Enthusiast Seeks Keycap Designer For Alphasmart NEO

If you were an American kid in the 1990s, chances are good that you may have been issued a little word processing machine by your school called an Alphasmart. These purpose-built machines created by an offshoot of Apple engineers were way cheaper than the average laptop at the time, and far more prepared to be handed over to the average child. The salesmen used to drop-kick them at trade shows to demonstrate their toughness.

Today, these machines are revered by writers, especially those who participate in NaNoWriMo, a yearly event in which people attempt to write the first draft of a novel during the month of November.

The Alphasmart NEO, NEO2, and Dana models are of particular note because they each have a really nice scissor-switch membrane keyboard. Yeah, that’s right. A really nice membrane keyboard.

The problem is that things wear out with time. As you may have guessed, Alphasmart is no longer around, and so they can’t offer replacement keycaps. Can you help by creating a 3D model? [E.F. Nordmed] and many others would sure appreciate it.

You may remember the Alphasmart NEO from these very pages. We sure do love them for distraction-free writing.

12 thoughts on “Enthusiast Seeks Keycap Designer For Alphasmart NEO

  1. Maybe a better way to permanently fix the issue would be to create an custom replacement PCB with low profile mechanical switches, that way the keycaps can be easily replaced with current ones.
    According to the teardowns, the keyboard has its own pcb.

  2. I’ve looked around for a text-only keyboard entry system for a couple of years. The AlphaSmart fits the bill, although using it is a bit of a magic act.

    For a writer, an actual laptop is sub-optimal. It will only run 10 hours or so before it needs to be recharged (maybe 2 if the battery is old), there’s lots of distractions such as going out over the internet, and the writing tools are all about formatting. When trying to write, it’s too easy to get distracted by fiddling with the formatting, or looking up a word definition or synonym and then running off to check E-mail or newsfeed.

    The best way to write is to go to a place of few distractions and then concentrate on the text. I like to use markdown syntax to delineate headers and tables and such, but only the simple basics. Focusing on the text forces you to be a better writer, and you can then cut/paste into a layout editor once you’re satisfied with content.

    You can take the AlphaSmart camping with you, and you can power it a long time (days, maybe weeks?) on a USB powerpack. It’s got embedded batteries (NiCad, or standard AAs IIRC) so you can swap over to a new powerpack without losing data. It can store your work on a memory card, so you won’t lose anything you wrote.

    It also starts up in a couple of seconds. When you have a good idea you want to write it down immediately and not wait 2 minutes for your system to boot.

    The bad news is that the AlphaSmart doesn’t have a good interface for copying your data to a computer. You can call up a file of text and “replay” it to a printer, and then pipe that into an editor on your PC and that’s about it. The text file contents allows for limited formatting (bold, underline, and so on) in a binary format, so reading the raw text file on a memory card takes some doing.

    Still, the ability to be on a hike in the mountains, pull out the device, turn on, and type stuff in instantly is a big draw for using the device. Similarly on a long drive, get an idea, pull over, and start typing immediately. I can type much faster than writing longhand, and sometimes the words come faster than I can handwrite.

    I’ve often wondered how difficult it would be to write new firmware for the AlphaSmart to drop some of the non-writing things such as loading new apps, and adding a modern USB interface.

    But then, the AlphaSmart is no longer being made, and it wouldn’t be too hard to make a complete new system using a modern micro, modern USB interface, and a low-power E-ink display. Something in the form factor of a keyboard (like the AlphaSmart), with a small display to show text, the ability to enter text in multiple files, and implementing the 10 most popular emacs or vi commands.

    If anyone wants to make one, I’d buy it.

      1. I appreciate the reply, but note that I posted a response to that article when it came out and people recommended the AlphaSmart, so that’s what I got.

        There’s something to be said for not having to spend time building a project (and debugging). The Dana is rugged and meets my needs (text-only entry), even though it’s a bit of a pain to work with.

  3. I’m always blown away by how nice some American schools are. I moved to the mainland ~10 years ago and still struggle to comprehend how nice the facilities and equipment are. I grew up in the ’90s and we used pencils and paper, with an occasional calculator owned by the school. Always wonder how much different my life would be if I had some of what seems so common out here as a kid.

  4. As someone who has been typing since 1982, I am strong proponent of membrane switch keyboards. A few years ago I tried to find a contract manufacture to produce a new high quality scissor switch keyboard. I am happy to fund, support, and participate* in such an endeavor. (* work is very busy) The keyboard would need to support mass production and qty 1 production.

    Where I left off was:

    o) to develop a punch and die (hand tool style) for developing the metal frame for qty 1 production amounts.
    o) sourcing a scissor mechanism manufacture, but all of the quality ones found are under “exclusive contract”
    o) membrane switch material in a 1×4 configuration, where the sprues are used for registration on the pcb (holes)
    o) key caps, decided on injection mold double shot blanks for laser engraving. Need to find experienced engineer to spec out the plastic to support laser engraving. Again supports qty 1 level production. Found many injection mold companies that would produce.
    o) realizing that low profile supply chain issues may too much for hobby time, and adopting the cherry stem for membrane may be worth it.

    So how does this help the Alphasmart? Well if someone can help me find a manufacture for the (“best ever”) scissor mechanism – the rest is easy.

  5. I graduated in 2000 so I went to school through every single year in the 90s.
    I also had the benefit of being in a “testbed” city/town.
    We got a lot of tech first before it was rolled out anywhere else.

    DSL then Cable internet.
    My high school had a fractional T3 internet connection in 1996 (25Mbit I think)
    We had Pentium 2s in our computer labs in 1997.
    We had a computer lab with Sun Ultras.
    We even had an unsupervised “internet lab” in a glass-walled section of our cafeteria. (It was the wild west in there…)

    But ISSUING hardware in the 90s?

    Even the expensive private schools here didn’t issue hardware.
    (And I’m talking about president/dignitary kids “expensive”)

    I don’t know WHO actually got issued these, but it sure as heck wasn’t a common occurrence.

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