Cheapest, best way to build an internet-free writing laptop?
July 16, 2021 1:30 PM   Subscribe

Hey! I like writing. I also like the internet. This can be an issue at times. I want to build an internet-free computer for writing, as cheaply as possible, and I don't like the look of Hemingwrite-type devices. I imagine that the ideal option is buying a cheap laptop, and transferring writing between it and my regular laptop via USB as needed. But what are the ideal specs? How do I do this?
posted by insteadofapricots to Computers & Internet (23 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Can you give some more information about what's important to you with respect to specs?
Because if you just want to run a text editor or word processor, pretty much anything at all would work.
posted by trig at 1:49 PM on July 16 [5 favorites]

What do you not like about the Hemingwrite? There's another dedicated typing terminal called the Alphasmart: it's quite a bit cheaper.

As to the ideal specs, that depends on what you want. For your purposes, you could find any old laptop with a keyboard you like, make that your typing terminal, and "promise" not to use the Internet on it. Or a tablet + Bluetooth keyboard, which would give you better keyboard options. Finding a laptop that can't connect to wifi would probably require a trip to the computer museum—I doubt any have been sold since the mid-90s—or performing surgery on a laptop to remove that capability.

The TRS-80 Model 100 might work for you, but you'd need to work out the serial port/USB connectivity.
posted by adamrice at 1:50 PM on July 16 [1 favorite]

Do you have a strong preference for what software you want to use to write with? If you are wed to Microsoft Word, that will drive your choice of OS (Windows), which in turn will drive the specifications you need.

Personally, I would use an old IBM/Lenovo Thinkpad, because they tend to have really nice keyboards, and if I was building a machine primarily for writing, I'd want it to have a nice keyboard. (Although you could also use an external keyboard, if you didn't care about portability.) I'd either use whatever version of Windows that generation of machine was originally designed to work with (which could be XP—it's not like the security issues matter that much, if you're never going to connect it to the Internet), or put a basic Linux distro on it. Linux has the advantage of coming with a variety of free word processing / writing tools, but the disadvantage of, well, being Linux. (Although Linux's traditional issues surrounding WiFi cards are actually a plus here, if you don't care about and don't want Internet access...) And then I would just not install wireless drivers. No drivers, no Internet—at least unless you plug it in via Ethernet.

My laptop for Serious Writing Things is an IBM Thinkpad R32, from the WinXP era, with a new-ish battery from some generic seller on Amazon. I run Debian Linux on it, with no GUI at all. It's purely text/terminal-based, which really cuts down on the number of distractions possible with it. (Yeah, you can browse the Internet on it, but it looks like this.) I do my writing in Wordgrinder, which is a text-based word processing tool (distinct from a programmer's text editor like Emacs or vim) designed for minimal distractions. When I'm done writing something, I export it to HTML or OpenDocument for final editing and formatting on another machine before publishing.

That setup happens to work for me, but I'm not advocating for it for everyone or anything. An old install of Windows + Word without network drivers might be just as good, and would be perfectly fine on the same hardware.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:52 PM on July 16 [8 favorites]

Just about any laptop can have it's network semi-permanently disabled by unplugging the radio from the built in antennas. In addition, most laptops have the radio on a seprate daughter card, and that could be removed completely. It involves opening the bottom of the case with a small screwdriver, there are many videos and instructions online.
posted by nickggully at 1:55 PM on July 16 [4 favorites]

Use the old laptop you found too slow before your current machine. If you don't connect it to the internet it can even run an obsolete operating system. Simple wordprocessing takes very little cpu resources.
posted by Obscure Reference at 2:03 PM on July 16 [3 favorites]

Any laptop will do for just writing, so you can select one with the screen and keyboard you like best; performance is as good as irrelevant.

Most business laptops have a switch to disable wireless (this includes Bluetooth, so if you want to use a BT mouse or keyboard, that's not an option) or in some cases, all networking. If it's a physical switch like Thinkpads often have, a dab of hotglue will fix that switch in the 'off' position. Disabling networking in the BIOS setting is also often an option, as is disconnecting the antennas from the wireless card inside the case and hot-glueing a network connector with the cable cut off into the network port.

