Is Alphasmart STILL the ultimate writers' tool?


I've written about the Alphasmart before, but David Kadavy explains succinctly why it's so good: the creative focus of a typewriter, and you get a text file.

The things that are crappy about this piece of “technology” are the things that make it great for writing. Productivity is all about mind management, not time management, and this pile of plastic helps me keep my mind in the right brain state for writing – and writing only. 1) It doesn’t connect to the Internet. 2) It has a tiny, nearly useless, screen. 3) Editing on it is a pain in the ass. 4) It doesn’t connect to the cloud. (It hardly connects to your computer.)

There's still not much like it. The Freewrite (formerly the Hemingwrite) is a new gadget which is functionally similar, but it's $350, significantly larger, and looks very silly indeed.

There are various other instant-on writing gadgets like the Alphasmart, lurking in the vintage no-mans-land between "focused" and "maintenance hell"—the Cambridge Z88 has a cult following, and folks out there are still obsessed with their Portable Tandys.

pomeraThe Pomera Note DM100 appears to the best current answer to all these devices, but I haven't had a chance to give it a whirl. The NEC MobilePro 780/900, an instant-on Windows CE device similar to these but with a more traditional display, was my favorite writing gadget until it died. It has a cut-down Microsoft Word. The email and web browser are 15 years old and so useless at this point they should not distract from writing. But … maybe they will. It's got plenty on it to let you noodle around not writing.

Kadavy even praises the Alphasmart's crummy operating system, which makes editing so difficult you won't bother. More focus on creative dumping!


He's got a point, but there's a place for something more refined. No more features—just well-designed.

Here's what I would like: a compact bluetooth keyboard with a full-width e-ink display and an open-source OS. Turn off the BT and it goes into word processor mode. No fuss: just bluetooth, USB and at least one actually nice typeface.

It would look an awful lot like this Logitech keyboard. Imagine a nice high-dpi e-ink display instead of the solar panel. It would also come in green.


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  1. I really like mine but I have a few minor qualms with the interface (Neo2, these are all likely addressed on the Dana):

    • No Wordstar diamond (this is only a problem if you know what this is)
    • Highlighted text doesn't auto delete when typing, and text can only be highlighted in one buffer at a time. I would like to see either the mainstream auto delete highlighted text feature OR the wordstar / emacs styled persistent mark highlight.
    • The interface doesn't seem to be designed with keystroke minimization as a guideline.
    • I wish the screen was closer to the size of the Dana and that the bottom line had better visibility, as I'm often viewing it at an angle, I can't see the bottom of letters like gpyj which gets a little distracting.
    • The management software could be more polished / less bloated. I wish there was a nice minimal way of transferring texts without having to use the manager software.
    • The Greek capital sigma is referred to internally as a capital eta. Shame.

    But the battery life and overall neatness of the thing is outstanding. My favorite semi-obscure feature is ctrl+N, which will clear the current buffer and offer to save your current buffer with whatever filename, which can be reloaded whenever with ctrl+L. It's crazy light and you can plug it directly into a printer for a typewriter simulation where it spits out double spaced 12 point typewriter serifed font. The Alphasmart was originally Mac-only so the keyboard uses the Mac scheme for non-standard input characters. You can even change the keyboard layout to two different one handed setups, or dvorak. The storage is massive but not anywhere near a gigabyte.

    I've learned of a similar product called a Quickpad, which accepts memory sticks (iirc) and boots to what's basically a dos prompt, so you can make .bat files and stuff, which suits some people's purposes better. I think also the battery life on the Quickpad isn't as good but it's still very impressive compared to a laptop.

    These are the strange children of the TRS-80 Model 100.

  2. I actually had one for a little while! It was basically a really good word processor (but a full size desktop, which would make for some high-end ironic writing at the coffeehouse)

  3. Hmm ... this has me thinking. What could be hacked together with a Raspberry Pi. Joe would be perfect, it's probably the closest analogue to old school word processors like Word Star (@peemlives, you can get your diamond). There are all kinds of basic, low-powered displays that work with it (check out The original model A had no network connection by default. Another fun possible project to add to the list of things I'm unlikely to get to.

  4. Before I got an alphasmart I was actually pretty set on designing a 3d-printable frame that would take a Rpi with screen hat, a cellphone charging battery and a tenkeyless keyboard. I was planning on using jstar or emacs to actually write. Joe (in jstar mode) is probably my favorite text editor right now and I'm surprised that I didn't discover it years ago.

    I realized that I wouldn't be able to make anything as light, durable, reliable, inexpensive or with battery life nearly as good as an alphasmart. It would be much more versatile and and solar powerable, though.

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