I recently read some advice about always taking a notebook, two pencils and a sharpener on any flights. This, of all the writing advice I've read, has been the most useful. I have done so on every single flight since reading it. I managed to write 24,000 words on my Australian trip. I wrote about 10,000 words on a long weekend to Spain (mainly the flights, but a few odd moments in the shade of a tree, next to the pool). And coming up, I have an 8 hour round trip flight to Tenerife. Despite using the notebook and pencil method, I did still had to type up the story afterwards, which was slightly tedious.
I read on an online group I'm a member of that a writer had an Alphasmart 3000 for sale. I had no idea what that was, so I googled it, and discovered this whole world of portable word processors which had no access to the internet. They're not really computers, because they only word process, and don't connect to the internet. You may have heard of the Hemmingwrite, which is being produced using a Kickstarter campaign. It is meant to go back to basics with what a writer needs – a tool to create words, and that is all. The reason I'm slightly reluctant to invest in a Hemmingwrite are 1) it's $350 to buy 2) it backs up through the cloud, and if the company's 'cloud' fails, or the company goes bust, and hence the cloud goes with it, there's no way to get the words from the Hemmingwrite to a computer to share with anyone. 3) it doesn't as of today, technically exist, yet. I'm sure it will exist to buy, but at the moment it doesn't.
And that's what brought me to this world of basic word processors, from the Alphasmart 3000. Because this is what I do before I buy something, I researched them to death and founds lots of writers blogging about having these Alphasmart devices. Some links below if you're interested:
Alphasmart Neo Research - as I said, I really got into the research!
through the ressearch, I discovered that the Alphasmart 3000 had a relatively small memory and was quite old. I discovered the last model the company made was a Dana, with a back lit screen and an operating system from a Palm Pilot. Its batteries lasted 25-30hours. This, I felt was a step too far – if I wanted all that functionality, I'd just use my laptop.
The Neo was the model most praised by writers, journalists travelling around the world. It has a 700hour battery life – uses 3 standard AA batteries. That's some pretty heroic freedom from a mains plug isn't it? My laptop, even with its new battery, only gives me max 4hrs battery life.
The Neo can be connected to a computer using a manager programme, but I'm not into downloading programmes onto my laptop and I'm all for keeping things simple. That was where the Neo was pretty magic. You just connect it with a USB cord to a laptop, open the file you want to transfer on the Neo, open a word processing programme and new file on the laptop, then press send on the Neo, and the words appear on the word document. The laptop things it's a keyboard, typing the words as it goes. It's pretty magical to watch the words appear on the screen while you do nothing. There's no compatibility issues, no downloading software, just plug in with USB and press a button on the NEO. Sometimes I watch the words appear, sometimes I make myself a cup of tea and leave it running in the background.
The other great thing about the Neo is its weight – 800g or less than 2lbs for you imperial people out there. Yes, this is more than an Ipad, but have you tried typing on an Ipad without a keyboard attached? As someone who touch types, it is vile to type on a screen. Also the whole balancing laptop and keyboard on lap thing isn't great either in my experience. Because there's no hinged separate screen the Neo should be easier to write on tray table / on lap during flights.
This summer I tried to write in the back garden; it was a beautiful day and it seemed such a shame to sit inside. I set up a table outside under the shade of a tree, with my post it notes of planning next to the laptop and basically couldn't see anything. The screen was too shiny to really work outside.
The Neo's screen is small LCD, about the size of a chocolate bar, and can show between 2 and 6 lines of text at one time. I have it set on 4 lines as that displays about the right size and I can see the last few bits I've written. Anyway, the LCD is perfectly visible outside in the bright sun.
Because the Neo isn't really a computer, it only does word processing, there's no internet distractions. If I want to look something up while I'm writing, I have to stop using the Neo, and use my smart phone. This is takes much more of a conscious decision than clicking on firefox and opening a browser on my laptop.
Another benefit of it not being a proper computer is it's solid state – no whirring hard drive, DVD drive, or fan to make noise. The only noise on the Neo is the clicking of the keyboard, just like on a good laptop's keyboard, or an electronic typewriter. My laptop has a sold state hard drive which means it boots up v quickly. It is a boon, and a massive improvement on Gummidge, my 2006 Dell laptop. However, even the new laptop has nothing on, yep, you guessed it, the Neo. Because it's solid state, it's instant on too. Yep, even quicker than an ipad. You press the on/off button (or hold down enter and then press that button to prevent it accidentally turning on while in your bag) and in less than 2 secs it's there, back to the exact place you were last writing in your document, just like if you'd opened up a notebook and flicked to your last page.
How much writing can it store?
It has a whopping 513k of memory! A-ma-zing eh? ;-) It has 8 buttons for 8 files, and into each you can save approx 25pages of single spaced A4 text, making 200 pages; more than enough for a decent sized novel. *update* Currently, file 1 has 5242 words or 13.8 pages on it and the status bar is showing it's 27% full, so scaling this up it looks like approx 5000 words = 25% full per file, so that's 20,000 words per file. Multiplied by 8 files, that's 160,000 words! I doubt I'll ever need that much storage because every time I'm 'back to base' I plan on 'sending' it to my laptop and clearing the Neo's memory. For me it's about having a device where I can write, just about anywhere, in sun, with no distractions, with no power, anywhere.
Why were they built?
These devices were designed for use in schools to teach keyboarding skills, and so teachers could beam tests to them. They all network together if needed. This means it's designed to be pretty tough. I've read it can be dropped from 4 feet high and be fine. I'm not going to try that one out, but as long as it's tough enough to be thrown into my bag in its little case and jangle around with my other junk, I'm fine with that.
And how much did I pay for this archaic single use piece of hardware?
New, they were about $200, but they stopped selling them in 2011, I think it was. Would I have paid that for one – about half the price of a netbook? To be honest, I don't need a netbook, never have done, I'm happy with my laptop. The Neo performs another function and had I known about it before I would have probably bought one. Because it's still cheaper than the fancy schmansy Hemmingwrite, without the cloud issues I've highlighted before.
What did I pay for mine? They don't sell them new any more. I scoured Ebay for them, once I'd researched which model I was going to buy, I found loads of them on Ebay. You can buy them individually or in lots of up to 20 or so – obviously ex-school stock bought in bulk. I paid £54 for two, including delivery from America. Why did I buy two? One was £40 and I thought for an extra 14 quid I've got a spare one. The postage wasn't much more for two than one, so...I am so my mother's son.
I could have bought one cheaper, but I wanted to make sure the one I bought was 1) tested to work 2) had new batteries and 3) came with the special USB cable it needs to connect to a computer. Having those three things in place when I bought it was well worth paying a bit extra. If you want to buy one, just search ebay for Alphasmart Neo and a list will come up; check for the 3 points above if you're a bit 'belt and braces' like me, and you should be fine.
Well, that's me and my new to me, used Neo, and I've written this whole thing on it. (I've edited the article slightly on my laptop, but basically the whole thing was written on it.)
I'll be blogging about what it's like living with it over the coming months. If I do Nanowrimo this year – still tbc – I will probably use it as my main writing device because I'll take it everywhere.
Until next time,
Liam Livings xxx