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A $35 keyboard for children transformed me into a novelist (onezero.medium.com)
276 points by danso 12 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 244 comments

The Japanese have modern devices like this - this one is about $250 and had a E-ink display and a folding keyboard. You can put the keyboard in English mode - a few keys are in odd places but bearable. It's increased my output by several orders of magnitude.


they've run an unsuccessful funding campaign to bring this device to western audiences: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2132003782/pomera-pocke...

quite unfortunate -- i think they needed a little more hype.

Because of this it has english language support

Most of Japanese input happens in IME software so English support is more or less matters of changing UI string resources and keytop re-labeling

FreeWrite traveller seems another option, it is listed here for 389 USD: https://getfreewrite.com/collections/all/products/freewrite-...

FYI - The article specifically mentions FreeWrite in the second to last paragraph.

This seems rather expensive for what amounts to a keyboard + eink display.

It would be nice to have an e-ink display, but I can also buy a thinkpad x201/x220 for <$70/<$100 usd on ebay right now. It's not the smallest thing ever, but the x201 is pretty dang small for a "writing only" machine with a good keyboard. And I can still do basic web browsing or email if I really want to.

There's a bunch of cheap devices/older laptops that could fill this space the problem is that it's hard to install a stripped and locked down OS if one is not a computer whiz or no such OS exists.

I have a better idea for an OS that runs off a stick and only has text editor capabilities and nothing more. Once can reuse their own laptop for writing. Once they boot in the writing mode with the memory stick on there's nothing else to access. The only problem is that as of now no such OS exists.

I'd also love to boot off a stick and only have access to a repl of my favorite language, nothing more.

Anybody out there up for the challenge of creating such an OS?

This does not address an important point made in the article:

"n this way, the AlphaSmart provides an almost Pavlovian space in which to write: Get the device out, and the brain immediately moves into writing mode. This is another reason why I’ve been resistant to software on my computer that’s supposed to compel creativity and productivity. Because I do such a wide variety of tasks on my computer, my brain isn’t primed by the space to focus on one particular job. In this way, my computer’s all-purpose abilities, which is the main selling point of most laptops, actually becomes a liability. But the absolute simplicity of the AlphaSmart means that when I bring it out, I subconsciously know exactly what it is I need to do: write."

Yes, you can buy a laptop that is as much different from the other laptop you use, but it will still be that, a laptop. Not a mere writing device. I instantly get how that makes a big psychological difference, even if the machine is crippled in a way that would make it "impossible" to do anything else with it.

So, it is exactly NOT about any form of possible reuse for other purposes.

> So, it is exactly NOT about any form of possible reuse for other purposes.

In one sense, sure. In another sense, it's just marketing for people who are unable to control their impulses and have a lot of money to spend.

> but it will still be that, a laptop

A laptop that isn't connected to the internet is a writing device.

There are numerous word processors based around this concept as well.

Spending $$$ on niche products won't make you write any more than figuring out a space to write in + a routine will. But people can't sell that for $400.

You don't have to spend -anything- to have bouts of focus for writing. Zero. Nada. But it's easier to spend money than to figure out why ignoring notifications is so impossible.

Could be achieved with a stripped down/custom os on existing device. At this point minting any more plastic is almost like a crime against nature

It’s not exactly what you’re asking for, but my solution has been a decade-old eeePC 701 netbook with FreeDOS. The writing is done in pico. To get files off, I need to reboot with a USB key attached. It’d be a dream if wordgrinder was ported to FreeDOS.

Someone could make a distribution based on tiny core and have it boot into bash, and only install vim. Then create a separate partition to mount as a usb drive to move your work over.

You could also accomplish this by installing any random distribution, then remove the browser and network capabilities, then change the admin password to something hard to remember and either discard the password or store it someplace hard to reach.

I was thinking something portable and immutable.

Like a custom LiveCD/USB?

I think one aspect of the benefit highlighted by this article and by these devices in general is that they are not capable of being multifunctional devices, so that their inability to serve other wants is a benefit to the product category — not a drawback. You aren't wrong to highlight that good multipurpose devices exist in this size and form factor, but there are still people for whom single-tasking is non-negotiable, especially writers.

