Tim’s Museum of Obsolete Tech 8

AlphaSmart Neo word processor

Top view of the Alphasmart Neo, showing the Home menu screen.
Alphasmart Neo, with mug for scale.

The earliest laptop computers were simple flat machines with full-size keyboards and small dot-matrix LCD screens. A Japanese electronics company, Kyocera, introduced their version of this design in 1983. The Kyotronic 85, a DOS computer, had a word processor, address book, and a calendar. You could program it using BASIC, and it included a built-in modem. It sold poorly.

Kyocera, originally the Kyoto Ceramic Company, started out making ceramic insulators for cathode-ray tubes (TV screens). In the 1970s, they expanded into ceramic semiconductors (transistors) and other products. They also acquired an electronics company, Cybernet Electronics, which had once been Japan’s largest CB radio manufacturer.

Looking for new products, Kyocera tested the computer market. Although their laptop wasn’t a hit, the design was licensed and sold by Tandy Corporation, then the owners of Radio Shack — a retail store with a catalogue and thousands of locations. Radio Shack once made a third of its income selling CB radios, and was keen to sell computers.

Top view of a Tandy TRS-80 Model 100 computer, showing the keyboard and the LCD screen. The screen is 8 lines by 40 characters, and shows 5 programs and 2 files. The onscreen date is Jan 12, 1908.
Public domain photo, taken after 2000 as can be seen by the Y2K error in the date.

Sold as the TRS-80 Model 100, the machine was a success. Similar models were sold with Olivetti and NEC branding. The computer was slow — a fast typist would need to wait for letters to appear on screen. It also had a small memory, which limited the text to about 11 pages. However, it was compact, reliable (no moving parts), and could run for 20 hours on 4 AA batteries. An internal rechargeable battery kept files in memory for up to a month if the batteries ran down or while they were changed. An AC adapter could also be used.

Journalists and other writers could use this handy computer to type and edit short articles, then transmit text to another location over phone lines. This computer could also exchange files and data with other computers using an RS-232 serial port (replaced by USB), print using a parallel port (also replaced by USB), and connect to a cassette player for simple data storage and transfer (replaced by USB sticks).

The TRS-80 Model 100 could serve as a data terminal for the text-based telephone-accessed information services available at the time (and with some serious tweaking, it can surf the web and send email.) A later version in 1986 was thinner, lighter, and more powerful, and accessories such as disk drives were available.

Radio Shack was, by the early 1990s, the world’s largest electronics chain and the largest manufacturer of personal computers. However, the executives embarked on a sell-off strategy, gutting the company of its factories, house brands, and unique products. The stores stopped carrying the electronics components and tools that had made me a regular customer since the mid 1970s. The company started losing money, and faded away. Its collapse may have been inevitable, given the rise of big box stores, the shift away from personal computers as a hobby, and other factors. The Canadian locations, now called The Source, are part of Bell Canada.

The last Radio Shack branded product I purchased was a TRS-80 Model 100. By the mid-1990s, it was sufficiently out-of-date to be inexpensive and available used. Although I had a PC, the little old laptop was much easier to write on. You just turned it on and started typing. No starting BIOS, then loading DOS, then loading the word processor program from a disk, and loading the text file from another disk (kids today have no idea). I wrote my first published work, a fan-fiction story, on a TRS-80 Model 100.

During the 1980s and 1990s, laptop screens grew while the computers under them shrank and became more powerful. By the early 1990s, laptops had the layout and features we know and love/loathe today. But they were costly, and more delicate than earlier designs.

Alphasmart display screen. The dot-matrix LCD screen is obvious. Newer devices use e-ink for screens, which creates finer images and requires less power.

Enter Intelligent Peripheral Devices, a company founded in 1992 by a group of former Apple Computer engineers. Their vision was to “develop and market affordable, portable personal learning solutions for the classroom” and to “deliver affordable, lightweight, rugged portable computing devices that are expandable, easy to use and manage, and provide exceptional battery life.” In other words, they wanted to re-create the TRS-80 Model 100 and sell it to schools.

Intelligent Peripheral Devices, soon renamed Alphasmart, released its first computer in 1993. It had a small 4-line LCD screen, could hold up to 16 pages of text (total) from up to 8 files, and could run several days from 2 AA batteries. However, it could only transfer data to Apple Computers. By 1995 they had a more powerful model that could work with Windows or Apple Computers. The design took cues from Apple products of the time.

