Like a pencil, but with longer battery life
August 15, 2009 3:59 PM   Subscribe

My dream device has only one function: you type on it, and it saves your text to be downloaded into a laptop later. It does this for a week without being plugged into the wall. Does it exist?

I would like to write while hiking, but would rather not scribble down text and transcribe it later. While I doubt the perfect device exists, I'm wondering if anything out there (or some combination of devices) might score well in the following criteria:
1) Long battery life: 3 hours of writing per day for up to 5 days, without being plugged in. I'd consider alternate charging systems, if they work.
2) A keyboard: I'd like to be able to type relatively normally, not thumb-type or poke a phone keypad.
3) Transferability: there should be some straightforward way of getting the text file on to a laptop later.

Also factoring into the mix are 4) affordable, 5) weather-resistant, and 6) lightweight. Current data points: my Macbook can't eke out more than 5 hours, and a Palm Tungsten with a folding keyboard attachment wasn't good for more than about 10.

I don't care if this device does anything else; in fact, the simpler the better. It could be something that was sold 10 years ago; all it needs to do is allow me to write while I'm away from electricity. Does anyone have any ideas?

Just as an aside, posing this question reminded me of the old chestnut about how NASA spent 1.5 million dollars to develop a pen that could write in zero gravity, while the Soviets solved the same problem by using pencils. Alas, it turns out to be just a myth. What a shame.
posted by itstheclamsname to Technology (30 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Yes. We had this in high school. It was just a keyboard. It had a tiny, one line display. It was battery operated. When you were finished, you would hook it up to the computer, maybe by USB, then hit send, and, voila, all of your text.

No real formatting. I am going to try and remember the name of it, but it exists!
posted by alice ayres at 4:03 PM on August 15, 2009

*all of your text would appear in Word or notepad.
posted by alice ayres at 4:04 PM on August 15, 2009

Quick google found me this. Retails for about $250 so I don't know if that fits your definition of affordable or not. Got an ok review from PCMAG.

Few more suggestions on this site.

Maybe a PDA would suit your needs?
posted by arha at 4:16 PM on August 15, 2009

Alphasmart? Now Neo, I think.
posted by sharkfu at 4:17 PM on August 15, 2009


You could also get an old Tandy Model 100, though you will need a serial interface on the host PC (it predates USB).
posted by kindall at 4:17 PM on August 15, 2009

Nthing Alphasmart.
posted by chrisalbon at 4:23 PM on August 15, 2009

On a side note.

1) Alphasmarts cost about $30-40 on eBay
2) They are almost indestructible.
posted by chrisalbon at 4:23 PM on August 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

You might want to take look at the AlphaSmart devices. They're relatively inexpensive and have at least several days of battery life.
posted by paulg at 4:29 PM on August 15, 2009

Perhaps it's possible to use a USB hardware keylogger with a battery and a conventional (or folding) keyboard? I'm not really up on keylogger technologies, but I like the idea of repurposing a generally-bad device for a good purpose.
posted by JMOZ at 4:29 PM on August 15, 2009

Alphasmart! i have a Dana and use it for just the purpose you describe and it is perfect for it.
posted by not that girl at 4:34 PM on August 15, 2009

If you don't mind writing by hand rather than typing, a digital pen or notepad might be equally efficient and more lightweight. Most digital notepads have 100+ hours battery life and many run on standard AA batteries.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:46 PM on August 15, 2009

No idea about battery life, but we used HP Jornadas back in high school in a bunch of classes and they were AWESOME. They were basically pre-Net netbook-sized PDAs. Our version was a more laptop-proportioned one and had a decent-sized screen.

The keyboards were large enough to type on, and they used Word, or some version thereof; there was definitely a word processor there, at least. Here's one on ebay for $99.

