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AlphaSmart Neo – 3D keycaps anyone?!

The AlphaSmart Neo scissor-switch membrane keyboard seeks help from modern day keycap designer.

E.F. Nordmed
Published February 8, 2024
Creators! Feel free to tip me off about your keyboard related projects to bring them to 100K readers.

TL, DR: AlphaSmarts were made to give elementary schools and kids in the 90's affordable access to word processing devices. These retro one-trick-computers are finding new life and looking for new keycaps. If you are into 3D modeling, be the one to help bring old tech back to new!

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Time travel is called "travel" because it means going somewhere that's not here and now. This trip I'm asking you to do – yes, you – is to travel back to the 1990's. Dinosaurs didn't roam the earth, we knew all about the wheel and fire, and the internet as we now know it existed but it was much slower. Computers existed in some homes, jobs and schools, but laptops were big and bulky. New IBM laptops ran roughly $3500 each (which is more than I paid for my first used car.)

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Because computers weren't available to everyone as word processors, a few engineers from Apple split off and made their own company to fix this problem. Their goal was to make an inexpensive but robust stand-alone word processor that could be given to elementary school kids. We're not talking 1990's laptop "robust," where they carefully dropped it under controlled conditions from 3 feet onto a flat surface. We're talking about children using it, as in Jimmy-stole-my-lunch-so-I-hit-him-with-it-until-he-cried kind of robust.

"At trade shows, I would just wait for them to ask how durable it is, then drop kick it… That was one thing our competitors wouldn't do" – AlphaSmart.

What the engineers created was the AlphaSmart. It was a word processor and nothing else. It had a solid plastic shell, full size keyboard made of scissor-switches and a membrane underneath, and a tiny monocolor 4x40 LCD display with no backlighting, and an OS that booted immediately into a word processing program. After you typed your essay into it, you hooked it up to a USB cable and it downloaded to a Mac or PC. The words would appear on the downloaded text document one character at a time, as if you were typing it into the computer. Not fast, but cheap and durable.

AlphaSmart was bought out by Renaissance Learning who continued with the goal of providing affordable products to schools. They created multiple AlphaSmart models (Original, Pro, 2000, 3000, Dana, Neo and Neo2) in the late nineties until 2013. By then, laptops were everywhere, and smart phones were taking over the world. The AlphaSmart business model was no longer sustainable.

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Fast forward to this decade. NaNoWriMo kicks off every November and encourages aspiring writers to make a 50k word story in a month. This is doable if you can type roughly 1600 words a day, but you can't do it if you keep losing focus. When I started, I blocked off 3 hours on one Saturday just to write, and then spent two hours of that time browsing the internet looking for "music to improve concentration." I think everyone has gone down that rabbit hole at least once in their life.

Someone in my writing accountability workgroup told me about the AlphaSmart Neo. It only writes words. No internet connection, no web browser, no games built into the OS. The thing it does, and does well, is give you a mental space to write. I started researching it, and found a ton of articles about how these devices are being used for distraction-free writing, how it helped people with ADHD / ADD focus on essay writing, and how they could be found on eBay for less than $50. I got one. It's now my go-to device when I have to type something and I'm on a deadline.

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Astrohaus was hailed as the successor to AlphaSmart. They make a great product called the Freewrite that also offers distraction free writing, with very limited internet access for uploading word documents, and they're elegantly designed. Unfortunately, they run between $650 - $1k. Furthermore, they only sell replacement keycaps for the Freewrite models that use mechanical keyboards. The original AlphaSmart philosophy – make a distraction free device at a reasonable price point – has definitely changed. A FreeWrite is a shiny status symbol that signals to the world "I am a real Author" and "I can afford specialty writing tools." The AlphaSmart is a durable, old, beat up word processor where someone covered scratches on the case with faded Last Airbender stickers. But it still works.

However, even something as well built as an AlphaSmart will run into problems over time, especially when that time is measured in decades. You know that if you have an electronic device with moving parts, certain things will fail first. 1) Batteries wear out. 2) Keyboard keys pop off.

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In 2024 there's still a small but active fan group that posts about the AlphaSmart products. You can find up-to-date forums on Reddit, Hackaday, and in a blast from the past, Flickr. There are posts on how to add lights and make the LCD screen backlit. People paint them, use car vinyl wrap to customize them, and dip them in vinyl plastic to change the color. The AlphaSmart 3000 has a posting on how to change out the keyboard for a mechanical keyboard, but unfortunately that's specific to the 3000 and not the Neo, Dana, or Pro versions. There's a website in Britain that does sell replacement keys for roughly 9 British Pounds per key, not including shipping. There's a US based website that claims to sell replacement keys for roughly the same price, shipping excluded.

What I haven't been able to find is a 3D model so I can print my own replacement – or even better, custom – keycaps.

This is where I'm asking you, the experts and enthusiastic hobbyists, to help if you have time.

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Click here for more photos! Contact me if you can help!

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Published on Thu 8th Feb 2024. Featured in KBD #154.


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