I want an extremely cheap machine to run emacs for writing dumb stories.
February 25, 2014 9:22 AM   Subscribe

I would like a radically cheap computing device that I can run emacs on, and maybe LaTeX. I keep seeing off-brand 7-inch Android tablets at extremely low sale prices at the local discount store. Is this a good option for me, or would I just be beating my head constantly against inadequate/flaky hardware?

I amuse myself sometimes by writing terrible, sub-fanfic stories that I would like to never ever ever be associated with my real identity.

The problem is, my only computer is my work laptop, which is not owned by me, and potentially open to scrutiny by IT. Although my employer is pretty chill and our IT department is unlikely to go prowling through my hard drive for .txt files with funny names, it still weirds me out that my stupid stories might be accessible to someone who is not me. I'd like to get a standalone machine to write on.

After many years of living in emacs, that's where I write best/fastest, and I hear it exists now as a native Android app. I might some day want to TeX up my stuff to make it look nice for other humans (which I hear you can also do on Android).

Because I'm only amusing myself with goofy stories, here, I am not willing to throw a lot of money at this. The cheapest option would probably be to take an old, slow desktop computer off someone's hands and put Linux on it, but this is slightly more effort (and space, in terms of having a desktop computer sitting around my house) than I'm willing to devote to the project.

I keep seeing small, off-brand, crazy-cheap Android tablets for sale. I don't think need a fast processor or a lot of memory (do I?), and a small screen is okay, so one of these, with a full-sized wireless keyboard, might be exactly the kind of minimalist setup I'm looking for. I am attracted to the tablet's ease of use, compactness, and portability.

My main fear is that a cheap tablet would not work well and be too frustrating to use, and of less concern for me than the wasted money is the idea that I'd buy piece of crap manufactured by slave labor in some horror-show sweatshop using up our earth's precious dwindling resources, end up hardly using it and then throwing it away so that it can take give cancer to recycling workers in a developing nation, and/or take up space in a landfill and pollute the groundwater.

Would an inexpensive 7-inch Android tablet meet my needs? If so, do you have brand recommendations? If not, is there another hardware option I should consider? Have you used emacs on an Android, and how did that work out for you? What about LaTeX?
posted by Compared to what? to Computers & Internet (29 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know about tablets, but I recently got one of the new $280 Chromebooks kind of on a whim. It's a neat little thing, and impressive for being under 300 bucks. It eliminates your need for a wireless keyboard, and since it's not a tablet I can watch free hulu on it without any workarounds. I don't know your tolerance range for "cheap" but that hit it for me.
posted by phunniemee at 9:29 AM on February 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you're proficient using emacs, I assume you're probably using a lot of keyboard shortcuts. So that brings up two problems- one, the Android emacs app may not support as many of those shortcuts, and two, the keyboard itself for a 7 inch tablet may be missing some keys (like ctrl, alt, etc.)

You're probably better off getting a 300 dollar laptop and installing either Linux or, if it comes with windows, emacs for windows on it.
posted by thewumpusisdead at 9:33 AM on February 25, 2014

Seconding Chromebook because you can also install Ubuntu Linux on it if you wish. That'll get you a full working emacs + LaTeX rig pretty cheaply. Or get a refurbed ThinkPad from Lenovo's outlet store.
posted by JoeZydeco at 9:33 AM on February 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

Used Chromebook, can probably find one for half the price of a new one.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 9:34 AM on February 25, 2014

I would like a radically cheap computing device that I can run emacs on, and maybe LaTeX. I keep seeing off-brand 7-inch Android tablets at extremely low sale prices at the local discount store. Is this a good option for me, or would I just be beating my head constantly against inadequate/flaky hardware?

So all you need is emacs?

Sure you can go with new hardware...or you can just buy an older laptop thats cheaper.

Thats all you need. Shit, even an old iBook will work.
posted by hal_c_on at 9:35 AM on February 25, 2014

For true minimalism, you could get a standalone word processor on eBay for $20 - basically a keyboard with a small attached screen and a USB port. I use one for writing because I'm highly susceptible to internet distractions - the one I use is the AlphaSmart 3000, which has a $20 listing on eBay right now. You can't run emacs or LateX, but you could always just go to the local library in the event you end up really needing those.
posted by UncleBoomee at 9:37 AM on February 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'd get an old laptop. Business class Pentium M laptops (i.e. Dell Latitude d600) are available for $100 or so. Shove Ubuntu on it and you're good to go.