You might want to take a look at netbooks, too. Here's an HP netbook which claims to have "up to" 8.5 hours of battery time; presumably this is if you've got the brightness on looooooow and are only doing word processing.
posted by mdonley at 4:48 PM on August 15, 2009

What you're describing was sold 25 years ago. It was called a "TRS-80 Model 100". I had one, and it was awesome. By modern standards the only real problem was the size of the CMOS memory (32K bytes).
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:02 PM on August 15, 2009

The hybrid MSI Wind U115 netbook has been benchmarked at over 13 hours battery life with WiFi disabled, and that's running a constant 100% CPU load (battery eater.) If you are using it only for simple word processing I'd expect it to last longer on account of the CPU being idle much of the time. So if you want to go the netbook route, I think it is possible to meet your 3 hours times 5 days criterium.
posted by Rhomboid at 5:27 PM on August 15, 2009

I know you said type, not write, but going by your title, the smartpen fits the bill.
posted by umbĂș at 6:12 PM on August 15, 2009

I was going to nth the Alphasmart; if you want to stick with your current PDA, though, here's a site for PDA solar chargers. No idea how well they work in the field.
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:23 PM on August 15, 2009

NEC Mobilepro 770, 790, or 900.

They're instant-on and instant-off; any one of them can fit in a large coat pocket; and you can even get modems for them. Also, they have color screens and great keyboards. You can transfer info via a standard Flash memory disk.

Cost: $30 and up, on eBay.
posted by darth_tedious at 6:53 PM on August 15, 2009

If you really want to do this while hiking, why not record audio notes? There's some decent transcription software out there that will convert to text for you. And it'll give you less kit to carry.
posted by me & my monkey at 7:09 PM on August 15, 2009

I would grab an older PDA and a folding keyboard.
An old Palm III series (X, XE, E, etc)) would have replaceable AAA batteries, a decent sized screen, multiple options for full sized keyboard, and would cost next to nothing.
posted by piedmont at 7:09 PM on August 15, 2009

In our house we have a Palm t/x with keyboard, an Alphasmart 300, an Alphasmart Dana, and an Asus EeePC, all of which are arguably consistent with your criteria.

I first tried to get my PDA (Palm t/x) with an IR keyboard to do this. I touch type, and it was unsatisfactory because I couldn't see what I typed even in basic terms once it was typed in. And I didn't like the keyboard. I also found the setup with the keyboard and the palm clumsy/flimsy, and I didn't like the interface with my regular computer.

My kids use the Alphasmart 300, and after we saw how great it was (good keyboard, indestructible, runs on AAs), my DH bought the Alphasmart Dana. They both work great, as long as you are happy with how many lines of text you see (fewer with the 300, than the Dana), and also the fact that they do nothing else but type. If you want something with no distractions, this is your beast. The alphasmarts are larger and heavier than my EeePC.

I recently bought the EeePC, after having watched the small netbook trend for a while. I did not buy one until now because until the most recent version of the EeePC, the keyboard and touch pad were not suitable for touch typing. The Acer (and previous Asus eeepc's) had a weird placement of the shift key.

The EeePC and the Acer have 93% size keys. I wasn't sure I could get used to it, but bought it hoping to have it just for travel purposes. I have had no problem dealing with the key size. The screen is small if you compare it to a 'real' laptop, but compared to an alphasmart, the screen is Huge, and it has way more functionality. I'm an academic and I use it for significant amounts of writing, not just for travel in coping mode. And it has most of the functionality (no disk drive, slowish) of my full blown laptop.

Price wise (last time I checked in to ebay alphasmarts about 6 mos. ago), I don't think the Alphasmarts are worth it. If you do go with the Alphasmart, particularly on ebay, pay attention to which model it is. The 200 I think is the one which can NOT be attached to a computer to download. The 300 can, but you need to make sure you get a cable. The Neo is the new base model, replacing the 300. The Dana can run other applications as well.

