Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Taking It with You

Writers often travel a lot, and hauling the hardware of our profession along for the trip can be a pain. A laptop is often heavy, expensive to replace if lost or stolen, and not really necessary if all you want to do is a little work on the WIP. At the same time, it's nice to have the convenience of a keyboard and memory storage when your muse kicks in while you're away from the home system. Really, who wants to write all that stuff out in longhand on the hotel stationery?

A portable word processor, aka a notetaker or smart keyboard, is a great tool for the writer on the go. Most are basically full-sized keyboards with small display screens that store your writing until you can beam it or download it to your home computer. All are designed to be lightweight (most weigh no more than 2.5 lbs.) and built to take the kind of abuse that can majorly wreck a laptop. From the prices I've seen the average cost of a portable word processor runs around $200.00-$300.00, a nice alternative if you can't yet afford a laptop.

The major disadvantage of a portable word processor is that it's basically a suped-up typewriter. You can't expect it to do all the neat things your home computer or laptop do for you. However, this can be an advantage when you want to focus on just the writing. Sometimes all the neat things our other tech does are very distracting, and often tempt us away from the work.

If you're in the market for a portable word processor, here are some products to check out:

AlphaSmart Neo -- lightweight but full size portable word processor/keyboard that can store up to 200 pages and run 700 hours on three AA batteries. Also offers a rechargeable battery pack you can purchase for working up to 300 hours on a single charge. I've heard the old AlphaSmart models are virtually indestructible, and the brand is highly recommended by every romance writer I know who owns one.

CalcuScribe is a simple word processor and interactive calculator; sends your files to a PC or a Mac, into any application.

Fusion -- a portable word processor with a text-to-speech function; good if you like to have your work read back to you.

HP iPAQ -- handheld PDA, has mobile version of Microsoft Word in addition to all the cool PDA features.

Laser PC6 -- another portable word processor with a text-to-speech function, uploads to PC or a Mac.

Palm Tungsten E2 -- in addition to all the bells and whistles of a PDA, you can use Documents To Go gives you access to your Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files, and (with a simple conversion step) you can read Acrobat PDFs. I own one and use a wireless keyboard with it just to take notes when I'm away from the computer; works nicely but battery frequently needs recharging.

QuickPad -- a portable, low-frills word processor/notetaker with additional organizer features.

Before you buy any portable writing device, ask around and get opinions from other writers on the different types and models available. Check office equipment and supply stores in your area to see if they sell them and if they have a display model you can try out. Or, if you're attending a writing or biz conference and see a friendly-looking colleague using one, go over and ask if you can give it a spin.

Do any of you guys already use a portable, or know of one I haven't mentioned? Let us know in comments.

Related links: Venice Kichura's article, The Advantages of Portable Word Processors


  1. Anonymous1:14 AM

    I was about to buy a portable word processor when the eee PC was released. The keyboard is a bit slower than a regular one, because it's smaller. I have to remember my reading glasses, because the screen is small. That's the bad news.

    The good news is that it weighs less than 2 lbs, fits in my handbag, and is a fully-functioning computer. It runs Open Office and has wifi and a bunch of other things. Mine cost less than $500 (last December) but I believe you can get them for around $350 now.

    The news that might be either good or bad depending on your personal situation and how much work you're trying to squeeze in before a plane leaves? The eee PC is a guy magnet.

  2. I think pretty much every PocketPC has MS Word on it. At least, all the ones I've had have, and they're not HPs. I've never thought about hooking up a bluetooth keyboard to it. I can check one out at work, so it's a neat idea for not having to have my laptop everywhere.

  3. The new toy is an Asus EeePC. It's tiny (less than 9" wide), light (2 lb), tough (runs from Flash memory so no hard drive) and very cheap (£200 here in the UK so presumably about US$400 over there). Unbelievably portable.

