Saturday, February 26, 2011

On writing, (portable)

Does anybody have tips on how to find or make a writer's group? This is a broad question, but several readers are interested.
Some are also interested in what machines are good for writing when away from home.
For me, the key aspects are 1) light weight and 2) a good keyboard. Of course, the these qualities are not often combined.

If one can live with a tiny screen with low contrast, the Alphasmart Neo is an amazing writing tool. It can't do anything else, but it's a fab typewriter, and the keyboard is full sized and feels great. And it weighs well under a kilo. (Video. (Update: sadly the connection shown in the video does not work with the newest iOS.)) It stores what you write in one of nine files, and when you come home you can "slurp" the text onto a Mac or PC for saving and editing.

The new 11-inch MacBook Air is also right up there at the top. It weighs only a kilo (about 2.2 pounds US), has an outstandingly crisp screen, and a full sized keyboard, although it has a rather short key travel (how far you push down a key). That's normal with compact notebooks of course. And unlike the Neo, this is a full-blown computer, you can do anything you can do with a desktop computer.

An iPhone or iPod Touch or an Android device with a bluetooth keyboard (wireless) is perfectly useable. Of course a ten-inch device like the iPad or the Xoom gives more space for the text and editing, but for pure writing, it's not strictly necessary.
For portability, this is unbeatable. An iPhone 4 and a foldable keyboard like the iGo/ThinkOutside both fit in a pocket! Something like the iConnex Freedom (pictured) is slightly larger, but still pocket-sized, and closer to full size, although all of these mentioned I can touch-type on, even with my large hands.
A downside to foldable keyboards is that the peripheral keys usually have a different layout than a normal keyboard, so they demand a bit of re-training for touch-typists.

posted by Eolake Stobblehouse @ Saturday, February 26, 2011   20 comments links to this post


At 26 Feb 2011, 18:31:00, Blogger Will Duquette said...

I've been using an iPad with the Apple Wireless Keyboard. Both fit neatly in a little Jansport Halfpint backpack with room for a book or two. I also carry a Compass iPad stand. It all works very nicely, though I do find myself trying to use the table top as a track pad.

At 26 Feb 2011, 18:38:00, Blogger eolake said...

I can second that. The Apple Wireless is surprisingly compact and light for a full sized keyboard. Good quality and pretty too. I have it standing in front of my iPad in my living room even when not using it, because it just looks good.

At 26 Feb 2011, 19:14:00, Anonymous ttl said...

Yeah, but when writing in caf├ęs and other public places you don't want to gather attention with an elaborate setup involving a separate monitor (iPad), its stand and a keyboard.

A self-contained 11-inch MacBook Air sounds to me like a less conspicuous instrument for banging in the public. (I'm talking about words, TC.)

At 26 Feb 2011, 19:22:00, Blogger eolake said...

There is that. Although I have never yet been bothered when using my iPad in public. It might be that the Brits are more reserved of course.

At 26 Feb 2011, 19:25:00, Blogger eolake said...

There are also several nice cases which act as a stand, and make the iPad less conspicuous. See for example, or the "Acase" Some don't work in portrait orientation, but that's not a big issue to me.

At 26 Feb 2011, 19:30:00, Anonymous ttl said...

Speed of setting up and tearing down is also crucial. I am assuming this is instant in the Air.

In public settings you often need/want to move with short notice.

At 26 Feb 2011, 19:40:00, Blogger eolake said...

Sure, if you want instant, it's the notebook.

At 26 Feb 2011, 20:37:00, Blogger Will Duquette said...

The nice thing about the iPad is that it's small and light. Unless I'm doing serious composition, I can leave the keyboard and stand at home; the on-screen keyboard is perfectly acceptable for note-taking, and outstanding for reading...something I hate doing on notebooks.

At 26 Feb 2011, 20:40:00, Blogger eolake said...

Yes, I couldn't agree more.