A 7" Android tablet is going to be a pain to read the screen of, a pain to type on, relatively underpowered, etc.
posted by wotsac at 10:17 AM on February 25, 2014

Ask your IT folks if you can take the oldest piece of hardware off their hands. Install a minimal linux (no graphics) and emacs. Really there are pallets of computers that are hard for organizations to get rid of, a cheapo that does what you're asking for should be free at this period of tech.
posted by sammyo at 10:18 AM on February 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Emacs really demands a decent keyboard: get an old business workhorse laptop, install Ubuntu server and emacs. If there's a Thinkpad going spare (something as old as a T43 with a Pentium M will do fine) you'll get a very nice keyboard and ample hardware.

When I think about support for Ctrl-Meta-Shift shortcuts, crappy Android tablets do not come to mind.
posted by holgate at 10:22 AM on February 25, 2014

I've done the off-brand 7" tablet thing and it's a waste of money. I now have a 7" Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 that I'm very happy with and would definitely recommend that it's worth paying twice as much to get something that someone with reputation in the fiedl is putting their name behind.

That said, I really think that a netbook is better suited to your task.
posted by 256 at 10:25 AM on February 25, 2014

Specifically, when I was in a very similar boat, looking for a small portable machine that could run Linux for web browsing and fiction writing purposes, I bought an Acer Aspire One for $270 new. It was perfect to my task and works fantastically with Xubuntu. Open Office is a touch slow, but vim and Atlantis run beautifully. The keyboard is about 3/4 size, but I was able to adapt pretty quickly, even though I have largish hands.
posted by 256 at 10:28 AM on February 25, 2014

I use emacs on a wifi-only galaxy tab 2, with a full-size wired USB Dell SK-8115 keyboard.
I need to use a little adaptor between the Tab and the USB keyboard plug.
It works fine.

I tried a wireless keyboard first, but it was just too small to support touch typing, and didn't agree much with emacs, either. I now use the wireless keyboard to hold the Tab like a screen while I am using the wired keyboard.
posted by the Real Dan at 10:35 AM on February 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

You can probably get an early ASUS Eee PCs for next to nothing. They're not pretty, by any stretch, but they'll run Emacs.

Or, yeah, just wipe and put linux on any old laptop.
posted by ODiV at 11:11 AM on February 25, 2014

Get a used thinkpad on ebay and install linux on it. I'm partial to the x61 - it's fast enough for what you want, and has a good keyboard. The battery will probably be shot, so get a new one if you want it to be portable. An SSD will help if you have the budget for upgrades, and shouldn't be too expensive for a small one.
posted by unix at 11:25 AM on February 25, 2014

The $35 Raspberry Pi might be a good way to go, if you can get a free or inexpensive monitor and keyboard. You'll also need a SD card to boot from, and possibly a power supply, and possibly a wiresless card.

Another way to go might be to run emacs in an incognito browser window, and save the files to some (free) cloud storage. I save some of my similar efforts as drafts in an email account.

I see some Chromebooks new for $200.

I'd think that any new device will be less portable than your work laptop, unless by portability you mean around-the-house portability, and depending on whether you carry your work laptop everythere you go or not.
posted by at at 11:48 AM on February 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

If it were me, I'd look for some crappy old XP machine on craigslist or at yard sales. We've had a ten dollar XP machine in use here for the past 5 years or so that only just got retired last week. You can probably get an old CRT monitor to go with it for free. That should be fine for emacs and latex.
posted by DarkForest at 12:00 PM on February 25, 2014

Ah, sorry, didn't read you'd already considered that option
posted by DarkForest at 12:02 PM on February 25, 2014

If you go the tablet route, buy a used Nexus 7 or some other used tablet, rather than a cheap new one. It looks like the 1st gen Nexus 7 in good shape goes for $100 to $125.
posted by cnc at 12:33 PM on February 25, 2014

Agree with at: Raspberry Pi. You can make the Pi portable if you wish. Pick a keyboard you like. Cheaper than a tablet but you can still make a phone (Android or iPhone) or tablet an interface to it if you wish.
posted by PickeringPete at 12:38 PM on February 25, 2014

I was able to run Linux and emacs comfortably on a late 90s Toshiba Portégé, which are gorgeous machines, but are now heading into collectors' item territory.