    The brilliant thing is that it's a complete laptop with real OS (Linux or Windows), real applications (OpenOffice, Firefox, Skype etc., and you can easily add more) and real features (WiFi, USB, SD card reader etc.). It's a fantastic thing for carrying around to write on; the only drawback is that the keyboard is small. If you're a touch-typist then it might not be for you, but I adapted quickly. The battery life is relatively short (standard battery is 2-3 hours) but an extended battery costs about £40 and will give you up to 7 hours. They now make bigger ones, too, with up to 10" screens. Well worth a look. I adore mine!

  4. Anonymous6:13 AM

    I use an ASUS eee. It's a mini laptop at $300 (got mine from target) and Linux based. You *can* get one with windows, but why? It's very limited in space, but I've written four novellas on it and doubt I'll go back. LOL.

    I take it everywhere. It's roughly the size of a trade paperback. I bought a portable DVD player case and it holds everything. The laptop, the accessories and a little notebook.

    It comes internet ready, has open office, and does everything I need it to. Even video looks good on it. I have a thumb drive so I transfer my docs back and forth all the time.

    I love the thing!

  5. I love my Palm Tungsten. I have the fold-up portable keyboard. It's very easy to put it together and have instant full-size keyboard for comfortable typing. The small screen space is hard to get used to, but you can fit the whole setup in your pocket. Can't say that for a laptop.

  6. Anonymous8:14 AM

    I just take my laptop with me. I like being able to get online when there's a wireless hookup so the laptop goes.

  7. I was awfully tempted by the EEE before my regular laptop died on me and I needed a new one.

    As a writing tool, it's great, because you don't need a powerful computer to run a word processing software, which also means you can't install cool and fancy games on it.

  8. I would recommend the EEE as well, from what I've read.

    From what I understand, the cheapest version (about $350) has the Open OS (no Windows XP) and a 7-inch screen that means you have to scroll left/right.

    If you want more, it'll cost you (about $500+). For that, you get a bigger screen and Windows XP.

    But it seems ideal for what I want: fast on/off, big enough window for my editing purposes, and even wifi if you're in the coffee shop/bookstore and you want to check your e-mail.

  9. I have an Alphasmart Neo and I love. I haven't used it much lately but that's because I've been home. When I travel, or when I used to work outside the home, I used it CONSTANTLY. I still use it when I go away on trips and such. I have a laptop, but for the reasons you mentioned I just like the Neo better. It's lighter and if something happens to it, it won't cost me as much to replace.

  10. I love my AlphaSmart, which I won at a regional RWA conference.

  11. Ditto what the others have said on the Asus Eee PC. Mine is 7" and runs Linux, picks up wireless in a snap, runs Open Office, and connects directly to my Gmail and Google Docs (though I don't care for Google Docs and the lack of Word compatible formatting). I can palm the thing in one hand (and I don't have big hands), which does make the tiny keyboard easier to use. Under $400 for the 4G flash memory model.

    But I'm also still a big fan of pen and paper. ;)

  12. Thanks for the recommendations. I'm not sure whether I'll eventually be getting one of these or a laptop, but it'll be nice to look more into these before I make a decision.

  13. I'm on my third alphasmart and they are INDESTRUCTIBLE. (I gave the first two to kids,and they're still going strong) However their built-in battery power seems kinda iffy--they don't seem to hold a charge very long--and when the battery dies, everything goes with it.

  14. Anonymous12:12 PM

    Ya know, I like the look of the EEE, the small screen wouldn't be much of an issue, but the keyboard would

    With my carpal tunnel, working on that cramped a space would be an invitation to surgery...again.

    Don't suppose it comes with a way of plugging in a full size keyboard does it?

  15. I've used all sorts of portable writing solutions, including laptops, Palm PDAs with infrared keyboards, and Alphasmarts. I still use the laptop now and then, but I hate the limited battery life and (relative) fragility. I love my Alphasmart Neo, which is cheap, rugged and lacks distractions. You can buy it with rechargeable batteries or without; going 700+ hours on 3 AA batteries seems pretty green to me.