Sure, but paying $200-300 more for an inferior experience just because you lack impulse control might be wake-up call to spend time practicing it?

Have you considered that an adult contemplating buying such a device is aware they have an impulse control issue, has probably spent most of their life trying to rein it in, and still finds this product useful?

If you have the magical secret to impulse control, please share with the rest of us. Otherwise get off your high horse and shut up.

> If you have the magical secret to impulse control, please share with the rest of us. Otherwise get off your high horse and shut up.

Parent comment never claimed to have this. Parent comment, and I, will retain the right to criticize overpriced products like this.

I would like proof that $$$ products like this are more effective at getting people to write than, say, creating a consistent routine, working out, dedicating a space/time just for writing, etc.

If we're just going to use anecdata, the most consistent advice I've seen from prolific authors is to "write something, even a little, every day, and read a lot". If you have lack of impulse control, then you need to sit down and reflect on why that might be the case. Maybe consult a medical professional if it's that dire. But those take work and introspection instead of just spending $$$ on a neat-looking product.

For the record, I -would- pay a lot of money for a laptop built like a thinkpad x201/x220, that had a good keyboard and an e-ink display! ...not for notifications, but I find e-ink displays significantly help me with eye strain.

> Parent comment never claimed to have this. Parent comment, and I, will retain the right to criticize overpriced products like this.

I have zero issues with people criticizing a product for being overpriced. GP however in addition criticized people, implying that if you buy this product you should instead start practicing impulse control.

That's a comment very dismissive towards people with impulse control. Maybe things are different now, but when I was a kid, having poor impulse control was something that one would be criticized and shamed for regularly. It's very condescending to just say "have you tried improving your impulse control" as if that's going to be some revelation.

As a similar issue, a friend of mine has an autistic kid. She gets annoyed any time a pop-science article appears with some new treatment/method/etc. appears for autism because for the next year lots of well meaning people she meets will mention it when they find out her son is autistic. She doesn't typically say it, but her desired response is along the lines of: "Yes, I've been raising an austistic son for 12 years and yet I haven't done enough research about it to stumble across something that was published widely in the mainstream media."

> I would like proof that $$$ products like this are more effective at getting people to write than, say, creating a consistent routine, working out, dedicating a space/time just for writing, etc.

It's not an either/or proposition. As you mention, having a dedicated space and time make a big difference, but I think a computing device helps define the space. I will sometimes watch a youtube video in one window while reading an article in another window, but that doesn't happen when I'm watching a movie on my TV. Would people be equally well served with an old laptop with broken WiFi and no games installed? Probably. That doesn't make this device useless though, and if you don't already have an old laptop with broken WiFi, then $250 isn't that expensive, and this is probably much easier on the eyes if you want to, say, write outside.

> If you have lack of impulse control, then you need to sit down and reflect on why that might be the case. Maybe consult a medical professional if it's that dire. But those take work and introspection instead of just spending $$$ on a neat-looking product

I agree with this entire sentence! If all your problems can be completely fixed by spending $300 on a word-processor then your problems probably weren't that serious to begin with. However, I do think it can help create a dedicated space and time just for writing.


Just noticed that you wrote the GP comment to what I originally responded to:

> It would be nice to have an e-ink display, but I can also buy a thinkpad x201/x220 for <$70/<$100 usd on ebay right now. It's not the smallest thing ever, but the x201 is pretty dang small for a "writing only" machine with a good keyboard. And I can still do basic web browsing or email if I really want to.

This is totally a fair criticism of the product. I didn't feel a need to respond to it when I read it earlier, but since you got me hooked ;) I'll respond:

1. A new x201 display would be better in some conditions, worse in others than an e-ink display; I don't know how they age, but if you plan on primarily indoors work with not a lot of natural light, then we can call it a win for the x201; if you plan on working out side during the day it's a win for an e-ink display

2. "basic web browsing or email" is a downside for some people, but you could probably pull the wifi card (or cut traces if it's on the motherboard), or just buy one with broken wifi if needed, so inasmuch as an x201 could be modified to work this way, but a wordprocessor could not be modified to do web-browsing, that's a win for the x201.

