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.
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.
Back before there were laptops and subsequently, netbooks, there were these adorable thermal typewriter/word processors that are lovingly referred to by their fans as baby wedges or wedgies. These fascinating little machines can put words on paper two different ways: you can either use a prohibitively expensive little ribbon cartridge and regular copy paper, or you can go the easy route and get yourself a 96′ roll of thermal fax paper and type until you feel like tearing off the page.
One thing that keeps these baby wedges within the typewriter camp is the Shift Lock function, which can only be disengaged by pressing Shift and had its own discrete logic circuitry on the board before he was forced to remove it.
That little screen is pure word processor and was used to show the typing buffer — all the characters you have a chance to correct before the print head commits them to paper. In a win for word processors everywhere, the screen was repurposed to show the current word count.
He was kind enough to post his firmware as well as real-time footage of the build. Watch him demo it in the wild after the break, and then stick around for part one of the build saga.
For modern students, the spiral notebook has given way to the laptop and the pocket calculator has been supplanted by the smart phone. We’re not just talking about high school and college, either. Today, the education of even grade school children is intrinsically linked with technology. While some might question the wisdom of moving away from the pencil and pad at such a young age, there’s little question that all the kids stuck at home right now due to COVID-19 would have had a much harder time transitioning to remote learning otherwise.
But that certainly wasn’t the case when Advanced Keyboard Technologies released the Writer in 2003. Back then, five years before the first netbooks hit the market, you’d be hard pressed to find a laptop cheap enough to give to a grade school student. In comparison, these small electronic word processors could be purchased for as little as $150. Not only was the initial price low, but the maintenance costs were almost negligible. They ran for hundreds of hours on a standard AA batteries, and didn’t require schools to have any IT staff to manage them. Sure they couldn’t get on the Internet or even run any software, but they would give students a chance to hone their keyboarding skills. Continue reading “Teardown: The Writer Word Processor”→