    There's an active Alphasmart users group over at Flickr; we're alway up to answering questions and we have more than a few stories to share.

  16. I have a NEO and I love it. I use it way more than my laptop, especially when starting a story, or just trying to focus on writing. I'd like to say I have self discipline, but I sometimes have a hard time staying off the internet when on my desktop or laptop, the NEO keeps my mind on work.

  17. Been gone for awhile and came right back to this blog.

    I've had an Alphasmart Dana going on 4 years now. I wouldn't be caught out of town without it--unless I'm overseas and frolicking.

  18. Love my AlphaSmart NEO! Although I usually take my laptop with me when I travel because it allows me to access email, etc., I use the AlphaSmart for "in between-write anywhere" situations. I've used it out on the back porch or in the yard, at the beach, in the doctor's office when I knew I had a long wait and on short trips where I knew I'd have alternative email access. It's great!

    I also use it to freewrite and when I'm otherwise having trouble keeping focus. Just like you said, this keeps me away from distractions like email, websurfing, online Poker, Freecell, etc.

  19. Shilohwalker:
    The EeePC has three USB ports, so there's no problem plugging in an external keyboard. It's also got a VGA port, so you can plug an external monitor, too, and it will use the full resolution of that monitor if you want. (That means it's great for presentations, too!)

    Bill Peschel:
    There's no need to scroll left and right. Just set your writing application to use the correct width of paper! I don't use OpenOffice, preferring a simple text editor, but I also use LyX, which is TeX-based and extremely powerful. Both simply wrap the text at the screen edges so I can get on with the writing without worrying!

  20. Shiloh, I was tempted by the eee Asus, also, but the keyboard made me think twice. Also it's not widely available here in Canada, and the places that do sell it, have it priced between $500-$600.

    The replacement Quickpad I just bought cost me $240. All the other stuff would be distractions for me. I'm weak. I have to be completely away from the net or I'll keep loging on and surfing around.

    Like PBW pointed out Quickpad/AlphaSmart/Neos force you to just write foward. The downside is my Quickpads seem to last 2yrs before they die on me.

  21. Anonymous7:03 PM

    My Sony Vaio notebook computer was top of the line when I bought it a few years ago. It is still more than enough for my needs and I cringe at the thought of having to replace it someday. (I had a lot more disposable income when I got it, than I will in the foreseeable future.) I also got an Alphasmart Dana for NaNoWriMo a couple of years ago, and I love it too. The Dana is a little more expensive than the Neo, but it has one feature that I especially like - it takes SD memory cards. So even when the battery randomly dies (which seems to happen if you don't use it for a while), none of your files disappear. It's great for when I need to make myself Just Write without the temptation of an internet connection lurking in the background. I'm going to check out this EEE everyone is talking about. Sounds like it might be what I'll get whenever my beloved Vaio bites the dust.

  22. Anonymous9:21 PM

    Shiloh, my husband uses a usb (full-sized) keyboard when we've traveled. I also use a usb mouse. Warning, though...using the USB does decrease the battery life significantly, but I still love it. :)

    A friend of mine has bought one for her college-bound daughter. She loves it.

  23. I also love my Neo. I can work while sitting in my recliner, on the deck, on the glider in the yard, and it travels wonderfully. I've had it about 6 months now, use it constantly, and have not even put a dent in the betteries.

    I looked at eee, but decided I did not want the distractions of Internet access, software goodies, and Linux maintenance. That's just me, though. Your opinions might differ.

  24. Anonymous9:00 PM

    There's a new thing called an Eee laptop -- they can get online with wifi, they're really lightweight and portable, cute, they come in both black and white, don't have the annoying green lcd screen, and can run MS Word, I believe.

    It's $300 at target right now and there are pretty cool quilted cases, too!


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