It’s no secret: most writers are picky about the tools of their trade. Vladimir Nabokov composed in pencil on 3x5 notecards which he then kept in a little filing box. Neil Gaiman is known for his obsession with fountain pens. I have cycled through a variety of tools, from failed attempts in intimidatingly elegant journals, all the way to cheap ballpoint Bic pens and somewhat Nabokovian squares of scrap paper when I worked at a drugstore and that’s what I could get my hands on. I find it hard to write fiction on my laptop, because it’s cheap and grubby and generates a lot of heat and there is the eternal lure of the internet, just an alt+tab away. It’s a bad vibe. It’s a whole series of bad vibes.
However, in March 2011 I saw the light.
Alphasmart is a company that specializes in portable word processors. They have several models, but the one I fell in love with is called the Neo. (Since I bought mine, there has been a Neo 2 released, but apparently the main difference is a change in color from army green to a demure gray.) The thing about the Neo is that it’s a portable word processor, and that's it. Just a keyboard with an itty bitty screen that displays a maximum of 6 lines of text at a time, unless you choose to download some fonts that allow you to display up to 11 lines. (I prefer using an 8-line display).
Its features include a spell checker, a dictionary, a thesaurus, a find-and-replace tool, word/page/paragraph count, normal keyboard shortcut functions (plus a list on the bottom of the device of more useful shortcuts, such as ctrl+w for wordcount), and an English-to-Spanish word lookup. It also has a calculator and an applet that teaches you typing, if you're so inclined.
It has 8 files, each of which is immediately accessible by a key at the top of the keyboard, and each can be password protected. Each file can old roughly 9000 words, with a total capacity of approximately 200 pages, or 72,000 words. It connects to your Mac, PC, or printer with a USB port, and there are a couple different ways to transfer your text. You can use the infrared beamer device (which I’ve never tried). Or you can plug it in, open any word processing program and hit “send” and the Neo will send your text line-by-line as if typed by invisible hands. Or, if you have a lot of text to send, you can download the Neo Alphasmart Manager for free and transfer files with the click of a couple of buttons.
Even more amazing: the Neo has incredible battery life. On three AA batteries it can run up to 700 hours. SEVEN HUNDRED HOURS. It's instant on-and-off, too, so you never have to wait for it to boot. (And when you turn it on it returns immediately to the place you were last typing, which is something even Microsoft Word doesn't do.) You can set it up to have a two-button on function so it doesn’t turn itself on accidentally in its bag. Additionally, it's totally silent except for the clicking of the keys, and it generates no heat, like a calculator. And it weighs less than 2 pounds. It's been compared in size and weight to a regular paper notebook. This is great for me; since an ill-fated decision to lug my books around in a tote bag in high school, I’ve had an on-and-off back issue that is especially aggravated by any weight hanging from my right shoulder, but the Neo is so lightweight I can trot it down to my favorite coffee shop every morning and never feel a pinch.
Most people have only one complaint, and that is the lack of a backlight on the screen. The other product that Alphasmart currently makes, the Dana, DOES have a backlight, but it also comes with a Palm OS and wi-fi, so you can check your email obsessively instead of getting your writing done. Personally, I don't do a lot of writing in the dark (and I think that staring at a backlit screen is unpleasant anyway) so this isn't a problem for me. Plus, the screen is highly readable in full light and the contrast is about the same as a calculator too, which is perfect for me. (I used to change the background color in Word to grey so the high contrast of black on white didn’t hurt my eyes.)
Another thing people complain about is the lack of extra storage space. The Dana model has an SD slot, which is smart, but with the Neo you're stuck with a limit of 200 pages. But really, that's about the size of a standard novel, so it's not a serious design flaw. And honestly, with a screen the size of a candy bar, there’s not much point in storing your whole novel on the device; I think it works best to use it for writing in smaller chunks and regularly backing up your text onto your computer.
Finally, it is NOT good for formatting; The only thing you can do is indent. But you can use _this_ to italicize things or *this* to bold things, so when you transfer your text to Word it automatically performs those formatting functions. Still not a problem for me -- I prefer doing first drafts as minimalistically as possible, often in Notepad, so I'm used to composing first without formatting.
Here is a review from a long-time user, going into more of the specifics of the Neo's features.
I should mention that as far as comfort goes, typing on the Neo is a dream. The keyboard is very sturdy and comfortable with a descent that's not too long so your strokes can be really efficient. The scissor-switch mechanism (which allows the key to move down and forces it to spring up when you remove pressure) has a nice bounce to it. And the keys themselves have a slight concave curve to them so your fingertips can rest in them quite comfortably. When I first got it, I tested it by copying down a couple pages from a word file and I was typing so fast I swear it sounded like machine gun fire. Very quiet machine gun fire. You can also use it as a second keyboard for your computer; just plug it in with the USB cable, open up your favorite word processing program, and start typing. Especially nice if your computer’s keyboard isn’t that great.
It was also designed with primary school students in mind, so it's built to last. One user tested its durability by repeatedly dropping it from chest-height to the hard ground, and it didn't get so much as a dent. Its toughness makes it perfect for travel -- toss it in your backpack, go forth and write! Alphasmart makes quality products and they have a loyal fanbase who are surprisingly helpful in the event that something does go wrong. This semester I pulled my Neo out of my admittedly overfull backpack and found that the S key had popped off. I was devastated because I have precisely zero handyman skills, and after struggling to put the keycap back on it was lopsided and I actually managed to snap part of the scissor-switch in half. I went onto the Alphasmart group on Flickr and found an illustrated tutorial on how to replace scissor-switches and keycaps and in five minutes my keyboard was as good as new. (It’s worth it to check out that group in any case, especially for the awesome mods that people have done. There’s a whole lotta love for this little device and it is entirely justified.
Even if you want to buy it new, the Neo is relatively inexpensive -- the current price for the Neo 2 is $119 with the hardware and software you can use (but don't necessarily need) to connect with your computer. And you can get it much cheaper on eBay or Amazon, if you like to buy used! I ordered mine used from eBay for only $60 from a middle school that was either downsizing or upgrading its writing equipment. It's in perfect condition except for some Sharpie markings on the bottom, and it came with the original manuals, the USB transfer cable, and a carrying case (which itself is worth about $20) with an incredibly comfortable strap. Renaissance Learning, the company that makes the Neo, is currently taking old Neos for $25 off your purchase of a Neo 2. I'm tempted, but I love my little guy too much to trade him in just yet.
Bottom line: if you do a lot of writing, you want to be free from distractions, and you like to write on the go, the Neo is definitely for you.