AlphaSmart Neo Teardown: This Is The Way To Write Without Distractions

History will always have its in-between technologies — that stuff that tides us over while the Next Big and Lasting Thing is getting the kinks worked out of it. These kinds of devices often do one thing and do it pretty well. Remember zip drives? Yeah you do. Still have mine.

The halcyon days of the AlphaSmart NEO sit in between the time where people were chained to heavy typewriters and word processors and the dawn of on-the-go computing. Early laptops couldn’t be trusted not to die suddenly, but the NEO will run for 700 hours on three AAs.

The NEO stands for the freedom to get your thoughts down wherever, whenever, without the need for a desk, paper, ink, ribbons, power cords, and the other trappings that chain people indoors to flat surfaces. And that’s exactly what was so tantalizing to me about it. Inspiration can truly strike anywhere at any time, so why not be prepared? This thing goes from off to blinking cursor in about a second and a half. There’s even a two-button ‘on’ option so you don’t run the battery down or accidentally erase files while it’s in your bag.

These might be the world’s greatest scissor switches.
L-R: DC power, IR, USB-B, and USB-A for connecting to a printer.

I bought this funny little word processor a few years ago when I wanted to attempt NaNoWriMo — that’s National Novel Writing Month, where you write 50,000 words towards a novel, non-fiction book, or short story collection in any genre you want. It averages out to 1,667 words a day for 30 days. Some days it was easy, some days it was not. But every non-Hackaday word I typed that month was on this, my Mean Green Words Machine.

Whenever Inspiration Strikes

The AlphaSmart NEO word processor was originally sold to writers in the early 2000s who were tearing out their hair from the distractions of dying laptop batteries and the early Internet. They were also marketed to schools and given to kids as typing trainers for around ten years, which is why there are so many of them on the secondhand market. I will say that the NEO certainly hits a sweet spot of utility without being so versatile and useful as to be a distraction.

As much as I like my NEO, I would never have paid $219 for it.

These can still be had for about $40 shipped on the electronic bay. That is quite the stunning departure from the $219 USD price tag of 2008 when this ad was gracing the back covers of all the writing magazines.

Although I think of the NEO primarily as a word processor, that’s not the only thing it does. The writing function is one of a few so-called applets. There’s also a calculator that keeps a running history, a typing trainer and a quiz applet that lets teachers upload tests from a computer. There’s also a beamer program for sending files back to the teacher over IR.

Two Good Things in One

My NEO definitely served its purpose during NaNoWriMo, and that’s because of a number of things. At 1.5 lbs (709 g), it’s not heavy enough to weigh down your lap if the 1,667 words are taking a long time to come out. The full keyboard is pretty much perfect — there’s no pounding necessary to actuate the keys, which means better flow and more words total. Honestly, the keyboard action is fantastic. It’s just scissor switches under there, but they’re wonderful. Here, take a listen:

NEO can show up to six lines of text at a time, so the words disappear as you go, but you can still see far enough back that you won’t get lost. You can easily check your word count or the remaining battery percentage with different two- and three-key combinations that are listed in the quick guide on the back. Each day when I was finished writing, I backed up my work by streaming the words to my PC serially, one character at a time. That’s not the only way to send files. They can also be sent en masse with the AlphaSmart manager software, or for classroom purposes, can be individually beamed over IR to a special receiver.

The Dana seems like it would be the better option, but it’s overpowered in my opinion.

I can’t use it for too long at a time anymore because of the whole RSI thing, but I used to carry this around in the car with me because it’s so rugged. If you were at Supercon in 2019, you may have seen me using it in conjunction with my laptop. That’s one of my favorite features — that it can be used as a plug-n-play keyboard.

After the NEO2, AlphaSmart came up with the Dana, which is like a grander, Palm-powered version of the NEO that also runs PalmOS applications. The screen is bigger than everything before it, there’s a battery-gulping backlight, and a touchscreen meant to be used with a stylus.

The Dana also has dual SD card support, but they have to be SD 1.0 technology, be 1Mb or smaller, and FAT12 formatted. I would love to use my Dana more often, but am too afraid of battery drain, with or without the backlight on. Also, I don’t trust the SD card situation. Might as well send files over USB.

Mod Mode

One of the few things that bothers me about the NEO is the lack of a backlight. I tried to add a backlight panel to it, but there just isn’t enough room for it. I still might try to edge-light it, but for now, I just did a simple hack to power an external light.

All I did was run a wire from the battery case over to the female USB-A port meant to connect to a printer. I got a cheap USB reading light from the dollar store with a bendy neck, and added a resistor to make it dimmer. When I need more light, I just plug it in.

I got this idea from [newsINcinci] on reddit who made their NEO into a Bluetooth keyboard by doing the port-powering mod, and then plugging in a Bluetooth adapter with a USB bridge.

Teardown Time

Under the hood.

NEO doesn’t have a whole lot going on behind the matrix under the hood. The brain is a 33MHz DragonballVZ, which is a 68000-based processor made by Freescale/Motorola. The VZ saves every keystroke to RAM, which is unnoticeable in operation but makes it quite important to keep a fresh coin cell on board.

