Are you doing nanowrimo, or are you just looking for a convenient, lightweight word processor to help with work productivity? Before cellphones, tablets and laptops were standard briefcase equipment, when I attended meetings or drafted my fiction, I used a legal pad and a pen. Around 2005, I sat at a table at a tech conference and noticed a colleague typing notes into a keyboard-like device. “What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s an Alphasmart, otherwise known as my Appalachian laptop.”
The Alphasmart was originally designed in 1993 as a battery-powered, portable word processor for classrooms by Renaissance Learning. Early models just produced Ascii text that could be uploaded into a computer, but by the time I first encountered the NEO2, the manufacturer had added features such as spell check and copy and paste. At the time, a class set of Alphasmarts was cheaper than a single laptop. In addition to students, the portability, low cost, and ease of use made this an attractive tool for writers.
The RenLearn company stopped making them in 2003, likely because prices on tablets and laptops came down, but if you can find one, the Alphasmart makes a convenient tool for writers. (Three of the four of us in my critique group use Neo2s.) The device is the size of a notebook, runs on 3 AA batteries, and weighs only two pounds. Each of its eight files holds up to twenty pages apiece. The alpha has excellent battery life, shuts off if you walk away from the unit, and autosaves the current file. When you turn it back on it brings you to the last place you left off.
The biggest advantage for writers is, unlike a laptop, one is not distracted by the internet. Also, if you’re late night drafter like me, you can take it to bed and not be distracted by blue light. (I wrote the draft of this article during a bout of insomnia.)
The biggest drawback is that each file doesn’t hold much more than 26 Kilobytes, (one of my students lost her entire project when she overloaded the memory with 40 pages) so you have to upload your files frequently. They’re no longer manufactured, but you can still buy a used Alphasmart online from eBay, ETSY, Amazon, and other tech vendors. Back in in 2005, I bought mine new for approximately 250 bucks, but now you can find one find one for as low as $20. Most models don’t connect directly to a printer, so be sure to get the cord if you buy an older model that does not have infrared file transfer.
The portability, ease of use, and low cost make various models of the Alphasmart a perfect tool for nanowrimos. It fits in a tote bag, doesn’t require much table space or access to an electrical outlet, and won’t overheat if you place the device directly on your lap.
If you just can’t stand buying something used, another alternative, though costlier, is the Freewrite ($300-$600 depending on the model.) It does basically the same thing as the bomb-proof Alphasmart. The advantage is the company still makes them. Whatever you choose, you won’t regret having a supplemental writing tool.
— By Laura Moe
Laura Moe is the author of three novels (two of which began as nanowrimos) and is currently vice president of development at Edmonds -based EPIC Group Writers. Click here to learn more about National Novel Writing Monthand its local affiliates.