Low Cost Laptop War!
October 19, 2007 2:22 PM   Subscribe

Low-cost, bare-bones, all I wanna do is type - recommend me a low-cost, take-anywhere laptop alternative.

Hey Mefites,

I've been thinking about getting a low-cost, portable laptop alternative. I'm a writer by trade, in corporate comms at the moment, and also doing my own stuff, and have both a reasonably recent work Windows laptop and a MacBook at home. I love my MacBook, which I use for the standard home blend of DVD watching, surfing and noodling around with my own projects. I also love Mac software, especially Scrivener, but this is a pretty pricy bit of kit. In fact, looking around the room right now, I believe it's the most expensive thing I own.

Therefore, I'm fairly reluctant to tote it around in my bag and take it out while sitting on the train for my 45 minute commute (each way), and in the many other spots of 'dead time' I have, travelling or waiting around for something.

So I started looking around, and have found a few options. I'd dearly like to get an XO (AKA the OLPC computer) with the Give 1 Get 1 program, but a) I'm not in the US, so can't and b) that teeny kiddy keyboard would make it unusable for sustained typing with my great galumphing adult hands. I've also toyed with getting a Neo or the slightly more featureful Dana (crazily long battery life, single task machines with no distractions), but those little non-backlit screens look like they might suck substantially in the eyestrain department, and here in the UK the basic Neo is nearly £200, which is a bit much for 2Mb of memory and no backlight.

Then there's the new Linux-powered mini-notebooks coming out, things like the Eee, which are in the £130 region (assuming I can order one from abroad), and a bit more advanced.

So, hive mind, what are your thoughts - wait a few months to see what comes up in the mini-Linux-laptop arena? Wait for OLPC to come up with an adult-sized consumer product to bankroll the 3rd world project? Buy a Neo?
posted by Happy Dave to Computers & Internet (26 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
I'm guessing that if an Eee didn't end up being to your liking, you'd have no trouble finding someone in your country to buy it if it's not actually being retailed there.

Or, you could just look into spending a similar amount of money on an external drive to regularly backup your Mac and insurance in case something happens to it, and start using it to its full advantage.
posted by Good Brain at 2:36 PM on October 19, 2007

There are a variety of foldable keyboards you can use to input text on a palmtop like a Treo.
posted by Nelson at 3:02 PM on October 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

Out of curiosity, does anyone know if the XO laptop can be used as a reasonably good e-book reader? I know the screen can be flipped around like a tablet, and it's supposed to have good performance in sunlight. Would this be comparable to Sony's e-book reader?
posted by chengjih at 3:03 PM on October 19, 2007

How about a Palm and a folding keyboard? It's admittedly more feature-ful than you're looking for, but it's super compact. I have a friend who used this setup to do a considerable amount of writing.

The new Nokia N810 is more feature-ful yet, and would require an external keyboard for any serious text input, but is very attractive, at least to me.
posted by adamrice at 3:06 PM on October 19, 2007

Response by poster: Out of curiosity, does anyone know if the XO laptop can be used as a reasonably good e-book reader?

Well, I've read a few reviews which have raved about the two-setting screen, one colour and one one high-contrast black and white, which is apparently easily readable in direct sunlight - which makes sense, given these things are going to be used in some pretty darn bright places.
posted by Happy Dave at 3:08 PM on October 19, 2007

An oldie but a goodie: a DELL L400: Light, portable, cheap. Runs linux.
posted by blue_beetle at 3:08 PM on October 19, 2007 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Oh, and on the Palm/foldable keyboard combo ideas, I don't think that'd really work for me - I'm going to be balancing this on my knee on a commuter train...
posted by Happy Dave at 3:09 PM on October 19, 2007

There's the palm based Alphasmart.

ebay auctions
posted by mecran01 at 3:10 PM on October 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

What about getting a used/refurb 12-inch iBook G4?
posted by mattbucher at 3:18 PM on October 19, 2007

I'm definitely looking at a Eee for that. 7" form factor seems to be just right (the Fujitsu U810's 5.6" screen is a little small for me, but might suit your needs), and the price is unbeatable. I'm still thinking about how to mod it to make an ebook reader though...
posted by kureshii at 3:42 PM on October 19, 2007

mecran01 FTW. That is exactly what I would suggest.