You could absolutely run a Raspberry Pi and perhaps SSH into it from your work laptop, but that might not feel like enough separation.
posted by holgate at 12:53 PM on February 25, 2014

Nth-ing a Chromebook. I recently (tried) to install Ubuntu on a Thinkpad T42 and it was a huge PITA because of the Pentium M processor. I also have an original Chromebook (a CR-48) and putting Ubuntu on it was easy. It boots super quick because of the SSD and Emacs is great on it.
posted by labfreak23 at 12:59 PM on February 25, 2014

N-thing Chromebook. My wife has one of the $200 11" Asus Chromebooks. Hers still runs Chrome, but other people run Ubuntu on it.
posted by fings at 1:53 PM on February 25, 2014

Look on Craigslist for laptops in the range of $100 - $200. If you really don't need to run anything more complex than emacs, the comfort of the keyboard should be your primary concern.
posted by oceanjesse at 2:41 PM on February 25, 2014

Nthing Uncle Boomee, why buy a tablet when all you need is a keyboard with a little bit of flash memory built in!!!!

I have the quick pad pro and the alpha smart, [note that there is a 2K and a 3k model] and there's not much difference between them. The quick pad pro has a slot for memory card.

They run on AA batteries when travelling.

If you choose the "portable word processor" route, make sure you get a manual, a USB cable and a power cable. The ebay sellers are indifferent because they have loads of that stuff lying around. When you see the USB cable, you will laugh your head off, it looks like it could run a tractor in Soviet Russia.
posted by ohshenandoah at 3:11 PM on February 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Chrome store has an emacs emulator called Chremacs and a web-based Latex editor called Sharelatex. I've only used the later but it works pretty well.

And not only can you run linux on a chromebook, you can run it side by side with ChromeOS and switch between them with a hotkey using Crouton. No need for dual booting. They're really nifty little machines, I'm happy I picked one up.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 3:15 PM on February 25, 2014

As a data point, my mother-in-law has one of those $68 Android tablets. It's really not good. The main problem is that it has 6 GB of storage, but what Android considers the "internal" storage is only 2 GB and the other 4 GB is a built-in SD card. It has lots of pending app updates that won't ever complete, since the internal storage is full and many system apps can only be installed there. The screen resolution is weird and looks kind of stretched, and the screen itself is not great looking and pretty hard to read. Plus it's slooooooooow.

If you're writing on the thing, you'll want a decent screen, so I'm with folks who are suggesting an old laptop. I used to have an old Latitude D800 that had a beautiful 1920x1200 screen and a good full-sized keyboard, and it'd probably be worth $100 tops today.
posted by pocams at 7:20 PM on February 25, 2014

For what it's worth, I've got an original Aspire One net book that I'd be happy to send you for the cost of shipping, if i can find a power adapter for it in my box o cables. But a full sized keyboard would probably be helpful for you.
posted by wotsac at 8:43 PM on February 25, 2014

One of the strengths of Emacs is that you can run it wonderfully in a terminal, remotely. What I do is rent a virtual private server from Digital Ocean ($5/month) and just SSH to it. This also means that my actual hardware is totally disposible. I can access my stuff from anywhere. It's also encrypted and somewhat safely backed up. I can run LaTeX, web servers, whatever. Here's a writeup by someone who does remote software development in this way using an iPad and an external keyboard.

The downside of this is of course that you need net access. If you get a laptop as a client, you could easily set up, say, a git repository for syncing your stuff.

Further, consider writing in Markdown format; you can then view your stuff on GitHub in a rather nice way, plus it's much less tedious than writing LaTeX. You can later convert to LaTeX if you want to, but Markdown is just much simpler for actual writing.
posted by mbrock at 3:42 AM on February 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Thanks, all, for your input and suggestions. Sounds like the small tablet wouldn't be a great option for me. I'll continue to keep my eyes peeled for a cheap laptop... though I'm thinking harder about the Raspberry Pi than I was previously.
posted by Compared to what? at 5:51 AM on February 26, 2014

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