Of AlphaSmarts and Changing Technology

Not long ago, writers on one of the loops I follow were talking about AlphaSmarts (and the Neos and Danas that came after them), self-contained, battery-powered keyboards developed for school children but widely adopted by writers.

AlphaSmarts, Neos, and Danas are no longer manufactured, but quite a few writers still use these distraction-free keyboards, which don’t play games or connect with the Internet. I bought mine fourteen or fifteen years ago and used it quite a bit for several years, but it’s been sitting on a bookshelf for a long time. The mention of things like corroding batteries (the Alphie operates on three ordinary AAs) made me think I should check on mine.

AlphaSmartWhen I hit the on/off button, nothing happened, so I turned it over and began pulling out old, slightly-sticky batteries. It took a screwdriver to pry the first one out, and I had to remove the entire back of the keyboard to retrieve the third one. My expectations weren’t high, but I blew the dust and battery crud out of the channel, put in three new batteries, and replaced the back of the keyboard.

When I turned it over and hit the on/off button, it not only came on, but it remembered the eight files I last wrote on it (clearly there’s a lithium battery in there somewhere). I found book reviews, newsletter articles, and the minutes of a couple of RWA chapter meetings, dated 2008.

I don’t think I’ll start using the Alphie for novel writing, but I’m typing on it now, and I may decide it’s still handy for writing short articles while sitting on the couch in front of the TV. Of course I have yet to see how well it transfers text (by USB cable) to Scrivener. I don’t think I’ve ever used the Alphie with my current computer. (Note: When I plugged the Alphie into a USB port, it took my computer a few minutes to find a suitable device driver, but once it did, the file transferred perfectly, typos and all.)

The rapid changes in everyday technology continue to amaze me. Not so many years ago, a few of my more affluent writer friends were showing off their new “thumb drives,” precious (and very expensive) gizmos that could store 128 megabytes of data. At the time that was enough space for several novel manuscripts (software was a lot simpler back in the day). Now I have flash drives all over the place, from very old and very small to ever newer and bigger, but never big enough, as my Document directory grows ever larger. The other day at Office Depot, I picked up a set of two 16 gigabyte flash drives for less than twenty bucks. I suppose the day will come when they seem small, but I’m not looking forward to it.

In yet another case of speeding technology, I find myself thinking about replacing my four-year-old keyboard Kindle. There’s nothing wrong with it, and I use it regularly. But the new Kindle Voyage is so tempting, with its larger, paper white screen, self-adjusting light, and much higher pixel per inch count. Although I still prefer to read paper books, many of my friends publish electronically these days. It seems that a good e-reader, unheard of when those first flash drives arrived or even when Alphie was born, is almost a necessity today.

I don’t think I’ll replace my relatively simple TracFone, though. It does (occasional) phone calls and text messages, and not much else, but I can’t convince myself I need more than that (or the monthly bill that comes with a smart phone). Maybe there are some areas of technology where I don’t need—or even want—to keep up.

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. piperhuguley
    Feb 08, 2015 @ 08:25:52

    A great post celebrating a great tool! And the feel of the keyboard is so important and I love the way that Alphie feels beneath my fingertips. Thank you for your post!

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  2. Cheryl Bolen
    Feb 08, 2015 @ 11:04:01

    Would you believe I bought my Alpha Smart after you — I believe I got it 12 years ago–and it’s still going on the original batteries!! Granted, I don’t use it often. Though I should. I have always used it when my back is bad and I can’t sit at my desk, and I have taken it on trips a few time. Typically car trips because on a plane trip, I tend to take my laptop so I can be connected when I get to my hotel (or at airports).
    I know the prolific Sophie Jordan — who writes several books a year while mothering two small children– uses a Alpha Smart. It can really keep you on task.
    It’s amazing that it stores your stuff forever — even after the batteries die. A shame they don’t make them any more. I bet that makes ours more valuable!

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    • Kay Hudson
      Feb 09, 2015 @ 07:43:40

      I guess schools–and school kids–have more computers now and don’t need twenty keyboards to share one computer. I think this was the second time I’ve changed the batteries. I’ve only had trouble with it once, years ago, when some of the keys stopped functioning. I still have a print out of the instructions someone at the company (whichever one it was at the time) emailed me: take the back of and reseat the keyboard cables. Worked perfectly.

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  3. JF Owen
    Feb 08, 2015 @ 19:27:00

    Oh Kay, I can’t believe that something that uses batteries exists that I’ve never had. I’ve never heard of an AlphaSmart. I may have to hit eBay to find one.

    Oddly enough, given my male addiction to all things tech, I don’t have a smart phone either. That’s mostly because I’m too cheap. But, I’m actually preparing to make the leap. I hate touch keyboards, so I’m waiting for the new Blackberry Classic to hit my carrier. Like most Blackberrys, it has a real keyboard. The youngsters I work with will roll their eyes, but I bet I’ll be able to out type them. 🙂

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    • Kay Hudson
      Feb 09, 2015 @ 07:49:43

      You can still find them (used) on Amazon, too, Jerry. The Neos and Danas are newer versions, but I’ve never used those.

      I use my cell phone so infrequently that I can’t see paying a monthly fee for a smart phone, especially since I don’t really want to do anything complicated on something that small. Might succumb to a tablet one day, but since I always have access to a full-size computer, it seems like an expensive toy. Maybe if I traveled more . . .

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