Review can be found here:
posted by 4ster at 4:22 PM on October 19, 2007

The Dana has a backlight. You hold down the on key (or power, or whatever that thing is labelled) to get it to turn on. That said, I can't recall ever using it.

I recommend them for writing. I've got two of them. I like them that much. I'm particularly fond of the USB keyboard emulation (just plug the cable in, and press send - it'll type your document out into the computer (PC/Mac/Linux/whatever the heck you want) just like it's a plain USB keyboard that feels like typing for you... no drivers, no installation, just plug and play).
posted by ggruschow at 4:51 PM on October 19, 2007

Best answer: Get an Apple eMate! It's an Apple Newton in a laptop form factor that was marketed to schoolchildren. I have one and use it for much of my writing. It eliminates the distractions posed by my laptop and allows me to just WRITE.

eMates go for about $35 on eBay, although you may have to spend a few more dollars on a new battery. They come with excellent WYSIWYG word processing software, a full keyboard, a swoopy and incredibly rugged design, instant-on operation, a stylishly green backlight. Mine runs 24 hours non-stop without recharging, and syncs with my PC without a problem (it will also sync with modern Macs). It exports nicely-formatted RTF files, which you can read with Word.
posted by killdevil at 5:33 PM on October 19, 2007 [2 favorites]

Here's some more information about using the eMate as a "writing appliance."
posted by killdevil at 5:36 PM on October 19, 2007

I spent a $100 on an old Apple 145 laptop before. No internet connection, just a floppy, serial ports, 8mb of RAM and copy of WriteNow. It was heaven.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:44 PM on October 19, 2007

Best answer: Get an IBM Workpad z50. It's the same footprint as a standard laptop, so it accomodates a reasonable (nicely backlit 800x600) screen and a gloriously finger-friendly IBM keyboard.

Because it runs Windows CE on a MIPS processor, it gets something like 8 hours on the standard battery, or 16 on the extended. Since it's an old machine and batteries don't age well, knock that down to 6 and 12, but if you get your battery rebuilt ($60 or so) it'll have new cells that far exceed the original specs, so more like 12 hours on the slim battery. I'm not sure whether the extended battery can be refilled, but 24 hours (I'm guessing $100) would be pretty cool. There's also a AA-battery adapter, if that suits you.

The PCMCIA slot will accomodate most older (16-bit) wireless cards, with some reduction in battery runtime while the card is active. Internal storage is on a CF card in the battery compartment, so expansion is trivial.

A small community of hackers and die-hards runs NetBSD on the z50, which is ideal for all sorts of network diagnostic work. Both WinCE and BSD offer some very capable text editors.

Personally, my ultraportable is a Toughbook m34, a 700MHz P3 that runs XP for about 3 hours on a charge. It's heavier than the z50 because of the cast magnesium shell, but I've used it as a hammer an a wheel chock. The small keyboard takes a few minutes to get used to, but I'm 6'4" (slim fingers tho) and have no trouble typing on it. After a while I get addicted to things like being able to hit Ctrl-Break with one hand, and I hate going back to a full size keyboard where I can't span from corner to corner. Toughbooks aren't for everyone but you can get 'em used for $150 or so.
posted by Myself at 6:38 PM on October 19, 2007

I love my Dana, I have to say. I've had no eyestrain trouble with the screen. As someone else said, it does have a backlight, but I haven't used it much. I got mine for under $100 used on eBay.
posted by not that girl at 7:09 PM on October 19, 2007

I would just get a used laptop of some variety.

I'm writing this on an old G3 iBook right now, which runs fine, and I can't imagine would cost you very much. It's quite small as well, and gets better battery life than my brand-new work-issue ThinkPad.

