Cheap, Writing-only Laptops

Earlier, I started a discussion on the Literature & Latte forum about using an AlphaSmart as a writer’s tool.

An AlphaSmart isn’t really a computer. It’s more like a recording keyboard with a small LCD screen. Since it doesn’t work well for as-you-write editing, I use mine to take notes as I read books. For that it’s perfect: it works in bright sunlight, the AA batteries last 50 hours or more, it’s easier to hold than a laptop, and it’s easy to export text to Scrivener.

Recently, I’ve been looking for something more like a laptop, something I could take places I’d never take my MacBook. That meant something cheap enough I could leave unguarded at a part-time job without worrying. I was also hoping to find something smaller and more rugged than a MacBook.

Thinking the answer might be the eMate 300 that Apple sold for about a year just before Steve Jobs returned, I set my browser up to display all Craigslist ads in Seattle for an eMate in the set of webpages I look at three times a day. Few eMates came up for sale, but about three weeks ago, one did. It was part of a must-sell package: an early 1990s Mac Duo 320, the eMate, and what the seller called an HP Jornado 820 PDA, all for $30 total or $10 each.

It was good deal. Probably the only reason I got it before anyone else was that the seller had listed it as “Computer Stuff,” which usually means worthless junk. If it hadn’t come up in my eMate search, I’d never have looked at the ad. Also, the seller was a 45-minute drive from Seattle, which may have discouraged competition.

Since eMates tend to go for $50 and up, I decided to take that long drive. I’d give the Mac Duo to a friend in need. I’d donate the PDA to Goodwill, and I’d see if the eMate was useful. If I didn’t like the eMate, I could still sell it for at least what I’d paid for all three.
What follows is my evaluation of each as a writing-only laptop. By that I mean an older laptop that still works fine for writing but isn’t in much demand today because it lacks the connectivity for email and the power for good web browsing. If you can find one in good condition, they’re likely to be cheap. You may even get one for free.

Of course, these old laptops also have a down side.

  1. The batteries may be old and cost more than the laptop is worth to replace.

  2. New (meaning old) software may be hard to find. That means that the software that comes with it must fit your needs. Fortunately most come with something for writing.

  3. Connectivity is a big issue. It does no good to write the Greatest Novel Ever Written, if you can’t move it on to you Mac for editing in Scrivener. And while today either a USB flash drive or an ethernet/Internet connection makes moving files about easy, computers made before 2000 often don’t have a USB or ethernet port. They usually come with an IR port and perhaps a built-in modem.

Since the three laptops I got in that package deal cover almost all the options for writing only laptops, here’s my evaluation of each. Feel free to follow up my posting with your own suggestions.

Mac Powerbook Duo 320

Around 1992, people happily paid up to $2600 for these light and compact laptops. Apple saved weight by leaving off the floppy drive, but mine came with an adapter and an external floppy drive. It had been well-cared for and seemed to work fine, running an antique but serviceable OS 7.1. Since I have an external USB floppy drive for my iMac, file transfer wasn’t an issue. It also came with Word 5.1a (the last good version), Excel and a few other programs. The only negative was the battery life. If you lost power, it gave you just enough time to save your files, but little more.

The Duo is a good illustration of what a 1990s Mac laptop would do as a writing only laptop. You’d still have a Mac interface and, with an external floppy drive on your current Mac, file transfers are easy. And for writing, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with one. I ghosted about half a history book (Presidential Scandals, CQ Press, 1999), on an even older PowerBook 160.

But in the end, the age and potential for sudden death bothered me too much. I contacted a friend and found out that her 11-year-old son was eager for his own laptop. I tossed in all my floppies filled with Classic Mac software, and he was one happy boy.

eMate 300

In the world of small sailboats, there’s a type of boat that’s called a ‘character boat.’ Most small sailboats fit with what most sailors want and are a lot alike. A character boat stresses something different, making it a bit odd. If you need what’s different about it, you love it. If you don’t, it’s weird and frustrating.

The eMate 300 is a character laptop. About 1997, Apple took the operating system they had developed for their Newton PDA and packaged it into a rugged laptop for elementary school kids. At that time, its $800 price was considered a bargain. Eventually, they began to sell them to the public, but most on today’s used market are school surplus. When Steve Jobs took control of Apple, he killed off the Newton and the eMate just as PDAs took off.

