Typically, I use my phone for writing. That and a nice, slightly cramped, Bluetooth keyboard that folds up to fit in my pocket. Whenever I need to get some work done, I pop open my JotterPad and type merrily away. (Very recently I’ve been experimenting with Novelist, but I’m not yet ready to report on that yet.)
This has served me well for a while. It had its drawbacks. My phone has a wonderful battery life, but leaving the screen on while typing all day and nonsense decisions made with the latest Android update have taken their toll. The battery has begun to evaporate. Plus the keyboard needs a sturdy surface beneath it or it’ll fold back up. So, as long as I can find a nice table or desk near an outlet, I’m golden.
Except, you know, for the incessant notifications, but we’ll get to that.
However, a few months ago the whole keyboard to phone situation began to slow way below the point of viability. I don’t really know why. Anecdotal evidence suggests this happened when my wi-fi was spotty, but who knows? During these troubling times, the virtual keyboard still worked fine. And a few cursory tests have shown that USB keyboards worked as well. I suspected it has something to do with the Bluetooth, but what do I know?
Well, I mean, I know a keyboard physically plugged into my phone works. So I began looking into those. Superfriends narrator voice: “Meanwhile, back at the Halls of Instagram…” One Anandronamedsue posted an image of an AlphaSmart Neo 2 that drew my eye. Same way, say, a pic of a HP 91 desktop calculator might seize my attention. A brief inquiry followed by a short bout of Internet research showed that the AlphaSmart Neo 2 was indeed a USB keyboard, as well as an independent word processor, and one could be had for under $30! Sold!
Originally, the AlphaSmart family of word processors were meant for the classroom. A cheaper alternative to a full-on computer that the teacher could control more closely. They’ve since been discontinued, but authors all over the place are buying used ones up at discounted prices for some of the very reasons I’ve listed below.
Why I’m Digging It
I’ve been using this keyboard just about everyday for months now. It has become my tool of choice and I’d like to tell you why. Starting with how I use it on its own, but eventually getting to how it works with my phone.
On & Fucking Ready
I timed it. From the [on/off] button to blinking cursor in four seconds. Literally the only thing faster is pen and paper. And even that can take a bit of scribbling to jump start the engine.
You are right where you last left off. Across the top of the keyboard, there are eight file keys that let you jump around in your eight active files. You can have more than eight files on the device, but these eight slots are the quickest to navigate between.
I have a garbage file [file 4] that I just start typing in to get a little warmed up in the morning. I’m typing in it right now, actually. This afternoon, if I feel there’s a need to keep this, I’ll either move it to another file or upload it to my phone. More on that later. For now, though, I just want to praise how delightful it is to go from “Wait, I have a stupid idea!” to typing that stupid idea into a pile of garbage in less than 5 seconds.
Sturdy, Light & Comfy Keyboard
I’m not so picky about my keyboards, which is odd, because for decades now I’ve been making my living with them. Given a half hour to get used to the peculiarities in most qwerty keyboard layouts, I’m usually good to go.
I am also quite used to typing on tiny keyboards. This is not a tiny keyboard. It has full-sized keys, that are nice and clicky, but not annoyingly so. It’s a bit of a joy to type on, actually. If that’s your thing. Right now, four months on, I’m still in the phase where I look for excuses to write on this beast. Which is a good place to be in for a writer.
But more important to my needs, it’s light and sturdy. It’s just over a foot wide and a couple ounces shy of two pounds. It fits nicely in the lap and provides enough support to be a stable typing platform there without being unwieldy. Which makes it perfect for carrying around from desk to standing desk to couch to hammock to whatever.
Mine is missing its rubber feet. Perhaps a minor cosmetic flaw accompanied by the annoy habit of sliding away from me if I’m typing with it on a smooth surface. Fortunately, I found a simple and delightful solution to that here. Since the device doesn’t appreciably heat up, I can safely cover the whole back with slip resistant netting. The only drawback is that it’ll be a bit of a pain when it comes to replacing the batteries, but…
This beast takes three AA batteries for day-to-day operations and one CR2032 lithium battery for backup. The AA compartment is normally easily accessed from the back (if you haven’t modded it like I have).