I have available to me all of those devices, and I am sold on the Eeepc. My DH now sometimes abandons his Alphasmart dana to use my Eeepc for typing. I put it in my purse (albeit not a tiny one), and I find it's small enough I take it more often with me. I put it in a sleeve, so unless you're planning on typing in the rain or on a splashy boat, it would probably do. Oh, right, and the battery length. Real 7 hour battery life. Sweet!
posted by kch at 7:14 PM on August 15, 2009

Sounds like a Blackberry with the wireless radio turned off to me. I used mine while hiking to type notes and read books too.

You might be pushing it with one battery, but additional batteries weigh almost nothing and go for a few bucks on ebay.
posted by drjimmy11 at 7:28 PM on August 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure about the fixation on primitive technologies here. With the Blackberry you can just turn the Wireless on and email text to yourself when you get back to civilization. Or, if you want to get one without a service plan, you can either connect via cable, or take the microSD card out and put it in a card reader.
posted by drjimmy11 at 7:31 PM on August 15, 2009

(oh I see now you are against "thumb typing." Are you sure? After a few days practice you will going pretty fast. I think you might prefer to lugging a full on computer through the woods.
posted by drjimmy11 at 7:35 PM on August 15, 2009

I have a Palm III XE with a fairly decent full-size keyboard that folds into a pack the same size as the PDA. Two AAA batteries last almost three weeks, though less if I use the backlight. Things I type up can be sync'd to my PC with a single button press. The keyboard is also Palm, not aftermarket, but might be harder to find on eBay than the PDA.

Sure, it's an old, primitive PDA but it does fit most of your criteria, except for not being weatherproof. (Note: get the III XE not the III, for the XE's larger RAM.)
posted by anadem at 7:44 PM on August 15, 2009

I would seriously consider a portable recording device in this kind of situation. You are going to need to edit the text afterwards anyways, so a transcription based system would allow you to have a very easy to tote around kit. Plus, you can use it while walking around keeping one hand free to do whatever you want.
posted by bigmusic at 3:03 AM on August 16, 2009

Another vote for the Alphasmart Neo. I've had one for a year or so, and it's my 'want to write, don't want the web to distract me, no power outlets' solution. It took me a year of weekly and sometimes daily use to get through the first set of batteries (reported battery time is in the hundreds of hours, 700 is the average I hear). The keyboard is really nice too, and it's light as hell.

The only downside is the relatively blocky fonts and the funny angle of the screen, but I fold a neoprene laptop case under it to angle it better, and you can also buy little legs that snap onto it. There are also downloadable fonts that allow you to see more text at once.

Oddly enough, Flickr has a very active Alphasmart group, which is a great resource for advice on accessories and good places to buy them.
posted by Happy Dave at 4:59 AM on August 16, 2009

I too was going to suggest a Blackberry. It serves multiple needs, and the typing gets pretty darn easy after a while.

I met a hearing impaired guy the other day, and he uses his Blackberry to "talk" to people. He just opens a new message, types out what he wants to say, and shows it to the other person. Worked really well- especially because his handwriting was terrible. He was going a million miles a minute with his thumbs on the keyboard. Probably 30-40 wpm.

I'd expect that while this solution isn't 100% optimal, its synergies would more than make up for it. I'd also expect that there is a way to hook up a keyboard to it. But I never tried.
posted by gjc at 6:46 AM on August 16, 2009

If you go the Palm route, beware: at least on the older models, if the batteries did run out, you'd lose everything you'd saved. I know somebody who lost months of a travel diary this way.

In fact, you'll probably want to check this out for the other devices as well.
posted by wyzewoman at 6:55 AM on August 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Thanks for all the suggestions. It sounds like a device from the Alphasmart line will best fit my plans - I'm looking at the Neo, but investigating the compatibility of older, cheaper models. It seems to hit that sweet spot of battery + portability + simplicity + durability. I'm just surprised that I hadn't heard of them before.
posted by itstheclamsname at 7:25 AM on August 16, 2009

How about Blackberry (~150g) + external keyboard (170g) + solar charger (70g)? The total weight should be around a pound, plus, if you get a reasonably recent Blackberry it can server as a backup GPS device.
posted by stp123 at 12:34 PM on August 16, 2009

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