Google “eMate” and you’ll find that they’re still popular and software is available. You can even find a driver that let you run WiFi from its PCMIA slot. The battery life is about 15-20 hours, and the screen can be illuminated (unlike the AlphaSmart). It also beats the ‘can’t justify buying a new battery’ problem. There are instructions online that describe how to convert it to use cheap AA NiMh rechargeable batteries. It also comes with built-in software that’s adequate for writing and time management. Just remember that it was designed to survive 4th-graders, so it isn’t small or light. It’s about the same size and weight as a MacBook.

I’m still trying to make sense of that user interface. If for some reason you need a touchscreen computer to take notes and make sketches while standing, you might like it. The Newton’s initially poor handwriting recognition had improved quite a bit by the time the eMate came out, and it has a draw program that’s amazingly clever. Create the crude equivalent of a square or a circle and it will transform your doodle into a perfect one that you can reposition. And its form factor is far better than most of today’s touch screen laptops. The handle is perfectly positioned to hold in your left hand with the bottom of the case against the bend at your elbow. You can then write or draw on the screen with your right hand (or vice-versa). It’s the perfect clipboard replacement.

Unfortunately, my klutzing around has yet to come up with a cheap and easy way to get text off it. Certain PCMIA cards may work with it, with ethernet, WiFi or CompactFlash as a transfer medium. But what works or doesn’t is vague and you may need a driver that you can’t load without the transfer ability you don’t have. It was intended to talk with Macs through the serial input once used for modems and keyboards. But no Mac in about 7 years has one of those and a gadget that adapts two serial ports to USB sells for around $70. That and my general inability to make sense of the quirky interface have put my idea to use an eMate on hold. Maybe I’ll keep it. Maybe I’ll sell it. If you have an older Mac with that serial port, an eMate might be just what you need.

Jornada 820

This proved to be the pleasant surprise of my purchase. HP marketed it with their family of late 1990s PDA, which is why the seller called it a PDA. But it’s actually what today we’d call a 9-in netbook running Windows CE with a 90% of normal keyboard and no touchscreen. Judging by comments I’ve read online, since it retailed for $1000, it’s better built than today’s $300 netbooks. I’d been lamenting the fact that my budget wouldn’t justify a netbook, and now I have one for $10. It’s even a bit smaller than most of today’s netbooks, being about the size of a typical hardback book.

The Jornada 820 is a good example of a line of mini laptops and microcomputers that were being sold for Windows users about 10 years ago. It has a keyboard that can be touch-typed. Smaller models had keyboards you’d need to use your thumb for typing. Many run Windows CE and, like this one, come with stripped down versions of Word and Excel.The user interface is enough like a Mac, that I’ve had little trouble learning my way around. It isn’t that rugged, but it’s small enough, it fits in the sort of carry-about cases people use for books. Put it in a sturdy one inside a backpack, and it should survive a drop.

Most important of all, it’s proved very easy to get this little netbook to exchange files with my Macs. I’d wondered why many of these small laptops include a CompactFlash slot. Now I know. It makes a handy way to transfer files to a larger computer. For $1, I picked up a used CompactFlash USB drive at Goodwill and for $7 I picked up a 1 gig CompactFlash card. I’d been a bit worried that the Jornado would not handle a flash drive that big, since the standard at the time it came out was a mere 16 meg, but it works fine. Transferring files from the Jornada to Mac could hardly be easier, and the CompactFlash installs as a 1 gig drive on which I can store files. For writing on the go, it can’t be beat. You could roam the world with this little critter in your backpack.

I’ve yet to test how long the Jornada’s battery will last. New, it shipped with a battery that lasted about 10 hours and HP offered an extended life battery with 15 hours. As I began to like the idea of using it, I checked around for a replacement battery. Most websites are wrongly trying to sell batteries intended for HP PDAs for the 820, but one web store offers to refill an existing Jornada battery pack with one that could last over 15 hours for $69.

That’s reassuring, but even better was the discovery that they also offer an extended life repacking of an original MacBook battery for $79. I’ve not used them, so I can’t vouch for their service, but they offer rebuilds for most Mac laptop batteries sold in the last decade or so. If you have a Mac of the PowerBook to iBook vintage, you might check them out.

That’s my experience looking for a laptop I can carry with me anywhere almost worry-free. Free free to add your comments and experiences, including experiences with older Mac laptops that’ll still run Scrivener.

Thank you! This is a great and very helpful post.

Regarding the emate and the Newton OS - it is quirky but that’s because it was designed from the ground up to be based entirely on pen input. That touchscreen was no afterthought - the keyboard was.

