the thing, good luck trying to get a sense of the structure.

Not that Marko claimed the Neo could do any of these things. These were just my reasons for giving the machine up. I needed a gadget that would allow me to do all of my writing tasks, from the first draft through to the editing stage, that was easy to carry, light, and had a reasonably-sized screen. Aftre I accomplished that with my Eee PC, my next goal was a netbok with long battery life so I wouldn’t have to worry about outlets. And here were are.

Having read through his whole review, though, do you think that the Neo has enough advantages over a netbook to justify putting the latter aside?

  • Sean Wallace

    I love my Samsung NC10. (I have two!) For me, if I’m going to spend $200 or $300 I’d rather have something with wireless, so I can do research on the fly.

  • I have an alphasmart dana, and I use it for my first couple drafts (before the editing kicks in) for one simple reason: it has No Net Access. This means I can’t get distracted into going online, and so I’m much more productive.

    The dana has a bigger screen than the neo, but it’s still small. I dearly wish someone would make a machine like this–a lightweight dedicated word processor, nothing else–with a full-sized screen attached. I’d get it and use it instead of my “real” computer in an instant.

  • (The dana’s longer battery life–though not so long as the neo’s–and ability to run on AAs as well as the rechargeable batteries it comes with, combined with its sturdiness, also makes it a word processor I can camp and hike with, which is also lovely.)

  • Ingrid Kallick

    I gave up on my Neo after a year or two. As you said, four lines are insufficient for editing longer stories. The screen was even too small for longer poems. At least it taught me how visual editing can be. I plan to buy a netbook soon.

  • I LOVE my Neo for first drafts, because its complete suckiness for editing makes me keep moving forward instead of endlessly twiddling. I also have – not kidding – an electric typewriter that I use sometimes. For second drafts, editing, etc, I use my laptop or desktop–I love computers, and the Neo is not a computer, but that’s its primary strength. No cat-waxing possible.

    I thought about getting a netbook for taking places and writing, but when I tried one the tiny keyboard was not comfortable, and I did actually say out loud “nah, I’ll stick with my Alphasmart.” The Neo has a really, REALLY nice keyboard, very comfy and full-size, and you can sit the thing on your lap very comfortably and type for a long time. So I use it for taking notes in workshops and stuff like that, because it’s also super-durable and portable, so I can toss it in a tote bag without worrying. Also it boots almost instantly.

    So, I would never say to use a Neo instead of a netbook or laptop, but it’s a very nice addition to the family if you already have a computer that does the majority of what you need, and if you can benefit from something that forces you to focus on composing instead of editing.

  • Jha

    It never occurred to me to use the Alphasmart for editing at all. I really want to get a Neo precisely because it has no Net access and no distractions, just works on a screen. Plus, the full-size keyboard helps (I like to be comfy when I write). But editing is something I have to do with the first draft all printed out and laid in front of me, or on a bigger screen than a Netbook can give. So, yeah, what Janni and Mary Dell said.

  • Ellen

    Oh heck yeah. The inability to edit is part of the POINT of the Neo for me. All I can do is compose. No email, no internet, no going back and “did I word that quite right…” No.

    The Neo forces me to focus on the task at hand, which is writing.

    I’m working on book-length projects, so getting wordcount in is an issue. If I were doing shorter pieces or a multitude of different kinds of projects, I might feel differently.

  • Miki

    As other people have said here, I love (and use) my Neo for writing first drafts, even though I have a very portable laptop that I absolutely love.

    But the Neo’s battery life is amazing, and the construction is much more durable than any laptop or netbook — the combination of the two means that I can use it outside, camping, traveling, when with small children, etc., without any worries.

    Because I am easily distractable, I love that it can’t be used for ANYTHING else. (This is why I didn’t get the Dana, since you can put games on it.) Plus, the very small screen size means that you’re not looking at what you just wrote, only at the words you are putting down right now — and really, for me, I write first drafts much more quickly that way. I also end up writing outside a lot more, since who cares about sun glare if you’re not really looking at a screen anyway?

  • Lon

    Another firmly in the “compose on a Neo” camp. Same reasons others cite above: The small screen and lack of internet access mean I have fewer temptations to do anything besides think and write. If I get hung up, I put in a [TK] with note to myself about what needs to be come up with here (a name, a detail, the type of coin this particular collector would lust over, whatever). But the long battery life is also awesome. I’ve composed at least 150K on my Neo and I’m still on the first set of batteries. It served me well on three transoceanic flights, when any other machine would have puttered out. It doesn’t weigh much, has a full sized keyboard, and with 8 separate files available, there’s room for notes, synopsizing, woolgathering and more than one story at a time. Durability is wonderful as well. I often take mine out to a park or remote trailside to write; at one point I was writing a novel alongside a river between two openings of a groundhog den. With only a few lines of text visible at a time, I’m less concerned with how long I think the story should take to tell and I find the story evolves more naturally to whatever length it actually needs. (At least in draft– that doesn’t mean I don’t chop and revise afterward!)

    To me, the Alphasmart Neo is the perfect composing machine.

  • Lon

    Ok, let me amend that to very nearly perfect. Now that I’ve thought about it, the one and only beef I have with the Alphasmart for writing is the inability to use underline/italics/bold in my drafts. If they would address this , THEN it would be perfect. But till then, it’s pretty darn close!

  • Heh–the Dana does allow for formating.

    Battery is only good for 20 hours, though. :-)

  • Lenora Rose

    I have a Dana and I love it. I used to have a laptop, and I liked it, but not nearly as much. I might well appreciate a Netbook as much as the Dana or more if I had one, but I don’t currently feel desire or need for one.

    (One of my roommates at VP had an Alphasmart *and* a laptop, and used the former for writing and note-taking in class, and the latter for editing and printing, as it could stay plugged in in the room.)

    I like in particular that it is a unitasking machine (At least the way I use it). I’m happy to save the editing for the machine at home.

    Of course, this does require the ongoing transfer of files back and forth, but it’s pretty small fuss (since it’s usually recharging its battery anyhow).

    But eight to ten lines of text onscreen and a near-insistence that I move forward is what I NEED when I’m out and about with a machine; it’s ideal for road trips. The internet is altogether too pervasive at home. And I am the Queen of sitting and fidgeting with words instead of moving forward if I’m feeling uninspired.

    It sounds to me like the Neo, with an even smaller screen, is actually a step back, even with the longer battery life. The dana screen is as small as I’d want to go.

  • Jonquil

    I, too, have both a Dana and a Samsung. I gave up the Dana for the Samsung not only because of the editing problems but because (A)the keyboard was noticeably inferior to the Samsung and (B) there was a massive reformatting hit. I use my portaputer to type on Caltrain, and the Dana was really sensitive to jogs and bumps, making me even more typoriffic than usual.

    I had actually chosen the Dana because other writers said it was liberating *not* to go backward and edit, it really forced you into first-draft mode. If I hadn’t had such bad problems with the keyboard, I might have stuck with it.

    I use my Sammy both to commute and on the occasional airplane trip. I have *never* run out of power.

  • L

    I got a Dana first but gave it up for the Neo. I’ve been using it for a month and the AA batteries still are at 100%. The keyboard is fantastic. As for editing, I find that I can waste a colossal amount of time messing with formatting, so it’s helpful NOT to be able to.

    Len, I find that I can get bold formatting by putting an asterisk before and after the word, and then when it transfers into Microsoft Word it magically becomes bold face. I need underlining more, so I’m going to experiment to see if there’s a way to achieve that.

  • Jonquil


    Use underscores, and then tweak your version of Word so that “Emphasis” corresponds to underlining — see Microsoft’s KB for details.