What can I use to generate electronic text when using my laptop is impractical?
August 31, 2004 1:58 PM   Subscribe

The electronic Moleskine? When it becomes impractical to use a full-sized laptop on the road but you still want to generate electronic text, what do you use? (much more inside).

My current writing weapon of choice is a busted-up old laptop running BSD that allows me to Just Type. The data gets loaded up onto web serviced frontends (among others) that chew the data just fine, so all I have to do is load the data into the machine.

While the laptop is my uber writing machine, its not very portable. The battery is blown and even if it wasn't, its mere hours of life makes it a rather useless long-distance tool.

My lifestyle is such that I tend to want to write on the road, and this makes the laptop fairly difficult to use. Its corded nature, as well as the fact that its geared for US voltage and rather heavy makes it a undesireable travel companion and unsuitable for such environments as backwoods camping, etc. In most instances I substitute an old palm connected to a wireless keyboard, but I'm not a huge fan of the setup -- getting files off is a little difficult and the default text apps are a bit crampy for size.

What I'm looking for is something small, something that would fit inside a backpack without worry of squishing, something that I can grab data from without too much headache and, most importantly, something I can type into with reasonable speed and accuracy. Other applications aren't really necessary. Battery lifetime is a concern -- AA batteries are preferable as they're easy to come by out on life's highway. Data transfer is also a concern of mine. The locales I visit are remote and disparate enough to make realtime (or even weekly) transfer impractical, so storage and retrieval are something of an issue.

I like the Quick Pad for size and simplicity. While the AlphaSmart Dana seems to be right feature-wise, it seems a bit big and I worry that products like the Jornada would hurt my large, pretty hands or worse, hamstring my typing.
posted by Ogre Lawless to Technology (19 answers total)
Any number of PDAs now have the Stowaway keyboards available. I like 'em 'cause they fold up into little units roughly the same size as the PDA, creating their own little "case." Used to be you had to buy a new keyboard for every different brand of PDA; now there's a Bluetooth version that should be more portable. This PDA-based solution also has the benefit of working without the keyboard (via the stylus) when circumstances demand it. I don't know what you're trying to write, but I've used tools like these for a long time to write and edit chapter-length documents.
posted by JollyWanker at 2:14 PM on August 31, 2004

When I see your requirements, I immediately think of the Tandy 100/102, the first truly portable "computer." Lots of journalists and writers used them in the 80s to write on the go. Some diehards still use theirs. Unfortunately, getting your text off of it requires Xmodem software and a null modem cable. The Quick Pad that you mentioned looks exactly like one.

Another option: A used Palm III or m105, which last forever on AAs, combined with a folding keyboard.
posted by zsazsa at 2:14 PM on August 31, 2004

I know one guy who still swears by his Newton Messagepad with little keyboard attachment for exactly that purpose. Ebay might have some, but I don't have much personal experience with them.
posted by Space Coyote at 2:15 PM on August 31, 2004

About a year ago I went through this exact process, trying to find a good mobile text-editing solution. You really only have three options:

1. Get an older unit, like an old NEC MobilePro, or one of the many similarly shaped units available. (NEC still makes the MobilePro, but the new models are very expensive). An old MobilePro has an acceptable keyboard, a big, landscape screen, CF card file transfer, and folds closed. Upside: good compromise of screen and keyboard. Downside: very few of these units run off of easily replaceable batteries.

2. Get a unit like the QuickPad or Dana. Pros: big keyboard, AA batteries. Cons: really mediocre and, IMO, quite useless screens.

3. Get a Palm or PocketPC with keyboard. This is what I did: I ended up getting a Palm Tungsten T2 with a keyboard and it works great for me.

My reasoning was this: my objection to the Palm was that the screen was small; this *de facto* eliminates devices like the QuickPad or Dana, which have *even smaller* screens. My objection to the MobilePro was that the keyboard was too small. This *de facto* meant I had to use a full-size keyboard, like a Stowaway or a Dana. But you can't go the Dana route because, as above, the screen is too small.