I have a MessagePad myself, and I still use it daily after owning it for 11 years. I ended up buying a USB/serial adaptor for it to connect to my PowerBook (not cheap, as you noted, but worth it for me). I think the Newton OS is brilliant. I have written a couple of novel first drafts on it, as well as taken engineering class notes for several years when I was in school.

Thanks Inkling, very informative.

I read your post a year ago and partly thanks to it, I bought myself a Neo, and very useful it has been too. In your quest for a robust, cheap sub-laptop, did you consider a second-hand AS Dana?


I saw this on a blog this morning:

pretty neat

Another old Windows CE machine to look for is the NEC MobilePro. It has a very serviceable keyboard and the whole slate of decent CE applications built in.

For the more technically minded, who want to write using MacOS (though not on a Macintosh), try this recipe:
How To: Hackintosh a Dell Mini 9 Into the Ultimate OS X Netbook

Unless you are in Germany (which is claiming unenforceable ULA with OSX) you need to know that hackintosh is technically a sick bird. Not that it doesn’t work, but that you aint supposed to be doing it.

To add to that, KB/DMJ/L&L don’t condone sick bird activities and may choose to distance themselves from the above suggestion. Then again they still let vic-k on the forums so they may not be willing to distance themselves from anything. At least not things found on under the table of the local pub.

I read the Gizmodo article on hacking a Dell mini-9 into an OSX machine. Not so fine print: you wind up with a machine that Dell won’t repair, and Apple can’t upgrade.

Heretical suggestion: why not buy a Dell mini-9, install PageFour or one of the other Windows apps that Keith describes on the Links page, write away, and export your RTF files to a Mac with Scrivener?

I mean, for $400, that’s a pretty sweet travel and writing machine. And PageFour is 5 dollars less than Scrivener.

Phaser down, shield up.

I think the Hackintosh is a reasonable solution to an important problem. A netbook is 1/3 of the price and half the weight of a Macbook. The Macbook is overpowered (and therefore overpriced) for what some want to do. I am torn and may get a Macbook in the end (because I will be able to video edit on it.) And the screensize is reasonable for my aging eyes. This will be to supplement my 24" iMac this summer. However, if someone does go the Hackintosh route, they absolutely should buy a retail copy of OS X. If you install using a retail copy rather than a bootleg, then the operating system can be upgraded. It also pushes you into a legal gray area rather than an absolute illegal stolen software solution.

The 10.5 DVD that I have indicates “… for use on Apple hardware only …” several times in the EULA. Apple is very clear about this (google pystar). Quite frankly there is no “legal” gray area based on current US laws. Several EU countries may have more consumer friendly laws (germany) that invalidate the clauses used in the pystar case as the end user is not able to view the information prior to purchase (deceptive sale clause).

That said I will give you a “moral” gray all day long.

Well, whether or not the EULA is actually an enforcible contract is still a bit hazy, unless something has changed that I am not aware of. If I have my cat click the Agree button, or a legal minor, or if I hack the Agree button out of the installer (and thus am not bound to be excluded from cracking or reverse engineering the code—including the installer), am I legally bound by the terms if the document? Can breaking a piece of tape and unsealing a DVD case be as legally binding as a signed document? These exceptional problems make normal “Agree-clicking” a questionable binding principle.

That aside, Apple could file suit against you for spilling coffee on your Mac laptop and probably win, so, yes.

This is fascinating, since I got along with a fountain pen and a legal pad for quite some time. If there was a way for the words to wind up in a text file without my money or intervention, I believe I would draft that way still.

I’ve often toyed with similar ideas, going so far as to check out some Palm keyboards. Now my iPod touch, with a program called Shapewriter, now represents my apex of speed and portability. But it was not as thrifty as these examples, and the thought of leaving it somewhere is appalling.

Recently I gave away an early windows CE device… that still worked

I used that sucker to write my first sales.

You were lucky indeed. And let me tell you… I LOVED those devices, but right now the IPOD is killing Windows CE and all has to do with the COOL factor, and the difficulty of actually getting it to talk with my macbook.

Yes, I have a windows device, will see if I can get the sucker to accept the memory card on my macbook. If it does, get a new keyboard for it. That would be the ideal solution for it. And it has better battery life than the Pod touch. I guess a card reader will have to do.

By the way, if you can get it to run Textmaker, that is a full function office suite, though NOT cheap, for the win mobile devices. You MIGHT be able to do it.