The manual for the AlphaSmart claims 700 hours of active battery power. Internet testimonies support this claim. 700 hours! Even if I type for 8 hours a day–and I do not–for five days a week, that’s over four months of batter power! No plugging it in. No charging overnight. No outlet needed. Just change the batteries every 4 months or so.
Right now, after about about four months of daily use, the battery power is around 90%. I’m thrilled with that.
When you do change the AA batteries, that’s when the CR2032 comes in. It keeps your memory nice and warm during the operation. It probably also pops in to give those AAs a chance to nap when things aren’t too active. “How long that does battery last then?” you might ask if you were a bit more cautious than Eppy. Then you would do a little research and discover about 5-7 years. And if you were a wee bit more cautious yet, you may just think, “I wonder when they discontinued these things, oh, about 5 years ago, you say?” And then, if you weren’t Eppy, you’d link about replacing that CR2032 right away.
But if you are Eppy, you’ll wait until you get a message asking you if you replaced the Lithium battery recently (Y/N). You can say Y or you could say N, it doesn’t matter. At this point your data is already lost and you’ll be digging through weird error messages until you replace that damn battery.
So, you know, do that right way.
One of the reasons I’m not too upset about the loss of data due ye olde backup battery being olde is because I back things up on my phone at the end of every workday.
Let me tell you the thrilling tale of how this beauty talks to my phone!
As mentioned before, it’s both a USB keyboard and a word processor. Even without batteries, you can plug it into anything that can use a USB keyboard and be typing in a matter of moments.
There’s a key way up in the top right called [send]. Therein lies the elegant beauty of this interface. Plug it in as a keyboard. Open a document or app on whatever device its plugged into and make sure your cursor is where you want it to be, just as if you were about to start typing. Press [send] and marvel at how the tiny ghost that haunts your AlphaSmart swiftly types out your document, character for character!
It’s so simple. No file formats to worry about. No compatibility issues (well, no issues if you aren’t using umlats and characters like and such).
The ghost types fast, especially for a ghost, but not lightning fast. In my experience, it types about 210 words per minute, or very roughly a page per minute. If you have a particularly large document, this may take a few minutes to transfer. During that time, you won’t really be able to do anything on either your AlphaSmart or your device. It’s just as if you were standing there typing it in, but you’re not. So you can go get a snack or read a goddamn book while it’s happening.
Or you can stand by, reading your work as it is being typed out, realizing you need to tighten up a sentence or correct typo. I mean, you can’t right now, because your ghost buddy is busy typing, but you can dream about it. And if you’re really lucky, you’ll remember to do it when your ghost is done.
Because, when your ghost buddy is done typing, the whole thing pops right back into being a USB keyboard. So you can just pick up where the ghost left off, if you like. Seamless!
(Aside: On several occasions now, going back and forth between using the AlphaSmart as a word processor and as a USB keyboard for my phone, I’ve subconsciously tried to ctrl-c on my phone and ctrl-v in the AlphaSmart. That does not work because there’s no reason why it should. But this is how interfaces get inside your brain and make you forget they’re not magic.)
You’re going to come to terms with this on your own. But for me, it’s a problem. In many respects, posting on the Internet is my business. When I’m out there shilling for my games, there’s a marked increase in sales. A handful of those sales will turn into games folks play, a week, a month, a year, or more down the road. A handful of those games will inspire excited posts. A handful of those posts turn into sales–especially if I see them and use them as an excuse to start my shilling again.
It is always in my interest to be posting online. But it’s not always in my best interest.
If I don’t write stories and make the games in the first place, I’m going to have trouble selling them. The problem is, in the moment, it’s not always easy to know when I should be doing one thing or the other.