3. For the freewrite traveler in specific, we don't know yet how good the keyboard is since it's not yet released. The x201 seems to have the traditional thinkpad keyboard that is arguably best-in-class for laptops. Some wordprocessors do use microswitch keyboards, but the freewrite does not.

4. All this reflection has made me think that an e-ink display running wordprocessing software with a USB port might be a great device; you can bring whatever keyboard you like and you can position the screen and keyboard independently. You would sacrifice some portability though.

You're missing the point tough, less functionality is not an "inferior experience" here. It avoids the need to fight the urge for a dopamine fix.

Computers have the ability to disable their connections to the internet. Recent apple products have Do-Not-Disturb modes.

Maybe, one could do some introspection about why they are unable to put notifications on hold?

Nah. Better spend a lot of money instead, because that will fix the root issue, assuredly.


W.r.t my original comment: For $70-$100 (at most!) I can take a laptop, disable the wifi, and open a word processor.

It is admittedly a splurge, as I already have a desktop pc and a perfectly capable macbook. However, that price point for a dedicated writing machine with a great keyboard was worth it to me. I did it for the keyboard, not the (lack of) notifications, but one could easily do it for that purpose.

Sometimes dedicated devices are a deliberate choice with desirable benefits. You don't use a pocket multitool to prepare a fine meal just because it has a blade. You just buy a knife that was made for that purpose.

I think comparing a knife to a dedicated writing device is like comparing apples and oranges. We use different utensils because they innately have different properties that are useful in different aspects of cooking. It's not that a knife and spoon both have the same exact function, only the knife doesn't send me push notifications.

A laptop with a keyboard is not going to give you different writing properties than a screen + a keyboard. They both will write text just the same. One can turn off notifications/connection to the internet if desired, and now they're both quiet devices.

You come across as weirdly upset and condescending about this. Why do you care if someone else wants to waste their money on a shortcut to avoid introspection about their poor impulse control?

I bought one of these things within 2 minutes of reading the blog post we're commenting on. I don't really need to "reflect" on the reasons that I sometimes have poor impulse control. It's not like not knowing why I'm sometimes tempted means that I'm no longer tempted.

And part of impulse control is "tying yourself to the mast" to avoid temptation in the future. It'd be stupid to keep piles of tempting junk food within arms length at all times and then berate yourself for "poor impulse control".

Similarly, it'd be stupid to put tons of social media, notifications, and games just a click or two away from where you're trying to do something hard and meaningful, and then berate yourself (or others) for your lack of reflection on your poor impulse control.

No, but the keyboard & screen are.

That doesn’t work for everyone, even if it works for you.

There is also the Freewrite, its a little expensive but is targeted to English speakers: https://getfreewrite.com/

Beautiful, but $400 is steep for a monotasker. I'd gladly let students use these in a class, though, as an alternative to notepads.

Which probably says something about the rise of keyboards and the fall of handwriting; I get that ASCII is more useful than paper, but $400 buys a lot of luxurious pens and paper.

Produces a lot of lost pens and paper in waste bins though!

Check out the fountain pen thread from last week.

Link please ? :)

Granted I’m a huge user of fountain pens and note books already :)

The Cherry mechanical switches are big plus on the Freewrite. AlphaSmart uses membrane switches, a deal killer for some.

Too each their own, you could argue the noise and downward force required on a cherry mechanical keyboard is a deal killer for some.

Freewrite supports at least 35 languages via configurable layouts in software: https://support.getfreewrite.com/article/27-freewrite-keyboa...

That is exactly the type of device I've dreamed about for years. Thank you for pointing it out. I wonder if there is a version targeted more for English language.

Also have wanted to find/build this since forever, though I’d like something simpler and sturdy.

Thanks for making me aware of this, I just got the DM30 and it's excellent. I was looking at a Remarkable tablet, but this is far better for my needs as text files are central to my workflow.

Sadly, it seems to require a hard surface - no typing on your lap sitting on the beach.

What happens if one types away while not resting the device on a hard surface? Does it miss keys? Is it uncomfortable to hold it on ones lap ?

It's as floppy as you'd expect. They do make another device with a more laptop form factor - but as I understand it, it doesn't have as good English support. I could be wrong.

It's a bit floppy, but certainly doable. If you have a hard surface like a sketchpad, it's fine.

I don't have one, just searched the forums online and found this.