Breaking a EULA is not the same as breaking a law, strictly speaking. But yeah, I view it all as a ‘gray’ area too.

Thank you InklingBooks for the info. For a long time, like one of the posters above, I have used a fountain pen and a notebook. In fact, most of my first drafts happen there. The novel I just have finished began as a number of entries on a Moleskine notebook, and the draft of my next novel resides on three Moleskines. This solution, of course, has its drawbacks, which is why I had also been considering the idea of a writing-only laptop.

 It is not a matter of not wanting to pay for a Macbook (I have bought three in the past five years). It is that you want a computer that is cheap enough, so you don't have to worry about taking it with you wherever you please, and small enough, so you can carry it too. It's a shame that Apple won't consider a product like this. The exponential growth of the notebook market seems to suggest that the market is ripe for such an offering. I was in Europe a few days ago, and I saw a MS Wind running OS X, and a copy of Scrivener (demo, I believe). It was flawless. If Apple doesn't plan to serve this niche, I don't see the "moral" claim against people paying for Apple software and running it in a platform Apple doesn't offer, nor plans to offer in the near future.

For the time been, I’ll stick to my notebook and fountain pen for the occasions in which taking my Macbook 13" would be too much of a hassle or risk. But I’m still interested in a writing-only laptop.

Rumors are growing that Apple will release a large “tablet” computer by Oct/Nov.
In size it will be 10 inches, matching a large Kindle.
Connect to a 3 or 4G network, possibly via Verizon.
Have a virtual keyboard, OS similar to iPhone.
Presumably would be for writing, surfing, but not phoning.
Design has been approved by Jobs, manufacturing underway.
It’s on all the Apple rumor sites now, but also CNN and Fortune.
brainstormtech.blogs.fortune.cnn … es_fortune

Those tablet rumours seem to have the same tenacity and time-scale as flying cars. :slight_smile:

I’ll admit to getting morally grey by Hackintoshing a Dell Mini 9 to basically use Scrivener in cafés and libraries. Because it’s practically the same as a Mac Mini on the inside, the Delll Mini 9 is probably the most Mac-compatible netbook out there – pretty much everything works under Leopard. Device specific stuff like two finger trackpad scrolling has been implemented nicely by Mini 9 hackers, and all the tweaks required to achieve a stable Leopard installation are now done in one application, with one button click, in a couple of minutes.

The hardware is obviously not up to the standards of an Apple machine, but it’s minimalist and solidly built, and the convenience of a 9 inch device is fantastic, and for me outweighed any other consideration. I have a battery that lasts eight hours on a single charge, so sitting in a café all day without having to get a table next to a power outlet is now a reality for me. Yes, it’s a wimpy machine by 2009 standards, but it actually runs faster than my c.2005 PowerBook, and because it uses a solid state drive, it boots up about four times faster than my c.2008 MacBook Pro.

Obviously, the lack of screen real estate means that my Scrivener setup on my Mini 9 differs somewhat from my 24 inch setup at home – I have to hide the toolbar, ruler, header, footer, etc to get any meaningful stuff on the screen, and I’ve also installed MegaZoomer to achieve something similar to Ulysses’ “full screen” mode (i.e. the normal working environment, minus the menubar, window titlebar, etc., in addition to Scrivener’s actual full screen mode)

Of course, as with any netbook, the keyboard is fairly scary. The action and size of the keys are actually pretty good for a 9 inch netbook; because I have small fingers, the keyboard isn’t that much of a problem for me, but those with large hands need not apply! Meanwhile, the layout is unorthodox, and I needed to physically swap a couple of the keys and create a new keyboard layout in software in order to write anything meaningful. The trackpad buttons are also fairly horrible.

All in all, it’s been quite a seamless and fun (if morally grey) experience. Not bad for something I picked up for less than US$300. What’s more, because the machine was discontinued earlier this month, Dell are currently clearing their stock of Mini 9s for $199 – quite a cheap solution for a mobile writing machine.

I’d just like to note that the rumours have dialed up to 11 over the past couple of days, with a September announcement allegedly due. Respectable sources say that 10" display panels have been ordered for delivery in bulk in Q3/09, that it’s going to be based on the ARM Cortex A8 architecture and run the iPhone OS version of OSX, and so on.

Obviously given Apple’s pathological secrecy there’s no point speculating on whether it’ll be possible to port Scrivener onto such a beast until it’s actually out there, in the wild, but … can I daydream, perhaps?