Wait, that’s not quite right. It’s not that it’s terribly difficult to know. It’s just that it’s an issue for middle management to decide. I’ve already got Writer Eppy, Designer Eppy, Editor Eppy, Social Media Eppy, Accountant Eppy and Personal Chef Eppy all vying for control of the company. I don’t need to throw fucking Middle Management Eppy into the fray. Avoiding middle management altogether is one of the Seven Secret Keys to a successful business (along with supporting universal health care and strangling upper management).
This is the true benefit of a distraction free tool. It’s not that it helps with your willpower. It helps with your power, period. It lets you use whatever that energy you would have wasted on management on something that’s actually productive.
I truly appreciate that.
No Blank Page Syndrome
At the smallest built-in font–there are some fan made fonts you can grab here that are smaller, but still readable–the most you can fit on this screen is six lines of text. To give you some understanding of how much that is, this paragraph takes up exactly 6 lines on the LCD screen in that small font.
Ultimately, the font you choose has no effect on the output or layout of the document. It’s simple how big the writing appears on the AlphaSmart’s screen. I often use the Large and Very Large fonts because they are clear and easy to read under most conditions, and they help my sins swiftly scroll off screen. I use the fan built Nano and Femto fonts when I’m rewriting, because they fit the most context on the screen at a time, but my old eyes need decent lighting to use them.
No matter which font you choose, though, moments after you start typing, that screen looks full. There’s a nice psychological effect to that. You feel productive right away and there’s less impulse to let your eyes trail over your previous work (or lack thereof). This turned out to be more important to me than I thought it would.
Like a Glove
About 91% of the work I do that requires more than a simple text editor can be done on a smart phone. I’m no fan of typing on the virtual keyboards that smart phones offer, but I dig the rest of it–especially their portability. Which brings us full circle back around to why I was looking for a keyboard in the first place.
The AlphaSmart Neo2 is also very much a USB keyboard. With the right cords, I can plug it into my phone and no matter what’s happening on either device, it painlessly switches over to a phone with physical keyboard.
And, as an extra bonus, the little depression for the LCD screen, by some glorious accident of fate, is just about the perfect size to nestle my phone in landscape. It’s not a stable enough platform for typing with the whole Jenga tower in my lap, but if I have it up on my desk, it’s just about perfect. Bonus: slapped together like this, with it’s cords dangling all over the place, it looks a bit like a piece from a Terry Gilliam movie.
The Typing Timer
As mentioned early on, the AlphaSmart was meant for classrooms. It comes with a bunch of features that you may want if you’re teaching students to write and type. Most of these revolve around delivering quizzes and whatnot. And I have removed most of them from my device.
One of these features, however, has not been removed–partly because I’m not sure it can be and partly because I have other uses for it–the Typing Timer.
Ostensibly, it’s there to test your typing prowess. You can call up the Typing Timer with the [cmd] + [find] keys and your screen will look a little like this:
As it commands, you just start typing and a timer starts, which will make your screen look a little like this:
While this timer is up, all the editing features you take for granted on a word processor are disabled. That means no backspace, no delete, and no arrow keys. Presumably this is so you can check your timed typing for errors once your ordeal has finished.
But what a glorious combination of features! An onscreen timer and a way to forcibly silence your editor! Imagine coming into work every day, and spending a half hour just writing whatever bullshit comes into your mind, with no possibility for refinement, no chance to get lost in the wording. Just typing onto what is, for all your purposes, simply a virtual typewriter. Then imagine taking a five to six minute break while your haunted keyboard types those 1,200 or so words into a garbage file on your phone, just in case. Just sit there with your coffee and a book, because as you may recall, you can’t use your phone during this process. Imagine how lovely that would be.
Now imagine you made the terrifying choice of swapping morning for night, coffee for cheap whiskey, and a private garbage file for a public stream. Behold, the Night Writer!