A used PC laptop with Linux would probably be even cheaper; it's really a question of what you're comfortable with and want to carry around.

The new sub-notebooks are cool, but unless you really want to be an early adopter I can't see what advantage they have over a 5+-year-old regular laptop, particularly given that we're practically drowning in the things.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:58 PM on October 19, 2007

Best answer: I was looking for the same thing as you not too long ago. For my money, the AlphaSmart devices et al strike me as insipid - they are clunky, the readable text area is too small, proprietary format (?), etc.

I would suggest something along the lines of, if not specifically, the NEC MobilePro sub-notebook series. These are between a too-small-to-type-on PDA and a full-fledged notebook in size; this particular model from NEC has been around in various iterations since 1997, with the last one (MobilePro 900c, linked above) released in 2004. What this means is that you can get one on eBay on the cheap, esp. if it's one of the earlier models. More on this later.

It is the size of a large paperback book and has a clamshell design. The keyboard is 92% the size of a full-sized laptop keyboard, which means that you can actually touch-type at an acceptable WPM rate. The HP Jornada, while similar, is a magnitude smaller all around than the MobilePro, making it just too hard to type on at a sustained, normal speed.

It has many hours of battery life.

It has no moving parts - no hard drive - you save your data on a CF card. If you are only going to be writing text documents, even a 1GB CF card will be tons of room, and you can then pop this into your desktop to transfer data back and forth. This CF card, as we will learn later on, is the key to installing alternate OSes like Linux onto the machine.

Caveat: because it is only the size of a paperback, and because half of that folding clamshell design is taken up by the keyboard, the screen real estate you get is a 640x480 rectangle, not square, that will offer you with maybe 10 lines of viewable text at a time. It looks something like this.

Caveat 2: unlike the HP Jornada, this doesn't slip into a pocket - it's bigger than that. Maybe into the outer pocket of an overcoat, yes. Here is a comical yet instructive PR image of a man using one on an airplane.

Ok, now for the important stuff. You don't want to get anything before the MobilePro 700 (770/780/790) line, because it would probably be too much of a performance hit, but more importantly, because work on getting the kernels for other operating systems working on this machine is limited to the 700 through 900 lines. (This will come in handy in my next piece of advice)

The other thing you would want to steer clear of is the 800s, because NEC changed gears and instead of the rectangular clamshell design, tried for a standard square and much larger screen, which diminishes all of the uniqueness of this being a paperback-sized word processor. The 900 and 900c are the most "feature-packed," I suppose, but this boils down to whether you want 64MB RAM vs 32, a metallic chrome case instead of plastic, and so on. You can check out the individual lines and see for yourself.

These are popular on eBay, but never go for more than 100 USD, usually in the $50-80 range. If you see no reason for the decadence of the 900c, you can likely get a cheaper 770, 780, or 790 for less than 50 USD.

As for running something other than the default OS. This comes with a special lo-fi version of WinCE for sub-notebooks, with stylus touch-screen functionality, blah blah. If you want to stick with this, you can probably word process with no worries, but for me it was important to get rid of the graphical interface altogether, boot from the Linux terminal in text-only mode, and type documents using Vim (additional software)

What this entails is installing the OS kernel (and window-manager, if necessary) of your choice onto a CF card, then booting INTO the alternate OS from WinCE. There has not yet been found a way to flash the ROM in these devices to override the default OS altogether. The reason you would flash the ROM is because the MobilePro has the OS installed into the ROM unit, and there is no hard drive -- you use a CF card to store data, as mentioned earlier. But it looks like this hack will be figured out by year-end...

Your options are to install NetBSD or install Linux.

The other thing you could do is try the Jornada Linux Mobile Edition, which, despite the name, works just as well on the NECs. This is an evolution of the Linux installation trick listed above. A small team of people are working on building the kernel from the ground up to work with the MobilePro. It's still a project in-development, so some features are missing, most noticeably the ability to flash the preloaded ROM with Linux and be done with it, power-saving, and more. But, it's slowly being fleshed out. Search the forums for "MobilePro," there's links.

