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Creative Mac-type desperate to become productive drone
April 2, 2012 2:50 PM   Subscribe

Am about to buy crappy (but shiny refurbished) Lenovo laptop for my writer bro. Because he's been wanting to devote a single alienatingly bare-bones machine to ONLY word processing, rather than continuing (and failing) to get stuff done on the distractingly multitasking Mac he currently has. (He uses Scrivener and occasionally Open Office rather than MS Word.) Are crappy laptops able to handle super-heavy word-processing?

The two models I've narrowed it down to are:

Lenovo G575, found refurbished for just below $300.

Lenovo B570 found refurbished for just below $400.

Key and keyboard feel, low fan noise, and generally well-sustained functioning for many hours of typing / saving / backing-up / etc. -- possibly with several docs open at once -- would probably be main considerations. This may be a dumb question, but I've no idea how much word-processing gobbles up memory, slows down the machine as a whole, and/or provokes loud fan noise. And to be honest, although he yearns for austerity, I think he will need Firefox browsing now and then, so that'd add to the system load. I'd also welcome advice on warranties -- like whether I should buy him a year-long or 2-year warranty extension where possible. Although it may be unsisterly of me to be so miserly, I'm kinda broke, and he has a birthday coming up. So. If this is a really bad idea, however, please let me know.
posted by taramosalata to Writing & Language (17 answers total)
I don't know if it's a bad idea so much as a really complicated, relatively expensive solution to the problem. There are any number of utilities for the Mac to keep it distraction free; SelfControl springs to mind for locking down one's internet access, with an optional whitelist. If the internet is the major distraction, it's really all you need. If it's internet and solitaire, delete solitaire and then turn on internet blocking. Really, you just need to delete all apps and not install anything new.

(To keep oneself from installing applications, the easy solution is to have someone else set up the computer's administrator account, and to only have a "standard" account, which generally can't run installers.)

For distraction-free writing, there's Writeroom, but I don't know how/if that handles multiple open documents.

The problem is that if you get a machine so slow it can't run more than one application at once, it's also going to choke on multiple word-processing documents, or on backing them up, or on other necessary tasks.
posted by supercres at 2:59 PM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Both of those machines should have no problem with open office and / or firefox for light browsing.

I take it an old school typewriter is out of the question? There are modern day digital variants such as Brother's ML300 which are a) pretty affordable(115 on amazon), and b) have a little lcd to proof and make corrections.

There are also standalone wordprocessing only portable devices such as the alphasmart which might be more valuable as they are extremely portable and only useful for typing.

There are software options like dark room which might be of value.

I'm not sure a mediocre PC is the right choice, but ymmv.
posted by satori_movement at 3:01 PM on April 2, 2012

It may be overkill if he already has a functioning computer, but how about a refurbished iPad with a Bluetooth keyboard for Dropbox text-file editing in something like PlainText? It's not necessarily distraction-free, but it single-tasks well and has great battery life for mobility. Plus it's hard to beat plain old .txt files.
posted by stopgap at 3:05 PM on April 2, 2012

A writer friend of mine used one of these and I thought it was pretty nifty -- it's basically a typewriter with a USB port (and Kindle-like battery life). Only $169!
posted by theodolite at 3:10 PM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've no idea how much word-processing gobbles up memory

- He would not have an issue with even MS Office on those machines given the speed and RAM included. OpenOffice will run fine too, probably better. With both WPs, not only does the number of documents open affect performance, but the types of things the writer is doing with the apps. The closer he stays to straight word processing, the better off he will be. Get into floating text boxes and more elaborate formatting and those apps really bog down. They are not design apps.

- If there are any questions about upgrading past the Win7 Home Premium 64 install, decline it. While it has its merits, I seriously doubt he would need any of the extra features.

- I did see a note somewhere about battery life not being so great on these models. Something worth checking into.

- The 500gb drive is also plenty big for a writer. As long as he does not start downloading movies and stuff, he will be fine.

- 4 gb ram is fine. He will be able to keep any word processor and his browser of choice open at the same time. However, do warn him about too many extensions in any browser as it will really eat up resources.

- Regarding warranties, that depends on him and his penchant for breaking things. With any laptop, they are subject to situations that invite abuse whether intended or not. I generally will go with a year warranty if it is not too much, but going on beyond that doesn't make much sense. It also really depends on what the warranty covers. Some are so full of corporate doublespeak that they basically guarantee only the power cord, so read them carefully.
posted by lampshade at 3:13 PM on April 2, 2012

Oh and yeah....either unit noted is fine for the price. You could get into all sorts of CPU comparisons, but I don't know how much of a difference it will make for him given his main requirements. I am sure you can find it cheaper too, but you will spend all sorts of time running comparisons.
posted by lampshade at 3:15 PM on April 2, 2012

Although it may be unsisterly of me to be so miserly, I'm kinda broke, and he has a birthday coming up. So. If this is a really bad idea, however, please let me know.