Inputs and outputs.
Dragonball VZ!

I would still like to add edge lighting someday, but I would have to cut into the metal bezel around the display to get to the edge in the first place.

NEO is a great distraction-free writing tool and all-around external keyboard. I would think the 68k-based processor should make it ripe for hacking, but that stuff is out of my wheelhouse. If I could, I would add microSD support, but I don’t really mind getting the files over USB. Wiring up an internal Bluetooth transmitter could be fun.

The LCD’s PCB.
The bezel I would have to cut to edge light the display.

I kind of wish these were still used in schools instead of full-blown laptops. I learned to type on a IBM Selectric typewriter in the early 1990s and often wished I could have practiced on something at home. I suppose that’s not really a problem these days, but distraction-free typing hardware is getting harder to nail down.

36 thoughts on “AlphaSmart Neo Teardown: This Is The Way To Write Without Distractions

    1. Yup. In the UK I can remember using these when I was around age 8-10 during the late 90s. It just behaved as an ADB keyboard and you could watch it “type” out your file into any application, which I think must have been Claris Works.

    2. Yes, the original, gray ones, just had ADB connectors and you had to adapt to PS2. Schools have been chucking them by the truckloads every time the next generation comes around. When Netbooks became a thing and later Chromebooks and iPads, they died. Renaissance Learning acquired the product around the NEO era. They compelled a few teachers to use the product, my niece used one with Accelerated Writer, a writing program for kids. Her younger brother just used a Chromebook when he came to that age.

      They were part of the usual school purchasing cycle, every 4 years all the old media goes in the trash. They were relevant in that awkward late 1990 early 2000s before Chromebooks, iPads and subscription based learning tools.

    3. i have a learning disability and an IEP, and the school had several of these for people like me, paid for using federal tax dollars, but i was suspended for using one in class one day and hated them since. no students or teachers were allowed to use them. it was considered a threat to other students or some other BS. can you spell kickback?

      but playing violent shooting-killing videogames on a full-size laptop in class is okay…
      this is why we cant have nice things. or nice people.

  1. > but distraction-free typing hardware is getting harder to nail down.
    Now THAT is a challenge. It wouldn’t be hard at all to stuff some simple brains into a wireless mechanical keyboard and hack in a LCD panel and maybe an SD slot.

      1. If you want a full blown set of functions, but what if you only wanted a set of comfort stuff to write on the go?
        It would make an interesting piece of equipment with just some usb support and a nice keyboard.

    1. There already looks like a nice place to put an SD card slot next to the power jack. There’s also what looks like it might be JTAG and maybe a second location for a coin cell. It’s interesting that there are a few unpopulated components, it always makes me wonder what functionality could be added. I also wonder what it would take to add custom applets, maybe a TV remote, as it’s already got IR.

  2. A month or so ago I did a AlphaSmart Dana overview video, with a comparison to a Palm IIIe: http://youtube.com/watch?v=LN6yi5GvL5g I haven’t used a Neo, but the Dana is a great device. It’s a shame PalmOS is so, well, dead. I haven’t seen any other GUI OS which did so much in so little and so well.

    Also, if you’re into writing, you may like my minimalist word processor, WordGrinder: http://cowlark.com/wordgrinder/ It’ll run on Unix, OSX or Windows, either GUI or a console. (Except for OSX, where there isn’t a GUI version.) Its purpose is to have just enough features to write prose in a distraction-free environment, and nothing more. If you want to set up an old laptop as an X11-free writing station, this is for you.

  3. I had the Dana Wireless. it sounds cool, an Alphasmart with WiFi! but it’s 802.11b, and you’re stuck with the inability to run most PalmOS apps on it properly because of the wonky screen size. There’s an IRC app that supports it, and an SSH client, but it only supports SSHv1, with SSHv2 support never coming to the platform, same as the Newton, because it would be “too complicated” which I feel is a load of bull of “I’m done farting around with this old OS I code in Ruby now” from the time period.

    The big issue I had with mine was the NiMH pack was bad. So what I did was wire up the NiMH charging circuit directly to the AA battery terminals instead, and used some Duracell LSD NiMH cells in it like that. I can’t say I got the best battery life, but I did manage to get some. While I loved that it ran PalmOS, and that there were 64-bit drivers floating around for Win7/8/10 to do their job with it and Palm Desktop, the word processor never really enticed me much, and typing on it felt out of place compared to what I was used to, even though the keyboard was hellishly good.

    as a USB Keyboard, it was great, but don’t ever EVER try to use it to replace your normal one if you game. I had a lot of issues with it just randomly locking up and causing a lot of stuck-key headaches while trying to use it for some quick-paced WASD-heavy FPS fun.

    In the end, I let it go for what I paid for it, 25 bucks, at VCF East in 2019, after 5 years of ownership. I don’t regret it, it’s just not for me, even though I wanted so badly to get it working enough to ssh into a linux box and chat on irssi with it. For the forseeable future, that will only be a dream.

    1. well, there’s always CTRL+[, which works almost everywhere (one exception being Televideo 950 terminals; there [ and ] are on the same key and no matter how you shift you get CTRL+]. not that i’m bitter or anything).

