Previous post:

Next post:

AlphaSmart Neo review

January 1, 2007

in All Articles,Ereaders and ebooks,Laptops and netbooks,Miscellaneous

As I type this, I’m sitting at my friendly neighborhood Panera Bread. I’m one of the lucky ones who managed to grab a squishy chair right next to the fireplace (for those who aren’t Paneraheads, this is quite the primo seat).

So you’ve got an image in your head of some geeky weirdo hunched over a laptop, hogging a nice chair, justified by the purchase of a cup of coffee, right?

Wrong. Or, partially wrong. Geeky weirdo, check. Cup of coffee, yup. But laptop? No.

I write my columns on computers. I also use computers for entertainment and leisure. I also happen to be one of the foremost procrastinators on the planet. See a problem here? When I say I’m sitting down to “work”, I may actually be sitting down to “check email, read the Web, play games, and do anything besides work”.

So the image above is incorrect. I’m not typing this on a laptop. These words were typed on an AlphaSmart Neo. The Neo is a compact keyboard with a small display attached. It behaves like a simple word processor with perks. The perks are being able to save and work with multiple text files, run special programs (called “applets”), and send and receive information to computer via USB or infrared (the computer can be a Windows PC, a Mac, or even a Palm-compatible device).

The AlphaSmart Neo is small. Still big enough to have a keyboard with full-sized keys, its footprint is roughly the size of an 8.5×11 sheet of paper. It’s light and portable (containing mostly plastic and three AA batteries).

It’s not for everyone. If you don’t need work processing or specialized text-based software, the AlphaSmart Neo is not for you. But a wonderful target audience is writers. You could be a student taking notes, a writer working on a screenplay, an author writing on the next bestseller, the Neo is great for those who need to simply write. It’s not a laptop, but gives you full word-processing capability in a compact form any time you need it. For me, there’s a very important perk: Unlike working on my laptop, the AlphaSmart Neo gives me a keyboard, screen, and nothing more. I can focus and write. Nothing gets between me and the text I’m writing. No distractions (apart from the bagel I’m about to purchase).

AlphaSmart Neo benefits

This device has excellent battery life. After using the Neo for three hours straight, my battery life (from the brand-new three AA alkalines that came with my demo unit), was still at 100%. Assuming a linear battery drain and a battery change at 10% battery life, that still gives you a minimum runtime of 180 hours! (The AlphaSmart website claims the Neo gets 700+ hours… Anyone care to confirm this?) I often complain about battery life in portable devices. Not this time. The AlphaSmart Neo battery life puts others to shame. (Additional battery options are also available, including an AC-rechargeable internal battery, or you can always use your ownrechargeable batteries.)

AlphaSmart Neo problems

I love this device, and really hate to criticize anything about it. But, there are two things I’d make available if I were a designer:

More memory: By default, the AlphaSmart Neo’s memory capacity is pretty small: It comes with 512KB. I could fit roughly 130,000 words in memory before running out of space. (That’s 805,000 characters including spaces.) A generic novel might average 100,000 words, so this isn’t going to affect most people. However, memory is CHEAP, particularly in the sizes the Neo works with. But the unit has what I feel is a small amount of available memory, and isn’t expandable. Note that a primary focus of the Neo is for schools and teaching situations. If you want expandability and memory storage (as well as other features like wireless capability and PalmOS compatibility), check out the AlphaSmart Dana Wireless.

Independence from a PC: If you compose text on your Neo, you will need a PC in order to save your work. You’ll also use a PC to manage your Neo’s installed programs. I’d like to see the Neo be more PC independent. For example, have a slot for a memory card, with the capability to perform a full system backup to that card. True, the Neo itself can print to USB printers or beam files to other devices, but the memory limitation above still ensures that information at some point will need to be saved back on a PC. The Neo is an incredibly simple device to use, and so becomes more reliable and stable. Giving the unit more independence will add to the simplicity of use.

It should be said these “problems” are really just things I’d like to change if I were an AlphaSmart Neo designer. Truly, I’m very impressed with the unit, and would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone. It’s a brilliantly-designed portable word processor with plenty of educational software. I like it, and frankly, am jealous of those who get to use one on a regular basis.

If you’re a writer or teacher looking for educational software for students, I strongly recommend the AlphaSmart Neo.

Readers Respond

Maureen asks:

“Can I hook the Neo directly to my printer; or does it need to go through a PC?”

Yes, the AlphaSmart Neo supports USB printing directly to “most” USB printers.

“Do I need to connect to my PC after EVERY use to save documents?”

The documents will stay on the Neo indefinitely, or until you delete them. You only need to connect to the PC (by cable or infrared) when you’re concerned about backing up your documents, or transferring them to PC for archiving, emailing, or similar reasons.

For more information, see the Neo user guide PDF.

Mike says:

“I read your review on the Alpasmart Neo, and being a Neo owner (who just happened to be browsing other word processor options on the internet for screen size improvements when I found your review), I would like to comment on your review.  You ask if anyone cares to confirm battery life.  In my experience with my Neo, which I’ve had since Christmas of ’07, Alphasmart has definitely not overstated claims on battery life. I use mine almost every day, sometimes for 2-3 hours at a stretch, and estimate I have used it a total of 300 hours.  My battery indicator still shows that I have over 90 % of my (original) batteries remaining.  Is the meter accurate?  Are the batteries super high quality?  I don’t know for sure…but I am simply blown away by so many of the features of this little machine.  The only thing I would have be different about it is that I would like be able to see at least half a page of text…but then, the battery life (or size) would be compromized.  This said, I agree with you that the Neo is best used in combination with a PC for editing (and thorough use) purposes.  I have yet to hook it up to my printer and see if I could do all my work completely free of a computer.”

Previous post:

Next post: