I have had this awesome little writing device called a Neo from the company Alphasmart for a while now, and I wanted to write it up. This device has gained a following of writers who use it as a no-distraction, instant power on, simple writing device. Its got a great keyboard, turns on fast, and can do almost nothing except write (although as well will see later, it is an embedded computer and can do much more).

If you are interested in the community around these things, I know of https://www.flickr.com/groups/alphasmart/ and https://www.reddit.com/r/AlphaSmart/.

There is plenty of information out there about getting these (they are no longer made by Alphasmart, but you can still get them pretty cheap), but less information about the technical aspects of these devices as an embedded system.

I haven't dug all that deep here, but I have found some resources, and I wanted to keep a series of posts as a sort of log about this device so there is another record to help others find and play with this thing.


A good first reference is the Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AlphaSmart

There is a Neo teardown on hackaday: https://hackaday.com/2020/11/05/alphasmart-neo-teardown-this-is-the-way-to-write-without-distractions/

As well as a few articles about the app file format, a perl script to decode them, and another tear down here: https://hackaday.io/project/25732-hacking-the-alphasmart-neo

Things get a bit interesting in this article: http://www.toughdev.com/content/2020/08/tweaking-the-alphasmart-neo-a-great-portable-word-processor-with-700-hour-battery-life/

Where the author talks about actually writing applications for a Neo.

Neo Manager

There is an official manager program called Neo Manager, which provides a way to connect to a Neo over USB, transfer text files, and load apps, and perhaps other things. However, this is a GUI and not scriptable, and it does not work in Linux under Wine.

Luckily we can just 'pip install neotools' from https://github.com/lykahb/neotools and do all kinds of things from the command line. I haven't dug into the code but there is a lot of information on the commands that the NEO accepts and the protocol that it speaks. For example, here is a lot of information on messages used, here is text encoding, here are constants used in the applet format, etc.

With this, we could even upload applets on Linux, if we could build them...

Building Applets

I was surprised to find a project that allows you to build your own applets for the Neo: https://github.com/isotherm/betawise.

All you need is this project, and binutils and gcc compiled for the m68k-elf target. I used a command like:

./configure --prefix=/opt/m68k --target=m68k-elf

and got the most recent binutils and gcc to compile just fine.

At first I expected to need a target like m68K-coff or something, which is no longer supported. However, looking deeper into the betawise toolchain, the makefile uses

objcopy -O binary

to create a flat binary file. I didn't know about this option- its quite neat in that it essentially erases the executable file format and places the entry point at the first address as far as I can tell.

This means that gcc can produce an elf file, but we can pull the compiled code out and get it on the Neo! There are a number of gcc options which may be required here- look at Makefile.common for details.

I think a separate post might be useful to discuss the betawise setup as I learn it.


How to Boot Into Small ROM Mode https://support.renaissance.com/techkb/techkb/5985396e.asp

Mac Neo Manager Replacement https://github.com/tSoniq/alphasync

68K Resources http://www.easy68k.com/paulrsm/index.html

Easy 68K Assembler Page http://www.easy68k.com/

Article on NEO and Custom Apps http://www.toughdev.com/content/2020/08/tweaking-the-alphasmart-neo-a-great-portable-word-processor-with-700-hour-battery-life/

SmartApplet Format, and perl script to decode https://hackaday.io/project/25732-hacking-the-alphasmart-neo/log/62519-smartapplet-format

Python Neotools https://github.com/lykahb/neotools Install With: pip3 install neotools

Neo Dev Kit for Custom Apps https://github.com/isotherm/betawise

MSYS2 GCC M68K https://sourceforge.net/projects/mingw-gcc-68k-elf/ I did not end up using this, but its interesting anyway.

Instead I follow https://darkdust.net/writings/megadrive/crosscompiler for the most part, although I just got the most recent versions of everything, built with m68k-elf instead of m68k-coff, and I have to explicitly provide the path to the C standard library headers for some reason -I/usr/include.


Hopefully this gives a little bit of an introduction to these devices. I think most people prefer to engauge with them as writing devices, but I would like to try out a few more technical things. I may never dig as deep as I might have when I had more free time, buts its an interesting diversion in the embedded systems world. Perhaps someone else can get started and make some cool applets, or help out betawise, which has a lot of interesting work to be done.