Printable Keycaps Keep The AlphaSmart NEO Kicking

Today schools hand out Chromebooks like they’re candy, but in the early 1990s, the idea of giving each student a laptop was laughable unless your zip code happened to be 90210. That said, there was an obvious advantage to giving students electronic devices to write with, especially if the resulting text could be easily uploaded to the teacher’s computer for grading. Seeing an opportunity, a couple ex-Apple engineers created the AlphaSmart line of portable word processors.

The devices were popular enough in schools that they remained in production until 2013, and since then, they’ve gained a sort of cult following by writers who value their incredible battery life, quality keyboard, and distraction-free nature. But keeping these old machines running with limited spare parts can be difficult, so earlier this year a challenge had been put out by the community to develop 3D printable replacement keys for the AlphaSmart — a challenge which [Adam Kemp] and his son [Sam] have now answered.

In an article published on, [Sam] documents the duo’s efforts to design the Creative Commons licensed keycaps for the popular Neo variant of the AlphaSmart. Those who’ve created printable replacement parts probably already know the gist of the write-up, but for the uninitiated, it boils down to measuring, measuring, and measuring some more.

Things were made more complicated by the fact that the keyboard on the AlphaSmart Neo uses seven distinct types of keys, each of which took their own fine tuning and tweaking to get right. The task ended up being a good candidate for parametric design, where a model can be modified by changing the variables that determine its shape and size. This was better than having to start from scratch for each key type, but the trade-off is that getting a parametric model working properly takes additional upfront effort.

A further complication was that, instead of using something relatively easy to print like the interface on an MX-style keycap, the AlphaSmart Neo keys snap onto scissor switches. This meant producing them with fused deposition modeling (FDM) was out of the question. The only way to produce such an intricate design at home was to use a resin MSLA printer. While the cost of these machines has come down considerably over the last couple of years, they’re still less than ideal for creating functional parts. [Sam] says getting their keycaps to work reliably on your own printer is likely going to involve some experimentation with different resins and curing times.

[Adam] tells us he originally saw the call for printable AlphaSmart keycaps here on Hackaday, and as we’re personally big fans of the Neo around these parts, we’re glad they took the project on. Their efforts may well help keep a few of these unique gadgets out of the landfill, and that’s always a win in our book.

11 thoughts on “Printable Keycaps Keep The AlphaSmart NEO Kicking

        1. cause it sounds hideously fiddly, look at your keyboard and Imagine doing that with 104+ times each with a different stencil and know there’s no chance in hell that they will be straight in either axis let alone position ~(=^‥^)ノ

      1. Waterside decals are great for black text, on a white key.
        As the photo at the top of the article shows, these are black keys, with white text.

        It’s technically possible to get white ink/toner for printers, but not a straightforward process.

  1. I spent a lot of time looking for a good solution for writing, and based on comments here I got an Alphasmart. And it’s awesome for writing. Thanks, HAD readers!

    Press a button and it’s on. Not 3 minutes of booting, just press-on, and press-off.

    The battery lasts a long time. Long enough to take it camping with me, the device will probably last a couple of days of continuous use before the battery gives out.

    You can power it from a USB powerpack. I used to take one of these with me, the size of a pack of cigarettes, but I don’t any more because I’ve never run down the charge on the builtin battery.

    It doesn’t do internet, or E-mail, or play YouTube videos, or anything else distracting to the writer. That’s a *big* plus!

    It has a real keyboard. Not chicklets or on-screen touchpad.

    It does writing and basic palm-pilot functions (todo list, calendar, contacts &c… which I don’t use) only.

    I open an editor on my computer, press “send” on the device, and all my text goes into a file. It identifies as an HID keyboard, so it’ll work with any program that takes text entry.

    I like to hike a lot, and I get ideas and thoughts that I want to write down while hiking. I can just find a place to sit, pull the writer out, and start typing. I’m doing the “write a novel in 30 days” challenge, and done just under 80,000 words over the last 8 weeks (including having the flu for 2 weeks).

    Alphasmart is highly recommended if you’re 1) serious about writing, and 2) get your ideas at random times such as while hiking or driving.

  2. 3d printing keycaps is so fiddly, really someone should produce and distribute the keycaps, not the design. i mean, i’m all for sharing the design, but hardly anyone even has an appropriate printer for this task.

      1. yeah i remember 10+ years ago i saw a clever hack to build one for less than $150. the price has been low forever but hardly anyone wants one. i’ve got plenty of money but i don’t want to have one of them on my workbench and i’m not alone in that. they’re not popular. there’s no pretending that there’s one in every library, middle school, and makerspace. and even if there is one, the upkeep requirements are likely to put it effectively out of reach for members with a casual interest. “oh, we have one, but you have to solve the resin problem” right.

        i think they’re neat. i want the features they provide. but nobody wants to tend a bucket of resin. especially since the killer apps for these things tend to use like 1 gram of resin at a time. they call out for centralized printing services.

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