If you can’t afford a laptop or need something lighter, more rugged, or with a longer battery life, you might want to look into a family of devices that are essentially keyboards with memory. You enter and edit text on a small LCD screen in a keyboard-sized, 2-pound device that stores 60 pages or more, divided into about 8 different files. Battery life ranges from 100-700 hours on three AA batteries. (Yes, that’s battery life in the hundreds of hours for pennies.) When you’re ready to move what you’ve written into an actual computer, the device connects like a keyboard and text moves into your writing application as if it were coming from a keyboard. With Scrivener, those 8 files could be 8 chapters in a book. The New York Times takes a look at them here:
Perhaps the best known brand is the AlphaSmart, which rates its own entry on Wikipedia:
You can find downloadable manuals for them here:
New, these gadgets typically run between $200-300. A quick look on eBay, suggests they go used for about $100 or less. At this moment, you can pick up an “open box” discontinued AlphaSmart 3000, which connects to your computer through a USB port, through ClubMac for $139.
If you’re patient (or lucky) you can pick them up even cheaper at thrift stores. My local Goodwill considers them odd-looking keyboards, so I managed to get an AlphaSmart 2000 for $3. It didn’t come with a cable and my iMac doesn’t have the two old-fashioned keyboard ports it uses: PS/2 (PCs) or ADB (Macs). At AlphaSmart they charge $70 for an adapter cable to work with a USB port. But I picked up a PS/2 to USB converter at XPCGEAR for less that $6 here:
The converter works fine and even lets the AlphaSmart 2000 become a keyboard. I also needed a male-to-male PS/2 cable, but you can find those almost anywhere.
The only real weakness is that until the very latest models sending files the other way (PC to AlphaSmart) has been somewhere between iffy and impossible, depending on factors I’ve not quite sorted out, including the model, the cable and additional software. (Their website is unclear about this and their Mac software seems stuck at OS-9, perhaps because most of their customers are schools with tight budgets.)
In short, my AlphaSmart 2000 is small and light, with a full-sized keyboard. Hit the On button and it’s ready to take text in about 2 seconds. In another two seconds, you can shift to any of the other seven files to write or edit. In perhaps 30 seconds, you can connect to a Mac and upload what you’ve written. Editing is done on a 4-line, 40 character screen with big, ancient DOS-type characters (no descenders) that are easy to read in bright sunlight (unlike laptops) or room lighting. The screen isn’t backlite, so you can’t use it in the dark. My AlphaSmart 2000 doesn’t have cut and paste, but the 3000 does. And if you need to make database entries, you can tab and import the resulting tab-delimited file. If you budget isn’t tight, you might want to look into their current products:
The Neo’s greater text storage, larger display, and ability to display 2 lines of large characters to six lines of small characters might make it worth the extra money.
I have a MacBook, so I didn’t absolutely need to get this. But I find that for a lot of uses, particularly when on the move or out in the sun, it’s better than a laptop. especially if all you want to do is enter text without a lot of hassle or fretting about battery life.
–Mike Perry, author of Untangling Tolkien
P.S. I just found out about a similar product called QuickPad. Their Pro version can hold some 500 pages of text and the screen displays 16 lines, although the battery life is “only” about 50 hours. The website is:
Also, if you need something that’s compact and functions more like a PC (i.e. viewing photos) and don’t mind Linux, a tiny keyboard, and a short battery life, look into the tiny Eee PC. There are reviews at:
The Eee PC doesn’t impress me. Cute as it is, it still has the limitations of a laptop and the price is almost half what a refurb MacBook costs at the Apple store for a fraction of the functionality. Maybe Apple should get over its obsession with thin and do something similar, perhaps a 10" model with a full-sized keyboard.
Finally, keep in mind that some laptop replacement companies offer free, 30-day trials, so you can see if their product fits your needs. If you just need get text down on the go, then one of them may be just what you need.