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The Ultimate Travel Writing Device Goes Extinct as Times Change

Alphasmart writing devices have been clutch tools for a small group of traveling writers and journalists, but times have changed.

Alphasmart Neo
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It is easy to assume that the technologies, things, people, and places that are around us today will always be there. We know that times change but it always comes as a shock to the system when an event occurs that drives this fact home. That feeling of temporal vertigo struck me this morning when I discovered that Alphasmart writing devices are no longer being manufactured.

In fact, the company that made them had even sold out of their final stock.

The days of the Alphasmart are over.

Alphasmart writing devices are just over-glorified keyboard that can remember keystrokes. They are portable word processors that have a little screen built into them so you can see what you’re writing, and it automatically saves whatever you type in 8 or so different files. Then when you get on a computer you can plug the Alphasmart in, push a button, and it will automatically type out what you wrote onto the screen — where you can then save it, send it, edit, or publish.

Alphasmarts have no internet connectivity, no email capacity, they don’t store photos or run programs. They’re not even really computers. They are just writing devices, pure and simple, and what they lack is a large part of their appeal. When you sit down on an Alphasmart there are no distractions, no pop ups, no Facebook, no email, no temptation to “quickly” check some website. No, it’s just writing time. They are portable word processors, digital typewriters.

Read more about Alphasmarts on Vagabond Journey:
What is an Alphasmart
Alphasmart NEO review

The Alphasmart was developed by two former Apple engineers in 1993, who intended to “develop and market affordable, portable personal learning solutions for the classroom” and “deliver affordable, lightweight, rugged portable computing devices that are expandable, easy to use and manage, and provide exceptional battery life.” In the process they created the best digital tool made for traveling writers and journalists since the ballpoint pen.

The Alphasmart was never a replacement for a laptop in a digital nomad rig, but an extension of it. Alphasmarts are sturdy, lightweight, simple, and portable machines that have more than a 900 hour battery life from three AAs. This last attribute is the most crucial, as it means they can travel way off the grid for an extended amount of time without going dead. Where the best laptop battery may give you a dozen hours, the Alphasmart gives you 37.5 days of constant use. Adventure often begins where electricity ends. I’m talking about bicycle, walking, hitchhiking, trekking, outback and backwoods journeys here — going to places where electrical outlets are not ubiquitous and free. The traveling writer with an Alphasmart can get out there, stay for an extended amount of time, and still ply their trade.

Alphasmarts can perform where laptops can’t, and for this reason I’ve been carrying one with me since 2006. I’ve used it while bicycling across Portugal, Eastern Europe, and Iceland; while going into jungles, mountains, forests, and deserts; on countless buses, trains, and planes; and when I just don’t feel like firing up laptop to type up a few notes. The Alphasmart is an indispensable writing device.

But now it is looking like these days are coming to a close. While I’m confident that I still have a lot of mileage left on my Alphasmart Neo — they have an extremely long life expectancy — and there is a good chance that I will be able to pick up second hand ones well into the future, I know that the day this writing tool will go extinct is coming.

Alphasmarts are going extinct but they are not yet obsolete. In a world of smartphones and tablets and laptops, few people are going to use such an archaic seeming technology. But most people are also not traveling writers or journalists dancing around on the fringes of the world, and Alphasmarts are of little use to them. But this simple machine has a cult following of people who do what I do, and I can only hope that we’re able stock up on enough of them to last out the duration of our careers. Maybe by then there will be solar powered computers that can go anywhere. Only then will the Alphasmart be obsolete.


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Filed under: Digital Nomad, Electronics, Travel Gear, Travel Writing

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3717 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

4 comments… add one

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  • Jack January 26, 2014, 10:12 am

    These things are virtually indestructible and last forever so no worries, they’ll always be available. I love how you can plug it into an android tablet or even phone and be able to write anywhere.

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    • Wade Shepard January 26, 2014, 7:36 pm

      Good call. Going to start doing this, as it seems as if it would be a good way to maximize the usage of both devices. I wasn’t too into the idea when you first suggested it — I thought I could learn to type well on some tablet keyboard app (yeah right) — but now I’m starting to realize it’s benefits. Also, the Aplphasmart has it’s own attributes w/o the tablet, so it’s not just a simple external keyboard. I will blog the next trip like this and see how it goes.

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  • Jack May 3, 2020, 1:38 am

    And I might as well resurrect this post again. I love the AlphaSmart and yes it’’s obsolete. I am typing this post on a iPad Pro 12.9 2020 with Logitech keyboard case and Apple Pencil. It’s always on, has great battery life, and with Iawriter, I can write anywhere and it’s always saved in the cloud.

    Why resurrect this post? I had some files to get off of my old NEO and put into iawriter. The iPad Pro recognizes it as a Mac keyboard. I was a little surprised.

    And yes I still like the feel of typing on my AlphaSmart but there are fewer and fewer reasons to justify it, especially with the space it takes up.

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    • Wade Shepard May 3, 2020, 2:29 pm

      I know, man, I loved mine too. It’s a sad thing when something truly amazing becomes obsolete beyond the point of being able to justify using it anymore. In the old days, man, that thing ripped. But today with laptops with 10 hour+ battery lifes, almost ubiquitous mobile data, and phones like the Blackberry Key2 that are easy to write on and have a two day battery life … I still miss my Neo.

      At least my Neo never spied on me.

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