Religious Orders

Writing Machine

Posted: Wednesday July 08 2015 @ 2:41pm

Religious Order: Toys

I've been trying to find an appropriate pure writing tool for a while. I haven't written any fiction lately and part of that is the easy distraction of the Internet. I've been trying to find a suitable tool out of my own vast store of old computers. (While I tossed most of them, I did keep a few small laptops.) My requirements are:

  1. Full-size (or nearly so) real keyboard.
  2. Long battery life.
  3. Easy file transfer to the desktop.
  4. Lack of distractions.

Here's how it's going...

White Polycarb MacBook

The old MacBook is what I've been using up until now. It has a new battery, so is good for 2-3 hours. Dropbox/SugarSync keep files updated on the desktop. But, geez, it gets hot on my lap and is packed with as many distractions as the desktop.

Even with wifi turned off, the MacBook isn't ideal. It's heavy and gets hot. The battery is only good for a couple hours. It has a lengthy start-up time. The keyboard is okay, but doesn't have full-height keys.

It's a great laptop, for its time. It's not a great writing machine.

Tandy WP-2

I pulled the old Tandy WP-2 out of storage. It really is a dedicated writing too. It's thin and light and runs for weeks on four AAs. It still worked, too, but the contrast on the screen has faded over the years. You can barely see the text. That alone makes it a non-starter.

Tandy 100

So I tried the Tandy Model 100. It still works like a champ. It runs weeks on four AA batteries. It has a great keyboard.

Alas, transferring files is a chore. I can do it, mind you. All I have to do is hook up a 25-pin-to-9-pin adapter to a serial-to-USB adapter. Then make sure the serial driver for the desktop's USB port is running. Then fire up an actual telecom terminal application. Next, ensure the settings match between the app and the Tandy 100. Then send the file, capturing the text in the telecom app. Then save that text out to a text file and load it into something else.

Yeah, that's all. I mean, it's not that onerous a task, but it's just onerous enough that it's keeping me from actually doing any writing on it.

Apple eMate 300

Other options? I have an old Apple eMate 300. It's a sweet piece of technology, basically a backlit double-screened Newton in a curvy netbook casing.

The keyboard is slightly smaller than full-size. Plus, the home row is way off-center. I hate that in a laptop. I need G & H to be centered with the screen, dammit! Also hurting it is that I'd need to run Newton syncing software. The official Apple software doesn't run on Intel chips. There's third-party stuff available, but it's a fragile situation.

The final nail? The battery pack is old and doesn't hold a charge. You can build one if you're handy with a soldering iron and have the desire. I'm not and don't.

Lexbook MB-15

Another option is the Lexbook MB-15, sitting upstairs. It's a DOS machine, so I could run SpeedScript on it. (I loved SpeedScript. I had the Pascal source code, so I could add features, and fix a page eject bug.) Decent keyboard. Can run on six AA batteries, in place of the long-dead battery pack.

It suffers from the same problems as the Tandy machines. Gotta engage in serial-to-USB silliness to copy across files.
(Oh, looking at the entry for the Lexbook, it's no longer working anyway.)

Nexus 7

One final option was to pair my first gen Nexus 7 with a cheap, but nice, Bluetooth keyboard I picked up for $5. Needs a case, though. I keep meaning to hollow out an old book for this, but I just haven't yet.

Alas, the tablet provides tons of distraction and I'd have to remember to keep both the tablet and the keyboard charged.

So, with all these options not up to snuff, I'm left with having to buy something...

MacBook Air

A MacBook Air would be a (pricy) option. Also, the keyboard gets worse with each iteration. Typing on a shallow keyboard is just wrong. Not really an option here.


The Hemingwrite, now called the Freewrite by Astrohaus, looks really sweet. Mechanical keyboard, continual back-up to the cloud, and a sharp ePaper screen for long battery life.

But it's also $400, only supports three documents, and you can't edit at all!

What!? I understand that there's a difference between writing and editing. My biggest hurdle when writing is to stop myself from word-smithing on the fly. But, dammit, sometimes you need to go back and fix something.


So I decided to pick up an Alphasmart. These are keyboards with small LCD screens. They're basically the same idea as a Tandy WP-2.

They are, however, new enough that some models support USB, acting like a keyboard. You plug them in, fire up a word processor or text editor, and the Alphasmart literally types your document out on the desktop.

The Dana line uses the old Palm OS. Palm syncing on OSX is a big bag of hurt. The screen is larger than other AlphaSmart models and is backlit. The battery life is much shorter than other models. They have SD card slots, but the files saved there aren't plain text; they're Palm's proprietary format. So, nope.

There's the Original/Pro/2000/3000 line, with insane battery life, getting up to 700 hours on three AAs, but they have really small screens. Only the 3000 supports USB. The 3000 would certainly work, but there's a better option!

The Neo line! Same insane battery life. A bit more memory. Larger screen. Includes a USB connection! I've heard a few rumblings that the USB stuff can be flaky with a Mac, but, oh look, they also have a PS2 port! (And I have a very nice PS2-to-USB adapter I use for my old Microsoft Natural Keyboard Elite fetish.)

The only downside is that the screen isn't backlit. I can live with that.

Found one on eBay for $25 with free shipping! We'll see how it works out!

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