  4. I still have an AlphaSmart Pro that I picked up when I was in nursing school. It was great to take quick notes in class or in clinic. It would run on two AA or rechargeable batteries. I never worried about it running out of juice. The keyboard is actually very nice to use. It does not have the power or versatility of it’s siblings but it got the job done at the time I needed it.

  5. fun story: you can flash PalmOS to the Neo to convert it into a Dana – a fully functional PalmOS device. it will then even support the SD card whose footprint you see on the board, as well as millions of PalmOS apps. It will still run AlphaWord since Alphasmart had ported it to PalmOS

  6. Murphy has a lot more than two fingers to keep pressing away till it’s turned on or dumped out. Seems that the coin cell hasn’t got enough watt-hours. Dam “designers” making a fashion accessory instead of a powerful tool.

  7. This might remove the “fewer distractions” aspect, but I reverse engineered some details about the Neo and made a couple of applets, including a BASIC interpreter. See the “betawise” repo on github, which should be linked from my handle above.

  8. took one on a 4 year transcontinental MTN bike tour — them things are amazingly durable
    accidentally packed it full of mud (in a crash)
    took it apart with my pocket knife
    washed it in a mud puddle
    and it still worked!
    we wrote a lot (about the trip) on it too
    ridingthespine(dot) com
    if yer interested

  9. As if Doom didn’t run on DOS… As a matter of fact I think DOS has more games, and in particular, more games playable in monochrome, than any other software platform in existence. Go to winworldpc.com and find ten OSes that might actually fit your comment. You might have said something similar about CP/M, however there were so many incompatible versions, you would not be nearly as wrong as you are about DOS. You can also look up the Arachne web broswer for DOS, and Lynx and Links and maybe Dillo, and the MP3 players for DOS and endless software to distract you to the end of time. You might also look up Dilbert “Here’s 5 cents kid, but yourself a better computer”

  10. What a coincidence. Only the other day, I was looking at a mechanical keyboard using a Teensy.
    I was wondering “What else could you drive with that little controller?”

    Now I need to look up power consumption specs on Teensy style boards…

  11. Where do you all use your laptops that battery life is so important?

    In my college days I used to like to get out of the dorm and would go work on my school projects at one of the campus eating places. There were power outlets by the seats for that. After graduation when I had side jobs to do I would go to a cafe. There were outlets there too.

    I did have dreams of being able to go outside, get some fresh air and see the sun. But that last part was a problem. It was too hard to see the screen in the sunlight.

    Now that I am older and have a family I pretty much stick to home.

    For years I used to use older laptops whose run-down batteries were either completely useless or lasted just long enough to let me quickly switch rooms and plug back in. This was was only rarely an inconvenience.

    But so many articles have been about rebuilding laptop battery packs, hacks to get longer battery life or like this using an alternate, power sipping device. Clearly laptop battery life matters to this community. It kind of makes me wonder, where are people using these things that it matters so much? What did I miss out on?

    1. Oh, yah. One side benefit of plugging in is that a laptop gets a lot lighter if you just leave the battery out. With one old laptop I even gutted the useless, dead battery pack so that I could re-insert the empty plastic shell and fill the hole. I had ideas about putting a mini USB hub and some other accessories inside it but never got to that.

    2. The thing is, not every coffee shop is well-designed with plenty of outlets, and perhaps they’re all already taken. Perhaps you’d rather sit in the big, comfy chair, with no nearby outlet.

      Perhaps you want to use in the car (while someone else is driving!) and you don’t have an inverter to plug in the laptop charger. Perhaps you’re on a plane trip with no outlet and the trip is long enough that the laptop battery wouldn’t last the trip.

      1. Pre COVID, I did several international flights. A USB charging port was a common feature, even in economy.

        Not sure what the power draw limit was.
        However, even a limited supply will extend the working life of a laptop.

        1. I think it must be a function of what airlines you’re flying; I predominantly fly Southwest, and the amenities are no-frills. Occasionally I’ve flown other airlines, and even then it seemed hit and miss whether there was power to the seats. One airplane, the power outlet was loose and so my laptop’s power adapter kept working loose and losing power. That said, other airlines may have power now. And I can only speak to my experience with US airlines.

  12. Awesome! We had these at my former school. I bought a number of them for the kids because of the low pricepoint, the portability and ease of use. I hope they still use them. Way cheaper and easier than buying laptops for firstgraders.
    Great to see the innards, sound ridiculously overpowered for what they do, but hey. Whatever works.

    1. I think there’s definitely something to be said for the ruggedness of these devices—it was at a teacher conference where one of the company representatives, demonstrating how tough an earlier model was, *drop-kicked it,* picked it up, and it was still working.

  13. Somehow I have aquired a hub to reprogram/download data from 30 neos. I even had some custom neos that I sold on ebay, not realising how fabulous they were.

    https://imgur.com/a/3iMU0uR

    If somebody wants this (and the spaghetti bundle of usb things that connect to all 30 neos) then get in touch on twitter: @leenattress

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