Why the Worst Laptop Ever Made is Also the Best

Sometimes, simple is all you need

Key Takeaways

  • The Alphasmart Neo won’t win any prizes for specs or features, but it’s a fantastic word processor that can be found on auction sites for less than $30. 
  • The Neo can run for weeks or months on a single set of disposable batteries. 
  • Surprisingly for such an inexpensive device, the Neo has the best keyboard I’ve ever used.
A product image of an Alphasmart Neo 2

Alphasmart

By any usual standard, the Alphasmart Neo ranks among the worst laptops ever made. 

The Neo has a tiny LCD monochrome screen and can pretty much only do word processing. That means no web browsing, email, Netflix, etc. It’s clunky and ugly with a dark green plastic case. 

But I’ve found the Neo to be an invaluable, distraction-free gadget that makes me more productive. It’s got incredible features that no ordinary laptop can match.

Do you claim your fancy Samsung laptop has 12 hours of battery life? The Neo can run for weeks or months on a single set of disposable batteries. 

"The Neo’s terrible screen can actually be an advantage because it’s great for focusing."

A Great Word Processor for Less Than $30

The Neo2 was released in 2007 and discontinued in 2013. It cost hundreds of dollars when new, but I bought mine used for less than $30 on eBay. It initially was intended for the education market as a low-cost word processor for kids who might be rough on computers in the classroom.

The Neo is so rugged that used models tend to still be in good condition after all this time, so you should have no problem picking one up on an auction site. 

Surprisingly for such an inexpensive device, the Neo has the best keyboard I’ve ever used. I’m very picky about keyboards, and the Neo’s version is light and springy and just noisy enough to give you decent feedback. My fingers speed along practically by themselves. 

The Neo’s terrible screen can actually be an advantage because it’s great for focusing. I often sit down with my MacBook Pro and intend to spend an hour getting work done, and then I find myself sliding down a rabbit hole of internet memes, news articles, and emails. 

Let’s be clear; the Neo is more of a portable keyboard with just the barest amount of memory. The Neo has eight separate files that you can type into, and each holds about 51,000 characters.

This seems ridiculously limited, but the idea behind the Neo is to produce work rather than spend endless amounts of time navel-gazing about stuff you’ve already created. For that purpose, the memory on the Neo is more than adequate. 

Sharing is Caring

Once you write stuff on the Neo, you’ll need to get it to a real computer to edit and share it with the world. Again, Alphasmart came up with a brilliantly simple solution.

You can plug the Neo2 into your computer (MAC/PC) with a USB cable, open a word processor, and hit the send button. The Neo types it into the connected computer all by itself. 

Alphasmart released several other word processors, all of which are commonly available on eBay. I’m partial to the Neo2, but I also own the Dana wireless, which runs on the nearly forgotten Palm OS.

The Alphasmart Neo 2 word processor.

Sascha Brodsky / Lifewire

The Dana lets you install apps and also has an SD card slot for extra storage. The Dana’s downside is that the screen and battery life aren’t nearly as good as the Neo. 

There aren’t many competitors to the Alphasmart devices. The closest gadget currently manufactured might be the Freewrite Traveler, a monochrome word processor that clocks in at nearly $500. The Traveler boasts a rechargeable battery with a claimed four weeks of battery life.

There’s also the Japan-only Pomera DM200, which you can buy on Amazon from an exporter for under $400. The DM200 is an intriguing-looking gadget that resembles a paperback book when folded up. Keep in mind that the DM200 lacks a US warranty, and its menus are in Japanese. 

The Pomera and Freewrite are tempting options, but I’ll be sticking with my Neo. It does everything it needs to do and nothing else. Also, if the Neo breaks, I can buy more than 30 of them for less than the price of a single MacBook.

Was this page helpful?