The Cheapest Distraction-Free Writing Machine You’ll Ever Find

Behold the glory of the 1990s-era Alphasmart

Clive Thompson


A month ago I wrote a blog post entirely using my old manual typewriter.

It was a bit of a stunt, of course. But it felt oddly modern. Cognitively speaking, typing out an essay felt quite similar to writing via voice-dictation on my smartphone. In both cases — before I speak, or before I type — I have to craft a whole, complete sentence in my head. Interestingly, working on a typewriter made my text rather more plainspoken and less ornate, because I couldn’t tinker and fiddle with sentences to get them perfect.

There was another benefit to the typewriter, though, which is that it was distraction free. No nagging alerts from the nudgy casino mechanisms of social media; no ‘zup? messages from friends suddenly breaking my flow.

So the typewriter giveth and taketh away. It endows you with superior concentration — but makes it hard to craft and sculpt your prose.

When I was talking to friends about my typewriter essay, they noted this see-saw compromise, and wondered if there weren’t some perfect midpoint. What if there were a machine that gave you fully digital editing abilities, but wasn’t connected to the raging cocktail party of the Internet? They’d love that!

As it turns out, there is such a magical device — and I’ve used it too.

Step forward, the Alphasmart.

The Alphasmart was a word processor first released in 1993 by a few former Apple engineers. (That’s a picture of it above.) Back when desktop computers were still prohibitively expensive, the Alphasmart was pitched as an affordable writing tool for schools. In the mid-00s, the company was acquired by Renaissance Learning, which released a few updated models before discontinuing the line in 2013.

These days, Alphasmart devices are wildly cheap. I bought one years ago from a Brooklyn local off Craigslist for $25; for the same sum today, you can get ‘em on EBay.

Basically, the Alphasmart is just a digital keyboard with a memory chip and a small screen capable of displaying only 40 characters per line (and only four lines). It can store only eight files, each of which…



Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”.