The Perfect Tool for the Writer on the Go: Alphasmart Portable Keyboard
These days, you can’t go anywhere without seeing people typing away on their laptops. In coffee houses, parks, airports, trains, college campuses — anywhere you go, people have laptops out and are, ostensibly, getting work done. (Or, more likely, playing Desktop Tower Defense.)
Good for them. They’ve got maybe two hours before their battery fails, and then they’ve got to lug around that 6 extra pounds until they get it home. Hopefully — laptop make excellent targets for thieves, too.
I have a laptop — I work all over the house with it. But I never take it out of the house. Even though it’s not very heavy, it’s heavy enough to kill my shoulders, and I’m terrified that something will happen to it.
Instead, I have an Alphasmart 3000, an absolutely amazing device.
Designed for schoolchildren, the Alphasmart is a no-frills, single-purpose word processing machine. It has a full-size keyboard, a 4-line black-on-gray LCD screen, and storage for up to 8 files of 12 1/2 pages each.
Because it’s built for schoolchildren, it’s tough as heck. Because it doesn’t do anything fancy, it’s small and light — maybe two pounds. And because it’s essentially a keyboard with a screen and a little memory, it barely uses any power — it gets up to 700 hours of use on 3 AA batteries. And it comes on almost instantly — no boot up time.
The Alphasmart isn’t just practical — it’s also, dare I say, “spiritual”. OK, I don’t dare — that’s too much. Still, it has a Zen-like simplicity. All it does is write. You can, with some difficulty, cut-and-paste, but I don’t advise it — remember, you can only see 4 lines at a time. It has no fonts, no paragraph styles, no italics or boldface, no bulleted lists, no section headings. You can’t play with it, is what I’m saying.
All you an do is write. You sit down with the Alphasmart in front of you and you write. No email, no Minesweeper, no distractions of any sort. When you use an Alphasmart, you’re just writing. You don’t even have to save — the Alphasmart saves everything automatically (until you clear the file).
Later, when your writing is done, you can easily import it into your favorite word processor. You connect the USB cable (any USB cable with the appropriate end will work — I take the cable out of my scanner) and the Alphasmart automatically goes into “send” mode. Your computer — PC, Mac, doesn’t matter — sees it as a generic keyboard (you can even use it to write on your PC, if you want). Open any program — Word, OpenOffice.org, Notepad, doesn’t matter — and hit “send”. The Alphasmart sends your keystrokes to the open program. It’s like watching a ghost typist type up your story, article, or play.
The latest Alphasmart, the NEO, sells at the Alphasmart website for $219 US. (They also sell the Dana, which is something different — an Alphasmart built around the Palm operating system. You don’t need it.) But there are plenty of used Alphasmart 3000s and 2000s (with slightly less memory than the 3000) floating around; they tend to show up on eBay for around $80 US. Definitely a worthwhile investment considering the benefits they offer for writers!