A few streams have confluenced to prompt this post. First, a consultant wandered around the corridors at work with an odd-looking keyboard under his arm. I didn’t have anything much to do with him and didn’t really pay attention. Then Paul Ford wrote about the two (main) kinds of distraction on Ftrain. More on that later, if I’m not distracted. The point here is that he referred to “a little device called an AlphaSmart Neo, which is mostly sold to schools”. He made it sound like a machine for losers. But I recognized it for what it was: the reincarnation of my beloved old TRS-80. And the thing under the consultant’s arm. Then a colleague, an enthusiastic early adopter of the latest technologies (and known, to her face, sometimes, as Gizmo Girl) announced that she had found the One True Device that would make her life worth living: an AlphaSmart Neo.

What we’ve all been searching for is a portable computer that does not weigh a ton, does not require you to sharpen your fingers to points or go blind squinting at a teeny screen, and does not offer anything fancy in the way of distractions. In other words, the TRS-80, model 100. I loved mine to bits. It was so hip. I loved filing copy from far away places. I loved the stupid 8 line display, which forced you actually to concentrate on what you had written. I loved the little iconic images of page layouts, which were mostly useless anyway as I don’t recall ever printing a page directly from the machine. I loved the workaround for not having a printer, like using the modem and an online gateway to fax a story to the hotel where I was holed up. It just worked. For hours. Without complaining. On 4 AA batteries.

A few months ago, when I was packing up my wordly goods, I found it again. And the Purple Computing portable disk drive, which I think cost more than an average laptop today. And I threw them away. It hurt, but I did it, because I finally realized that although I often dreamed of resurrecting it, I knew I didn’t really have the technical skills to do so. Someone much geekier than me could probably have hooked up one of the outputs to a USB plug, or something equally up to the minute. But I knew that if getting stuff out of it meant using the modem to dial up and email the files, it was never going to happen.

Now I’m tempted, deeply tempted, by the Neo.

I have a portable, of course, but it is heavy and, as Paul Ford noted, a trap for the easily distracted. I had a neat-o folding keyboard for the Palm, but since the old Palm broke I have not bought a new keyboard because reading stuff on that silly little screen is too damn hard. Heck, the Palm remains a glorified phone book, no more. My phone can wake me up. And I don’t feel the need to play Dope Wars that often any more. The Neo does not, I think, offer internet connectivity. But that’s a pro, not a con. All that distraction, again. Plus, you’re never that far from an internet cafe. You just wouldn’t want to spend too long in one writing. It comes with a USB cable, which suggests you can plug it into a “real” computer. It’s a lot lighter than the TRS-80, though a little larger.

It will make me invincible, obviously.

But the last thing I really need, no matter how much I might want one, is a new gadget. Perhaps my best strategy is simply to wait for Gizmo Girl to buy hers. If history is any guide, she’ll fall out of love with it sooner rather than later, then I can waltz in and make her an offer to take it off her hands.

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