Thus, the only real option is PDA + keyboard which, in fact, works great! I've found that there are plenty of great apps (outliners, word processors, text editors, and so on) for the Palm and that getting data off of the units is very easy. And the Palm / keyboard combo represents the best combination of keyboard size and screen size that I could find in the world of portable word-processing. The only other real option, IMO, comes in the form of new or used Psion handhelds, like the new NetBook or the older Psion palmtops. For more info on those, you might check out FoxPop.

It's hard to believe that there aren't more options in this area, but if you want a not-notebook handheld computer -- maybe someone can prove me wrong -- I think you're simply stuck with three options that lead inevitably towards handheld PDAs plus portable keyboards. Maybe you could get a Palm, a keyboard, and a hand / solar charger for emergencies?
posted by josh at 3:07 PM on August 31, 2004

Something to consider. There's a difference between mobile and merely transportable. You're looking for the former, and it's easy to get. What's not easy to get is a mobile computer that allows you to do generative tasks efficienty. You can hook up a PC to your Palm... but then it's not really mobile. You can thumbtype into your blackberry, but that's not really efficient.

The best combination in my opinion is the TabletPC. I spent a semester playing with one last Spring, and it's the closest thing to an electronic Moleskine that I've found. The handwriting recognition is much improved on the Newton. You truly can use it in a mobile workflow. (Plus, you can use the keyboard when/if you have the time to sit down).

I don't know if I'd take it backwoods camping, but that goes for any electronic device as far as I'm concerned.
posted by Jeff Howard at 3:22 PM on August 31, 2004

A lot of people use old Newtons or eMates for this. These people are generally found on The Newtontalk Mailing List or The Newton Wiki. Big screens, small, cheap, run on AA batteries (not sure about emate on that), can sync via 802.11b, etc.
posted by jeb at 3:22 PM on August 31, 2004

wow. now I totally want a quickpad.

and they're under $100 on ebay!

great american novel, here i come (bitch!).
posted by fishfucker at 3:23 PM on August 31, 2004

For a long time I used a PoqetPC for this -- an early-90s, DOS 3.1-based clamshell handheld. It had what I still consider the most usable handheld keyboard I've ever seen, it fit in a pants pocket (albeit badly, and one looked like a tool when one did this), and it ran off a pair of AA batteries for fucking ages. Mine had optional backlighting on a passive-matrix screen; later models had active-matrix displays, I believe. Mine cost $50 on eBay in 2000.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 3:27 PM on August 31, 2004

eh, emate is cooler and cheaper
posted by jeb at 3:29 PM on August 31, 2004

that was compared to quickpad, not PoqetPC
posted by jeb at 3:30 PM on August 31, 2004

Have a hard look at PDA keyboards. I shelled out for a keyboard for my Palm V which mounted the PDA with a bracket. I broke the bracket beyond repair within a week. Cables good, mounting brackets BAD.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:08 PM on August 31, 2004

Warren Ellis, comic book guy, discussed his love for the pda-keyboard combo on Gizmodo recently.
posted by mecran01 at 4:29 PM on August 31, 2004

See this thread also.
posted by callmejay at 6:25 PM on August 31, 2004

Shame the ol' Psion computers are no longer. They were pretty much ideal for all that.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:27 PM on August 31, 2004

my long-term goal is to build a Chordite hand-held keyboard and hook it into a Palm or something, hopefully via wireless. i'm imagining typing away at full speed with one hand while riding the bus.

This doesn't help you of course if you want it sooner than next year.
posted by jacobsee at 9:09 PM on August 31, 2004

Looks like the folks at BoingBoing are talking about a similar model to the AlphaSmart Dana that you linked to. For those interested, here is their post on the AlphaSmart Neo.
posted by fionab at 9:10 PM on August 31, 2004

Also see this thread about replacing a laptop's keyboard and specifically this comment by theora55. Yes, it's somewhat implicit in what others have said, but it seems that everyone's referring to built-in keyboards, while external fold-/roll-up ones may better suit your needs.
posted by Sinner at 7:12 AM on September 1, 2004

If you want a real keyboard hooked up to your PDA, I believe the new Fujitsu/Siemens Pocket Loox 710 (not available at retail in the US, but can be imported) is the only Pocket PC PDA with USB host capability. That means you should be able to plug basically any USB keyboard into it.
posted by kindall at 9:05 AM on September 1, 2004

What kindall said.
posted by Sinner at 11:15 AM on September 1, 2004

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