Sunday, October 06, 2013

Obsolete But Still Functional


It came to me as a major disappointment, but no real surprise, to read about Renaissance Learning discontinuing their AlphaSmart Neo word processor keyboard. After all, we supposedly live in an era of mass-consumption of content, where the average person on the street is more apt to browse a website or upload a photo to Instagram, rather than write anything of significance, other than brief tweets on the minutia of their lives.

Back "in the day," when the only computing device a person owned happened to also function as a productivity-enhancing tool (I'm referring to the personal computer), a person could be found doing both, consuming as well as creating content. Back then, the computer was a rather universal tool. But less so now.

Between these two extremes, of the personal computer as content-creation tool and the tablet/smart phone as content-absorbing tool, were special-purpose devices like the AlphaSmart, a device designed originally to enhance the classroom instructional experience, but soon found to be an ideal writer's tool for distraction-free composing.

AlphaSmarts, like the Neo and Neo 2, comprise a desktop computer-worthy keyboard with a built-in dedicated text editor and battery-backed memory capable of several year's use between battery replacements. The device functions as a distraction-free writing tool because it lacks Internet or multimedia access, and saves each keystroke automatically. Turn off the machine mid-sentence and, returning to the work later, one finds the cursor in the same place, ready to resume one's work straight away.

The AlphaSmart Neo also has this nifty file system whereby a new document can be started simply by selecting one of eight file keys and a new, blank document is opened. All eight buttons can also have documents associated to them simultaneously, and can be accessed one after the other with no loss of data. However, for more advanced file management, each file can be saved with a file name and disassociated from its respective file key, left to reside in the AlphaSmart's memory, whereby room is made for a new document to be started.

There were some technological features we've gotten used to having that were lacking on the Neo, simply due to the lack of hardware updates over time (which, I feel, contributed most importantly to their demise). Most significant was that the documents in memory could not directly be moved from the Neo to a computer, via USB cable, as one would use a USB thumb drive, without using the proprietary transfer software on one's computer, or alternatively using the "send" command on the keyboard and transferring the file, character by character, into whatever data entry window was open on one's computing device.

This had the net effect of making the Neo very convenient for transferring short written documents into one's blog, for instance, but less convenient for transferring large files. Also, because of the nature of the Neo's USB port, it did not play well with iPad tablets, requiring a difficult to find powered interface to function with any resemblance to normalcy.

One could argue that what killed the AlphaSmart was blue-tooth connected tablet keyboards combined with inexpensive writing apps, making for a writing experience that, while less ergonomic than the Neo's near-ideal tactile keyboard, made up for it with wireless Internet connectivity into a more capable operating system. Deep down inside, past the simple LCD display and file structure, the Neo uses a Palm-based OS, something only us oldsters might remember from the days of Handspring Visors, Palm and Sony PDAs. In short, lack of a clear hardware upgrade roadmap doomed the AlphaSmart, whose primary market was classroom instruction via infrared link to an instructor's computer, rather than as an adult writer's tool.

Interestingly, a functioning Neo is still a very capable document creation tool, as I'm doing right now in writing this article. A built in spell checker also adds to its usefulness. This brings to mind the thought that, despite their obsolescence, tools like the AlphaSmart are still functional to this day, the only requirement being one's desire to use the device within its rather limited sphere of technological capability. In the case of composing first-drafts, a Neo is an ideal tool, being less of a capable editing tool only by its small LCD window that only yields a small portion of one's document visible at any one moment.

The same could be said of other obsolete writing tools like manual typewriters which, although directly outputting the work of one's fingers into mechanical type on paper, lacks any sort of editing or revision capability, other than White Out, correction tape or scissors.

Just as manual typewriters have enjoyed a minor renaissance as of late, through rediscovery by a younger generation as much transfixed by the novelty of the device as its usefulness, I believe AlphaSmarts, especially the Neo models, will retain some semblance of demand in their post-obsolescence phase, simply because of their compact size and weight, their mighty fine keyboard and amazing battery life. Alternatively, the same cannot be said for electric or electronic typewriters, mainly due to their lack of portability and high ribbon consumption (which cannot be reused in multiple passes, as can a cloth typewriter ribbon).

Myself, I intend on keeping my Neo for years to come, and hope to continue using it, between manual typewriter casts, as a blogging tool.

Post-Script: In the event that this article has inspired you, the curious reader, into desiring to own an AlphaSmart Neo for your very own, fear not, for as of the date of this writing, plenty of Neos remain in stock at Renaissance Learning for online purchase, at a very attractive price. Now would be a great time to pick up one (or two) for the holiday season to come, keeping that budding novelist on your shopping list in mind.

In case you were wondering as to the build quality and reliability of the Neo, fear not, for they are very rugged writing tools, being designed for the classroom environment, the only caveat being the recommendation to go with the three disposable AA-cells as a power option over the NiCad battery pack, and also to remember that there's an internal, board-mounted button cell memory backup battery, which should be replaced once every few years (while a fresh set of AA batteries is installed), in order to ensure glitch-free battery replacements down the road. Also, as with any electronic format of document, periodically backing up one's work into a computer is effort worth the while. With normal care, a Neo should function for decades to come, I'd estimate.

A note about using embedded markup language is in order. Since I've destined this document to be posted to my blog, and in my Blogger template, spaces between paragraphs are best insured by the inclusion of several "< br >" line breaks, I've chosen to write those brief snippets of HTML code directly into this document as I go. The same can be said for embedding bolded markups, also. And so, for those of you used to more sophisticated text enhancements to your online writings, a brief refresher course in HTML markup code is time well spent.

Concerning more sophisticated editing and cursor movements on the Neo, there is a label, affixed to the rear of the Neo, that lists a few Word Perfect-like shortcut commands. However, the detailed software manual that comes on the file transfer software installation disc includes a much more detailed list of shortcut commands, worthy of printing out and carrying with your Neo keyboard.

One ergonomic fault some have noted with the Neo is the rather flat position of the LCD display, making viewing one's document a bit more challenging on high tabletop surfaces. I've taken the liberty of crafting a simple collapsible support wedge, made from foamcore board and gaffers tape, that sits underneath the Neo keyboard and functions to angle the keyboard sufficiently to permit typing on flat tabletop surfaces an easier experience. This I keep stowed, along with my control character cheat sheet, in the accessory Neo carrying case, another purchase worthy of consideration.

Typecast via AlphaSmart Neo, photo via Lumix G5.

Post-Post-Script: Reviewing the Renaissance Learning store, it seems the Neo 2 is out of stock. However, their Dana model is still listed for sale, being a bit more sophisticated, and also more expensive.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What, no comments?? The NEO is the best thing that ever happened to me, as far as writing away from home goes. It simply can't be beat. Glad that mine is in mint condition (I bought it back in 2006!) Sad, but predictable, that Alphasmart would go under... one thing for sure about the NEO: when you are using it in public, 9 times out of 10 someone will come over and ask about your "computer"... they think it's the latest/greatest Apple gadget that you are beta-testing. Even after I explain to them exactly what it is and does, they still seems fascinated by it! Love my NEO!

2:13 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

HI Joe, I just found your article - it is an excellent overview of the Neo keyboards - totally objective. We also believe in the usefulness of the Neo/Neo2. We were the major Canadian reseller for this product and were very sad to see them discontinued. In case your readers are interested, we're selling reconditioned units from our webstore - - for very attractive prices. They are continuing to sell on a steady basis - mainly to schools and writers. Thanks! Rick

12:23 PM  

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