Sunday, July 06, 2008

The portable writing platform

I keep playing with the idea of picking up a new word-processing toy with which to [attempt to] craft fiction. It's in the back of my head every time I look at the laptops in a Best Buy ad: if I had one of these, would it make a good writing tool? The criteria are pretty simple: nice keyboard, friendly display, and excellent battery life. I keep seeing small laptops that look like they'd make for fun typing, like Sony's SZ series or Dell's 13" XPS. MacBooks are at the top of the pack. Small, light, portable, decent battery life, nice keyboard, and, best, no Vista. They're not crash-proof, but they're orders of magnitude more reliable than PCs.

I was also fascinated by the OLPC laptop. I've never seen one in person, but they look like they've got all the ideals too, coupled with being sturdy and light. And, recently, a whole host of subnotebooks (I've seen the term "netbooks") are either in development and hitting shelves. They're designed to be small, internet-connected, and cheap, and so far they look cool. HP's MiniNote has gotten good reviews, and people generally like the EeePC, especially the bigger ones.

I also like looking at dedicated writing tools -- things that aren't PCs and don't really do anything but write. At the top of this list is the AlphaSmart. I played around with an old AS3000 a few years ago, and I was amazed at it's complete lack of bells and whistles. You typed, it displayed the text. No wireless access, no built-in calculator, not even a spell checker, just a text-based word processor. They don't sell the 3000 anymore, but its replacement, the Neo, is much the same. It's got the same 700-hour (!) battery life as the 3000. It's also got a calculator, thesaurus, and spell checker, but otherwise it does nothing other than let you type on a 4-line display. Their higher-end model, the Dana, is essentially a wide-screen Palm Pilot with a full-size keyboard. It's got the advantage of allowing you to save your work to an SD card; the older ones require you to sync with a PC to get your text out. The Dana's battery life is only around 20 hours -- still excellent, but much less so than the simpler models. And they're all extremely rugged. I saw a 3000 bounce down two flights of marble steps, and the only damage was a few missing keys (which snapped easily back on when we found them). It didn't even lose data. These look like fun toys to have.

Of course, I don't really need any of these. When I'm at home I've got the old desktop computer. I've got my Acer TravelMate tablet to lug around with me. It's six years old and the battery life is waning, but it's still cool and has an extremely comfy keyboard. And, for the ultimate in portable, I've got my old Palm Pilot. It's a PalmIIIxe, and I've got two portable keyboards for it. No backup system, but also no distracting internet access, and 40 hours of battery life on two AAA batteries. I think I keep looking for new hardware for two reasons. One: guy. Toys. Shiny. And, two: I think I believe subconsciously in some kind of talismanic magic with writing tools. It feels like, if I can just find the right writing tool, the wordsmithing will suddenly become easy and totally not like work....

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