Some people even like the screen keyboard for writing, although I admit I'm not amongst them, since I've spent 20 years getting good at touch-typing. But I can certainly use it for brief emails.

At 26 Feb 2011, 21:03:00, Blogger eolake said...

TTL, if you can afford and want the MacBook Air, go for it. It's unchallenged in almost every aspect except if one wants the absolutely smallest and lightest. It's awesome.

At 27 Feb 2011, 16:38:00, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've had an alphasmart for about ten years ... never had any problems with it. Love the very long battery life. And the price was right.

At 27 Feb 2011, 16:52:00, Blogger eolake said...

Oh yeah, the battery life is ridiculous, hundreds of hours on three AA batteries.

At 27 Feb 2011, 17:48:00, Anonymous ttl said...

The compactness and self-containedness of the Alphasmart appeals to me, but I worry that the small window, and not being able to have another window with reference material on the side, would not inspire me to write. That's resistance built right into to your writing tool.

At 27 Feb 2011, 17:55:00, Blogger eolake said...

For some people, it helps them concentrate that they can't check twitter all the time and so on.
But I admit the the screen is very minimal, and worse for me at least, has low contrast. (Like an old-time digital watch.) If it had much better contrast and was just twice a big, it would be so much better in my opinion. I think Alphasmart is making an error in focusing only on the education market, and not making a model for writers.

At 28 Feb 2011, 05:30:00, Anonymous Kentg said...

Doesn't anybody us a pad and pencil anymore?
Didn't J. K. Rowling write the first Harry Potter book with pad and pen in a cafe and type it up later on a manual no less? (
I do a lot of writing involving math; try to use an electronic device to write equations (not including a graphing calculator).

At 28 Feb 2011, 09:26:00, Anonymous Jez said...

I use a pocket-sized paper notebook and an Alphasmart Neo for writing on the road. Later I transfer the texts to Scrivener or Jer's Novel Writer and get on with the rewrites.

When I'm on the road, I leave my old (filled up) paper notebooks at home. They are backed-up (I photograph each page/spread) searchable and accesible in Evernote. This way I can search for texts and browse mind maps across all my notebooks and view them, no matter my location, on my phone, or, if I've left the Alphasmart Neo in the house, on my laptop.

The above is especially enjoyable when the writing is accompanied by a steaming mug of warming aromatic coffee adjacent to a steamy cafe window, or a tall glass of delicious red wine filled with bright sparkling spring sunshine.

At 28 Feb 2011, 09:39:00, Blogger eolake said...

... Oh gawd yes.

You can write clearly enough for it to be OCR'd? I simply can't, just like I apparently can't speak English clearly enough for speech recog to work well. Thank god for good keyboards, I'd be screwed without them.

At 28 Feb 2011, 15:45:00, Blogger Griefknot said...

I use my Neo almost daily - it's my lunchtime companion and less to lug around than a laptop. Many emails and letters come from that little thing. It's great, and running for a year without recharging or changing batteries, that's nice, too.

Alphasmart should make a writer's model, though. A laptop that doesn't unhinge has advantages - fits on an airline tray table, or rests on the driver's door handle and my knee while I write behind the wheel. In a parking lot, of course!

You can save a lot more than nine files, by the way - there are eight file hot keys, and you can save as many files as you want by name. Uploading to the Neo is handy, too. Sometimes I start a letter or essay on my laptop and upload it to my Neo for a lunchtime session.

Also, the display may look low contrast, but it's perfectly usable in bright sunlight. Just the thing, springtime coming up, for a little noontime writing at a picnic table.

Here's hoping Alphasmart develops a writers model.

At 28 Feb 2011, 22:23:00, Anonymous Marty said...

isn't an ipad with a keyboard just a laptop? or am I missing something?

At 1 Mar 2011, 11:02:00, Blogger eolake said...

It's a grey area. It's still smaller/lighter than most laptops. It can be used on its own. It has a touch screen and uses a different OS, and runs many apps which do not exist for laptop OSes.


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