Illustrated Kristina with an IBM Model M keyboard floating between her hands.

Keebin’ With Kristina: The One With The Auto Harp Typewriter

An extremely large split keyboard with giant knobs, and pedals underneath the desk.
Image by [crazymittens-r] via reddit
Where do I even begin with this one? Let’s start with the reasoning behind this giant beast’s existence, and that is medical necessity. [crazymittens-r] needed something that would let them keep working, and after many hours and many versions, this is the current iteration of their ArcBoard, which looks like it could control a spaceship.

You can read all about this version on GitHub, but here’s the gist — you’re looking at a split keyboard with dual macro pads, rotary encoders, and a built-in trackball. And oh yeah, there are pedals, too. Those are a whole other thing.

In this revision, [crazymittens-4] said no to hand-wiring and instead went with custom flexible PCBs. The encoders now have push-button LED screens, and overall, there are “more LEDs than QMK can handle”. There’s even a secret keyboard within the keyboard! I can’t express how much I want to put my hands on this thing.

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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 KBD.news, [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.

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.

See The ATARI GEM Desktop Running On A Portable Word Processor… Thing

Get ready for vintage computing aplenty in [David Given]’s project to port EmuTOS to the AlphaSmart Dana. He’s got it all on video, too. All 38 hours of it over 13 episodes!

The GEM desktop, as seen on the Atari ST line of computers.

[David]’s fork of EmuTOS is an open source version of the Atari TOS, which is itself the 68000-based OS for the Atari ST line of computers.

As for the AlphaSmart Dana, it is a roughly twenty-year-old portable word processor thing with pen input which runs a version of PalmOS. It’s a slightly oddball piece of hardware, but quite capable in its own way. A match obviously made in heaven? It is if you have [David]’s skill and drive!

To get EmuTOS working on the Dana, the first step was figuring out how to find and work with the Dana’s debug port, using it to get direct access to the CPU while bypassing the boot ROM. Turns out that the Dana’s 68000-compatible processor has a handy feature: by manipulating the right pin, one can remote-control the CPU (to a certain extent) via the UARTs. That’s the entry point for a whole lot of hacking that ultimately results in firing up the GEM desktop on the Dana, and being able to run (some) original Atari ST software. Probably the biggest issue is that the screen size isn’t a great match for what the OS expects, but it works.

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Fully Backlit AlphaSmart NEO2 Lights Up The Night

The AlphaSmart NEO and NEO2 are great little word processors for distraction-free writing anywhere you want to go, but they lack the backlight of the later Dana model. Well, [starboyk] has done what many thought impossible and added a backlight to a NEO2. Experience gained from a ton of console mods and repairs led to the question of whether the NEO2’s LCD is similar to a Game Boy’s.

[starboyk] started with a fresh NEO2 from ebay, then swapped out the reflective polarizer for a translucent polarizer and added a trio of LED backlights meant for the original Game Boy across the back of the screen. The best part is that the backlight has its own power switch and a brightness control pot. It sounds easy enough, but this mod is not for the faint of heart as it sounds like a really tight fit in the end. Apparently we only need 500 orders to get a custom backlight manufactured, but barring that does anyone know of a backlight that’s 157mm x 44mm?

You can always stick with the mod where you power the USB-A port and use a USB reading light like I did with my NEO.

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.

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