Hotglue CAN be removed if you need to, but it takes effort.
posted by Stoneshop at 2:13 PM on July 16 [3 favorites]

One step better than promising not to use the Internet as Adamrice suggests, is connecting it to your WiFi once, set the modem/router/access point to NOT allow this particular MAC address to connect, and/or set up parental control for it and block it for all hours. Both these options depend on them being offered in the router setup. After that you wipe the WiFi password from the laptop's settings.
posted by Stoneshop at 2:22 PM on July 16 [5 favorites]

I use an old netbook with the wireless disabled. It runs an old version of win 7 that would be unsafe to use on the internet. Transfer files using an SD card. It also runs truecrypt in case you don't want anyone reading it.
Used to use alphasmart but the file transfer was too flaky as well as other issues. A good concept though.
posted by canoehead at 2:40 PM on July 16 [1 favorite]

I'd use Stoneshop's mechanical solution - acquire an old laptop with that little Wi-Fi enabling switch, and with a big drop of epoxy it'll stay offline until it bricks.

PS. Agreed - a Hemingwrite looks dumb. You can do better.
posted by Rash at 3:30 PM on July 16

Personaly, your favorite tablet (iOS or Android) and a GOOD mechanical Bluetooth keyboard, probably 60% unless you need the keypad as your cursor keys, if you can write on a tablet.

But if you're just typing, and moving the text to the PC later for editing/ formating, then this should be your best setup. It's compact, quite portable, though the screen real-estate is more limited.

There are a bunch of different text editors available on the tablet that can save locally and when you connect, it'll sync to your cloud account.

You can get by with a regular BT keyboard, but if you type pretty fast and/or prefer mechanical keyboards, you can get very nice portable BT keyboards for under $100, don't need it to fold or something. Slim ones are also available.
posted by kschang at 3:43 PM on July 16 [1 favorite]

During a particularly dire time at college I took a screwdriver to my Dell Latitude D430 (the dell "business" line) and was able to liberate the wifi module, rendering it wifiless. It was super easy on that model; the business Dells, at least of that vintage, tend to be pretty user-serviceable- the keyboard, battery, and hard drive could all be replaced with a couple of screwdrivers. I expect the same is true for a lot of other models, though you'd want to look up what the procedure is for replacing the wifi board is before buying.
posted by BungaDunga at 3:50 PM on July 16 [1 favorite]

If you have the space, old desktops can be had for next to nothing and you might prefer a full size mechanical keyboard along with the improved ergonomics of a separate, large monitor for long periods of typing.

One modern benefit I'd miss if I went back to older word processing software and no internet is that autosave and autorecover are a lot better now and Dropbox, OneDrive etc. make it really hard to lose lots of work. You may need to get in the habit of regular manual saves and copying your latest draft to USB often enough that a hard disk crash is not a disaster.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 4:02 PM on July 16 [2 favorites]

It's called a Freewrite now and it's amazing! But I can't use one because the keyboard is too noisy for the space where I write.

My suggestion is a Thinkpad T60 with Windows XP. Good keyboard, and it's not like you can do anything with it except type.
posted by betweenthebars at 4:03 PM on July 16

My suggestion is to focus on getting a good computer within your budget, especially one that have a good keyboard and screen that you enjoy using. It is easy to disable the internet -- or simply don't configure it for internet by not putting in the wi-fi password, for example; but if you are going to spend a significant amount of time writing, you will want a good keyboard and screen.
posted by applesurf at 6:34 PM on July 16

Others have already covered the two main questions that I would have:
1) What is your word processing software of choice? (This will inform your choice of operating system.)
2) Do you need the portability of a laptop, or are you willing to set up a monitor and keyboard to plug into a computer?

IF the software you like is available on Linux, and if you do NOT need portability, I'd recommend buying a Raspberry Pi for $35 and spending the rest of your budget on a really nice monitor and keyboard. Once you have the Pi set up the way you want (often, installing software will require internet access), you can physically disable the internet with methods suggested above.
posted by Metasyntactic at 9:11 PM on July 16 [1 favorite]

If you do this yourself, getting an OS/Software onto the laptop without WiFi is a total PITA. I'd try finding a BIOS that lets you turn it off so you have to reboot to turn it back on, and reboot to turn it back off. Then you can install/update add software etc. without hassle. Once it's going good, just use the SD for transferring.
posted by zengargoyle at 10:33 PM on July 16

If you do this yourself, getting an OS/Software onto the laptop without WiFi is a total PITA.

