The most valuable thing I own (in real life, not TF2) cost only $20.


Almost every article of mine that you’ve read on this blog was written on an AlphaSmart, an old device originally designed to be purchased in bulk by primary schools to teach kids to type. It is an amazingly versatile little tool and I highly recommend that every single writer get one. The primary reason is that I am an easily distracted person. When I try to write on the computer, I have a troubling tendency to stop writing and start browsing reddit or playing video games, and then there are people contacting me on Steam or Skype, and there are emails to check… interruptions pile up fast. The AlphaSmart has none of that. It’s literally just a word processor, no more complicated than a calculator. No internet, no bells and whistles, you can’t even format your stuff with bold or italics. Just you and your writing. I like to hike out to the nearby park and write in the middle of nature, or at the nearby Panda Express if I’m hungry.

I first used an AlphaSmart in kindergarten, it was one of these and it could hold 51,200 characters, or about 25 pages of data. The newer NEO, the model I recommend, holds 8 files of that length each. Being built for grade schoolers, AlphaSmarts are very sturdy little machines and can survive a real beating. I bought mine in 2008 and have not needed to replace it. They also have legendary battery lives; they use three AA batteries and in the last 8 years I’ve only replaced them twice. (People have warned me to replace them more frequently than that, not due to the battery draining, but to prevent them from decaying!) These factors means you can totally take an AlphaSmart with you when going somewhere without computers or outlets; I’ve taken my AlphaSmart on many multi-day trips into the mountains so I can keep writing even free from any semblance of civilization. Then, when you get home, plug it into your computer with an ordinary printer cable and it’ll transfer your writing directly into whatever document software you like. In a nutshell, the AlphaSmart emulates a keyboard and then starts typing up your writing really fast after you hit the ‘send’ button. This means it’s compatible with any program from Microsoft Word to Apple Pages. I recommend transferring to Notepad and then copy-pasting to anything online, to prevent internet lags from interrupting the transfer and deleting portions of your writing.

This last note I learned at great cost. I had just finished a 25-page short story, and I connected my AlphaSmart up to my Google Docs and transferred the file over. Then, when the first page looked good, I deleted the file from my AlphaSmart (it doesn’t do this automatically, don’t worry! Make sure the transfer was perfect before you ever delete anything!) It was only the next day when I started to edit that I realized to my horror that Google Drive was not setup to receive that much text that quickly; I’d lost large chunks of my story all over the place, almost 80% of the content. I was despondent–that story had meant a lot to me, and I couldn’t even fathom trying to start the rewriting process. But never fear, AlphaSmart had me covered; files are retrievable so long as you haven’t written new text into them. This event was actually the thing that inspired me to write this article about how goddamn awesome the AlphaSmart is.

I honestly cannot give the AlphaSmart any higher praise. It’s cheap, it does what it promises, it’s reliable, and I have three extras in case anything ever happens to my current one. The company discontinued it back in 2013 so if you want one, you’ll need to buy it second-hand from eBay or Amazon, but I absolutely recommend you do so. I wouldn’t be the writer I am today if this device hadn’t existed.