No need to buy an expensive PC laptop with all the support hassles that come with it. Just point him to WriteRoom and he's set.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:25 PM on April 2, 2012

Well, for the record, not having a Mac has not been some magic window to productivity. Once you get that browser open you are done for either way. Hell, 4 gigs of RAM is twice what I have on my work computer, and oh the hours of not writing I spent...

In my experience word processing is generally one of the least intensive programs you can run -- much lighter than web browsing, which really gobbles up RAM, especially once you get the multiple tabs open. I would consider a barely functioning piece of junk like an eee PC, something which is nearly incapable of browsing the web. Maybe get a really obscure brand and put Ubuntu on it (notoriously bad at old laptop wireless), and even deliberately fuck up the wireless drivers so it just doesn't connect to anything. Now we're getting somewhere. (If he wants Firefox that badly, let him get up and turn on his Mac.)
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:47 PM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

If this is a really bad idea, however, please let me know.

I think it's a sweet and thoughtful idea. Really, there will be distractions to be had with any sort of laptop connected to the internet. Heck, I get reeeeeally into online games if I know I have to write. I've been more productive this spring with just a pencil, a stack of cheap printer paper, and the pomodoro technique than I've been in a really long time. Dark horse answer: maybe use the money to pay for a workshop or weekend away? You could wrap up a kitchen timer in a festive box as a present.
posted by mochapickle at 4:09 PM on April 2, 2012

I have a dana - the model before the one theodolite linked to. For just writing, no distractions - it's pretty much the bee's knees. if you search on ebay for alphasmart dana, you will find many options for very cheap. and the battery life is looooong. I use eneloops and do a quick switch when they go low to replace with a charged set and it hasn't lost anything yet. one nice feature is that they're very, very sturdy, too. And light. It might be a useful option.
posted by lemniskate at 4:27 PM on April 2, 2012

If I was in the market for an old refurbished laptop to write on I'd look for an old Thinkpad X31/41/61 for a couple of hundred dollars. At least 512Mb of RAM and perhaps a 40Gb drive would be more than sufficient for running a a basic Linux install that would suffice.

I'd use Vim as my editor of choice since editing really is it's strong point (I'm already used to it), but if you really wanted a Word Processor, AbiWord is very light. I'd write in MarkDown and use Pandoc to convert my text to whatever output was required for formatting.

Depending on the model I might order a replacement battery if being mobile was important, and perhaps a replacement keyboard if needed. The build quality on these models is much better and I'd appreciate that more than the higher spec that would be mostly surplus to requirement anyway. YMMV.
posted by dirm at 4:28 PM on April 2, 2012

Just get him Freedom for the Mac. $10 is a lot cheaper than $3-400.
posted by kestrel251 at 5:30 PM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think it's a really sweet idea, and I like the idea of Freedom, but if he writes on Scrivener and openoffice I wouldn't get him an ipad or assume he wants an alphasmart or anything like that. In my experience, writers are finicky about process and he's likely kind of attached to his own.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:05 PM on April 2, 2012

I'm a pretty big fan of Dell's refurbed Latitudes. $200 laptops! Small hard drives, but you don't need much of one for documents. I've seen 20% discount codes around, which'll pay for your shipping and taxes, and maybe a little bit more. They're not the fastest but they will accommodate word processing and light web browsing.
posted by BungaDunga at 6:08 PM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, and I know for a fact that you can remove the wifi card from the D820 easily (unscrew a couple of screws, pop the keyboard out, pull out the card, put the keyboard back). Good if you really, really need to avoid the internet and have someone to hold your Ethernet cord(s) hostage.
posted by BungaDunga at 6:10 PM on April 2, 2012

As per theodolite above, I love my AlphaSmart Dana with a love that is more than love. It's 10 years old and still works fine: I can save text documents to an SD card, or hook the Dana directly to a computer via USB, where it works as a keyboard input that types the text really fast into a word processing document you can save.

The Dana has saved my writing ass so many times because it is nothing more than a keyboard and a word processing program; no internet, no games, no distractions. 

The only thing I would change about my Dana is that I missed an old software update at some point, so the OS state doesn't survive power cuts: once the rechargeable battery runs down, when you put a recharged battery in, the Dana thinks you're starting the system for the first time. This is actually not that big a deal, because I save all files on the SD card where they don't get wiped, and the Dana OS is so simple that "system wipe" just means "wants me to set the date/time when I turn it on." IIRC this bug was fixed in later updates to the software.

There are lots of really cheap Danae floating around for under $75 that should still work fine as USB input devices. Or you can check out its younger sibling the Neo. I'm going to be checking out that trade-in program.
posted by nicebookrack at 7:47 PM on April 2, 2012

WordPerfect 5.1 was the killer app for dos running on 16mhz 386s. Word processors have been around a *long* time and Tull be able to find one plenty fast enough to run on any computer you can find.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 8:39 PM on April 2, 2012

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