Alphasmart Neo ports: AC adapter, USB-B for connecting to a computer, USB for a printer, and the infrared transmitter.

For the next decade, a series of Alphasmart computers offered inexpensive word-processing. The power and features grew, including a touch-screen on the Dana models (based on the Palm O/S), but the machines stayed true to their vision. They were popular in schools (and with journalists) for their low price, ruggedness, and long battery life.

The Neo, released in 2004, was the last Alphasmart before the company was acquired by Renaissance Learning, an educational software and analytics company. Renaissance released an upgraded Neo 2 in 2007 that integrated with their software offerings, but stopped selling the devices by 2013. One might think they were more interested in gathering analytical data from educational software than in reliable and simple hardware.

Chromebooks, cheap laptops with the data-gathering lust of Google behind them, rushed into schools, a trend furthered by the pandemic. Dropping prices for laptops, the growth of smartphones and tablets, and a greater reliance on online resources almost eliminated the demand for stand alone portable word processors.

Photo of a sticker on the base of the computer, showing instruction for use, including transferring data to computers and shortcut commands.
Instructions are printed on the base of the computer.

One group of people still desired these machines — writers. Laptops are cheaper, lighter, and faster than they used to be, but starting to write on a laptop is still more work than writing on a dedicated machine. And the convenient “always connected” nature of contemporary software means constant interruptions for operating system updates, office software updates and security updates, even if you’ve shut off all your social media services. Within a year of the Neo going off the market, Astrohaus released the Hemingwrite — an old-style laptop with a large keyboard and a small e-ink screen — for writers seeking a distraction-free writing experience.

The Hemingwrite quickly ran into licensing problems (no surprise), and was renamed the Freewrite, though it’s now also available in a special limited Hemingwrite edition. The Freewrite has WiFi for online backups, but otherwise offers the distraction-free writing experience and long battery life of the Neo. The design is compact, but more retro typewriter than retro Apple. While the NEO has the chunky tablet keys of laptops at the time, the Freewrite keys more closely resemble typewriter keys. There’s a smaller Traveller model that folds in half. One thing the Freewrite does not offer is the low price. At $600 USD ($900 USD for the special edition), you are paying more to get less.

Meanwhile, eBay has dozens of Alphasmart Neos starting at around $50 including shipping. Another option, though awkward, for inexpensive distraction-free writing is a Bluetooth keyboard paired with an old phone or tablet. There are also software tools that can limit or monitor your writing distractions, including the scary Write or Die.

Given the existence of the Freewrite and similar niche devices, one could argue that the Alphasmart Neo isn’t an obsolete device. However,

  • It’s my museum, and I set the collections standards
  • A deliberately retro device using modern software under the skin is not the same as the original item
  • A large part of the Neo appeal was, and is, low cost. The Freewrite’s price and design (and the existence of the hand-polished, laser-engraved signature special edition, which comes in a leather attaché case and includes a monogrammed polishing cloth) indicate it is luxury item, while the Neo was a basic tool with the emphasis on functionality.

Much like my typewriter collection started with me almost tripping over an old manual, I didn’t seek out the Neo. A dear friend and fellow writer introduced me to these machines some years ago, and passed on an extra they had. It was a happy discovery.

I’ve worked from home for about five years. Prior to the pandemic, I’d often go to a mall food court after the lunch rush, where I could enjoy air-conditioning and time “out of the office.” This was also a chance to get some writing done on the Neo. Writing in public offers white noise and distraction from tasks at home (though it has been mocked). With the pandemic, food court trips are reduced to takeout runs or quick meals, and I’ve adapted to writing on the same machine I use for most of my interaction with the outside world.

My Neo, almost two decades old, patiently waits for the return of writing at food courts, and oceanside, and I am looking forward to using it in those places again.

Drafting an outline at WhitePoint resort, during a pre-COVID writing retreat.

By trc

Freelance writer, freelance editor, web consultant, and film studies scholar.

1 comment

  1. I wish I had kept hold of all the gadgets I bought from the 80’s to 2000’s as some would be worth a motza and the rest would be nostalgia.

    It was a simpler time with tech back then unlike today, and much more fun as it didn’t consume so much of our lives.

    Like

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