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The AlphaSmart: This $19 portable word processor is a writer’s secret weapon
UPDATE (8/31/2015): I loved the form factor so much, I upgraded to an Alphasmart NEO, which has a much nicer keyboard feel, and (regrettably) displays slightly more type 😉
Technology has made a lot of things about writing easier. You can save little scraps of information in Evernote, write and edit with ease, and you don’t have to go to the library to do research.
But, technology hasn’t made it any easier to concentrate, and actually write. This doesn’t need explanation. Twitter. Facebook. ’nuff said.
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That’s why I invested $19 in this piece of junk. It’s a little portable word processor, called the AlphaSmart 3000, that was made for use in classrooms way back in the year 2000. It’s been discontinued, but you can still buy them used on Amazon.
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) The AlphaSmart doesn’t connect to the Internet
If a computer is a “bicycle for the mind,” then a computer connected to the Internet is a bumper car for the mind.
Sometimes, being able to jet your brain off to the far corners of cyberspace at a moment’s notice is a bad thing. For example, if you want to write.
If the AlphaSmart 3000 is any kind of bike, it’s a “fixie” (with a banana seat and streamers). It doesn’t connect to the Internet, and that’s probably the best sucky thing about it. When you are sitting in front of your AlphaSmart 3000, there is no Internet. There are only the thoughts in your mind, and the keys on your fingers. This makes it perfect for writing.
2) The AlphaSmart has a tiny, nearly useless, screen
There’s no 27-inch Thunderbolt display here. Instead there’s a tiny LCD display that shows you four lines of your writing in a jagged-assed font.
Additionally, this piece of shit screen is way down on the keyboard, so you have to crane your neck down to look at it. It’s much better to just stare off into space, or close your eyes, either of which, for me, are better ways to write.
This tiny little screen makes the AlphaSmart 3000 great for one thing: writing. You aren’t thinking about what you just wrote. You are only thinking about what you’re writing.
3) Editing on the AlphaSmart is a pain in the ass
The AlphaSmart 3000 has a series of whack-ass features for editing. There’s the spell-check, which moves with all of the urgency of a snail with a head cold. There’s also the ability to select text, copy, and paste with all of the nimbleness of a mosquito encased in amber. These “features,” along with its tiny screen mean you aren’t editing shit on this piece of junk.
The AlphaSmart 3000 sucks for editing. You know what it’s good for, though? Writing. Editing is not writing. Only writing is writing.
4) The AlphaSmart doesn’t connect to the cloud. (It hardly connects to your computer.)
I hate to break it to you. Whatever it is you’re writing, your first draft probably sucks. Even Hemingway supposedly said:
The first draft of anything is shit.
So, stop treating the words of your first draft like drops of water in that scene from The Golden Child. The most important thing that gets produced in most first drafts isn’t so much the writing itself, but the connections you build in your brain.
You can sleep on them, and then the next day, go re-write the whole thing on your favorite cloud-based software.
If you happen to write a magical first-draft, though, you can always hook up your AlphaSmart 3000 via USB, and “import” your writing. I’m warning you, though: It sucks. You have to sit there and wait while this piece of junk literally retypes what you’ve written into a document on your computer.
It’s worth it, though. Why? Because this piece of junk is great for writing.
Things that are just awesome about this piece of junk
This thing didn’t earn a key spot in my creative arsenal on its suckiness alone. There are some things about it that beat your laptop:
- It has INSANE battery life. Never search for an outlet in a cafe again. This thing gets a full year of heavy use on 3 AA batteries.
- It powers up FAST. Press the “on/off” button, and you’re writing within 5 seconds.
- Your work is ALWAYS saved. You may find yourself habitually hitting “Cmd+S” on the AlphaSmart, but it doesn’t matter. Your writing is saved instantly. You can power it on just to write a few notes, then immediately power it off and get back to what you were doing.
I keep my AlphaSmart 3000 handy in my living room. My most creative time is first thing in the morning, while I’m still groggy. I can grab it, sit on my couch, and be drafting my thoughts in a matter of seconds.
Best of all, there’s nothing to distract me. No browser windows open from the day before, no iMessages or Software Update notifications, no extraneous interface elements, and no temptation to check email. The distraction factor is so low, I hardly ever need to 10-minute hack these sessions.
Things that are just neutral, and good-to-know about this piece of junk are that you can save your work on 8 files, each of which are accessed by pressing one of the “file” keys at the top of the keyboard. Each of these files will hold about 12.5 pages worth of data, for a total of around 100 pages of work you can save.
Considering buying a portable word processor? Here are some of your options.
The AlphaSmart 3000 isn’t the only portable word processor out there, but finding a good-conditioned one (I got mine used from the seller “Kuombell2”) is the cheapest and quickest way to start enjoying the distraction-free benefits of a device that isn’t good for much but writing.
My original intention was to use this cheap purchase as an “idea date,” to test out how I liked the form factor, then consider any more expensive options that are out there. The form factor has definitely proved itself as very powerful, but so far, I’m still happy with my AlphaSmart 3000, and don’t currently plan to replace it.
There are a number of different AlphaSmart models out there, available used, and they don’t get much more expensive than about $60.
If you know you’re serious about a portable word processor, and want it to back up to the cloud, there was a Kickstarter for a product called The Hemingwrite (now just “Freewrite”), due out in September 2015. But, the price tag at the time of the campaign was considerably higher: $349.
If you do get an AlphaSmart 3000, I highly recommend getting a USB cable for connecting it to your computer. If you go with a different model, be sure to do your research on whether you need a cable or not (the AlphaSmart 2000, for example, only has a serial port – no USB).
If you want to go even lower-tech, my friend Shlok writes his drafts on paper…using a typewriter. He marks up, then retypes into a computer while editing.
4 sucky things about this $19 piece of junk that make it AMAZING for writing http://t.co/ttSnqC1fSJ pic.twitter.com/R3CC0eexOy
— ? David Kadavy (@kadavy) June 23, 2015
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