So, to recap: You partition a CF card with a WinCE bootloader type of thing, install Linux/NetBSD on there, pop the card in, boot into WinCE, launch a magical little executable, then you're in Linux / NetBSD. When you quit you get plopped back to the WinCE desktop.

If that sounds like a bother, you could alter nothing, use the bundled WinCE environment, and it would still be better, keyboard- and size-wise, than typing on a too-small PDA or lugging a too-big laptop around. I feel like this is the best of both worlds.

JLIME is, of course, originally intended for the HP Jornada machines, so if you don't mind the pint-sized footprint, that particular kernel build will work out of the box. I believe the Jornada is different and the default OS can be overwritten altogether.

Also: if you decide you need functionality like Wi-Fi, etc., the MobilePro also has one or two PCI slots, depending on the model, for you to slip in a wifi card, or any other minipci doodad you want. Wifi is functional in Linux, too, as is touch-screen support.

Once they find a way to flash the ROM with a different kernel, you could have a scenario where you just fire it up, you're at the command prompt, and you can start typing documents in your command-line-based editor of choice. Right now it requires some unnecessary steps with the booting into Linux/NetBSD from Windows, but I got used to it, myself...

Sorry for the length, but it took me many weeks to research, lurk on eBay, and cull all of this information for myself when I first set out on the same mission, so I thought it would be of use to someone in distilled format here. Hope it helps.
posted by davidriley at 8:35 PM on October 19, 2007 [3 favorites]

I've got an eMate I used to use for this purpose until the charging circuit gave out, or something. (New batteries don't help, it only works when plugged in.) But if you can find an emate that doesn't have that particular flaw (and a lot seem to), they're wonderful.
posted by dmd at 9:54 PM on October 19, 2007

If you do get an emate, have someone repair the hinge. It has a design flaw that kills a cable that kills the display eventually. Every last one.

On the other hand, once it's repaired, they're about the most indestructible computing appliance I've ever seen. We have kicked ours, stepped on it, and thrown it against walls hard enough to dent the walls (not because we were mad at it, because it was FUN, dammit!). it's none the worse for wear.
posted by InnocentBystander at 10:25 PM on October 19, 2007

I loved my emate. I used it for notes & writing. You'll have to jump through a hoop or two to get it to transfer the data to your mac...

But it's battery life with the backlight? 12 hours.
posted by filmgeek at 11:01 PM on October 19, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for all the terrific answers folks, certainly a lot to think about - I'll be investigating all of these options, and hopefully will be in typing-on-the-train-and-plane bliss shortly.
posted by Happy Dave at 11:45 PM on October 19, 2007

Oh, yeah, I had my emate hinge repaired. That's absolutely essential.

You can do it yourself following these instructions, or for a fee, have someone do it for you. I had mine done by Frank Gruendel, fg2@pda-soft.de. He's the guy who wrote those instructions, and has probably repaired more emate hinges than everyone else in the world combined. Plus he's a great guy.
posted by dmd at 9:56 AM on October 20, 2007

I was going to wholeheartedly recommend an AlphaSmart 3000; I wrote the first draft of my last two mystery novels on it.

While the itty bitty screen can be a pain in the ass for editing and revising, I find it absolutely freeing for first draft work because you can literally only see a little bit ahead of yourself and a little bit behind yourself and that helps with any anxiety or block you may have problems with.

I write about it as My Favorite Writing Gadget here:

posted by willmize at 12:46 PM on October 20, 2007

Response by poster: Hey folks, just a quick update - I ended up getting a Neo, which I got off US ebay for about £85, less than half the price of the UK version.

I used it on the train this morning, and it's perfect, crazy light, perfectly readable and a brilliant, full-size keyboard. I downloaded a bunch of user-created fonts that let you squeeze more lines into the small screen. It's absolutely perfect for what I want it for, which is first drafts.

Thanks for all your advice and input, I'm still toying with buying a MobilePro or something similar just to noodle around with.
posted by Happy Dave at 2:16 AM on November 13, 2007

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