Um? The initial step for any system to have its OS installed is by booting off a CD, DVD or USB stick. If that's a Linux stick you already have at least LibreOffice available on it as your document writing option, and quite likely several others. For Windows you would have to look for older Office versions that still came on CD, but other software for Windows often comes as a single .zip file (or an .msi file plus some loose files like a Readme) which you then transfer via USB stick.

Freshly installed OSes will want to update from the Internet, but as that laptop isn't ever going to go online, that can be ignored and from a security viewpoint that's perfectly acceptable. Especially as you might be installing on an older laptop using an out-of-support Windows or Linux version that wouldn't be able to find updates anyway.
posted by Stoneshop at 12:30 AM on July 17 [2 favorites]

I write for a living. The AlphaSmart Dana running CardTXT (the widescreen version available here) with an SD card is still the best value for your money when it comes to distraction-free writing. Before COVID-19 hit, I would often write with it on planes and trains on the way to and from conferences. During that hyper-focused time period, I was able to write all of the content and edited it on a conventional laptop. During takeoff, you never have to put the Dana away. Somehow, it doesn't register as a large electronic device, so you don't lose any time--and you would lose time with any other device. The instant on/off is nice, as is the 40+ hour battery life with a few AAs. I bought a lot of AlphaSmart Dana devices on E-Bay a few years ago to make sure I have enough. I have a tendency to wear out the keyboards.
posted by metatuesday at 9:34 AM on July 17 [3 favorites]

Inside a good* laptop, there's a network card connected to the motherboard; they are usually a separate component, not integrated into the motherboard, because they do sometimes need replacement or upgrade. Remove it, or have a shop remove it.

*I always recommend used Thinkpads; my T440 cost less and is more reliable and powerful than a cheapass laptop from BestBuy. Thinkpads are ubiquitous, business-class (repairable, upgrade-able), built to last.
posted by theora55 at 10:28 AM on July 17 [2 favorites]

I've been using portable low-form-factor computers since 1988. I've now created (and worn out) three of these no-distraction writing pads:

1. Acquire a cheap low-spec netbook or similar. Second hand or refurb is fine. Decent keyboard, a screen you're comfortable with, weight, and a good battery are the main things.
2. Wipe Windows and install a low-overhead version of Linux.
3. Install LibreOffice and a decent file manager.
4. Delete all the add-on software that came with the Linux install, including the web browser.
5. Find whatever bits of software let your Linux distro install and update software, and delete them too.

If you're okay with a modicum of risk then you can install Dropbox or similar at stage 3 to get your writing on/off the machine, but only turn the wifi on when you want to sync files.
posted by Hogshead at 11:31 AM on July 17 [1 favorite]

If you're okay with a modicum of risk then you can install Dropbox or similar at stage 3 to get your writing on/off the machine, but only turn the wifi on when you want to sync files.

Sorry, that's not a modicum of risk, that's a fairly high risk level. Connecting a system (Linux too) to the Internet, even for a few minutes, that hasn't been updated since it's been installed will get its weaknesses probed and with any luck (theirs, not yours) exploited. Unless you have a very good and up to date IP4 AND IP6 firewall between it and the outside world.

This approach requires a fully updated system, not one that has its updater surgically removed.
posted by Stoneshop at 12:56 AM on July 18

This approach requires a fully updated system, not one that has its updater surgically removed.

On the other hand there should be absolutely no sensitive information or software on the machine, no passwords, no bank or credit card details, nothing personal that a keylogger could betray, because that's the point of the thing. On the offchance it gets compromised, just reinstall from a USB.
posted by Hogshead at 3:43 AM on July 18

Compromised can also mean that it can become a stepping stone for malware, even if you're "just transferring documents" between it and another system. Especially if it's not detected due to lack of up to date intrusion detection tools.

Bottom line: just don't.
posted by Stoneshop at 4:05 AM on July 18 [2 favorites]

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