Wow, ATOK is like $5 a month on its own, on PC. I'm impressed they went to that length to get a high quality input method into this device.

Wonder how much trouble it would be for them to integrate RIME, I'd buy that in an instant.

Interestingly I just bought a second hand DM30 and am looking into how I can get it to run a code editor (or just accept different file types). If anyone has any idea on how to accomplish such a feat please share.

If anyone’s planning to hack them, IIRC, DM30 is custom RTOS on ARM926EJ-S, DM200 is Linux on AllWinner(rooting available), anything else is obscure Toshiba CPU with very little RAM running unknown RTOS.

This is why I love this forum!

Would you happen to know any details on the OS/processor of the old sony PRS-350 e-readers?

Wow! This is perfect, for a long time I've been using a bluetooth keyboard with my iPhone for writing but every notification means distraction while trying to write :(

I love these constrained devices. It'd be nice if there's a way to get the cost down.

How does that compare to a foldable keyboard + smartphone on airplane mode setup?

I've used the DM100 for ~5 years now. It's an entirely different feel from a general-purpose device /w foldable keyboard. For starters, it's "always on" -- when you open the case, you're in the text editor and can start typing immediately. Second, it's a distraction free device: there's no wifi, no checking email, no browsing. Third, it's physically convenient, you can put it on your lap in a meeting or keep it on the table top (the display is not tall), taking notes without disrupting flow. Lastly, it uses easily replaced 9-volt batteries, which last a few weeks of occasional usage.

There are two quirks in the older model I have. First, when opening the cover, it always starts in Japanese, so you have to press a key to get it to English. Second, some of the characters are in different slots; e.g. the apostrophe is inconvenient. Third, the keyboard is a tad scrunched.

Part of the point of having a separate device is the additional friction of switching to distractions like Twitter etc and creating a separate context where you're just doing one task like writing. Using a cellphone even on airplane mode breaks both of those because it's super easy to turn back on and doesn't define a separate context.

For that price a NOS Brother Geobook would be competitive.

Or just get a Bluetooth keyboard and connect it to you smartphone. But I guess the appeal is the reduced distractions in the screen. Is there an app that pauses any distractions (messages, calls, notifications, etc) so you can focus on the current foreground application?

The latest Android version has a focus mode: https://www.blog.google/products/android/android-focus-mode/

Still to easy to get out of the focus mode. Procrastinators blindly go back to the distraction mode without knowing how/when they got there.

You don’t need an app iOS and Android have easy to access do not disturb modes you can schedule or manually enable.

I have a very special place in my heart for the AlphaSmart brand. When I was a kid in the 90's I had atrocious handwriting. No one could figure out why or how to fix it. In middle school, one of the counselors had been given an earlier model of the AlphaSmart as a demo unit and let me use it. It also turned me into a writer. Instead of my teachers glossing over my chicken scratch, they were able to read my typed assignments and offer me real feedback. My confidence as a student and an intellectual returned. All because I had a little keyboard to type on. Pretty crazy.

[Technical side note: Back in the day, to transfer what you typed you used to plug it into the PS/2 keyboard port on a computer and press "send." It would then recreate each keystroke for the computer, regardless of what program you had open so if you hit send before opening up a word processor it would be chaos until it finished transferring.]

That side-note is really interesting, actually. They found a way to bypass all the hassle of trying to deal with compatibility issues with different computers (at least with the PC clones... Apple used a different port) and applications by using a near-universal port. No need for a file system or networking to transfer your files to the target PC. Just plug it into the keyboard port, and send your text directly into whatever program you want.

How does the saying go? "If it looks stupid but it works, it ain't stupid."

They had a dongle which had the Mac plug as well! It really was a very simple/elegant solution in a time before Plug and Play/USB/etc. They even included a "Y" cable so you could keep your keyboard plugged in if you used the same computer to transfer to.

This is what it looked like: https://www.theultracomputer.com/images/20190118_032444.jpg

This must have been a later version than the one I was given growing up. The one I had only had Apple support. There was no Y cable included, or necessary, because the ADB ports on the Apple keyboards were already chain-able. I just plugged my Alphasmart into the unused extra connector on the keyboard itself!

Yeah, the demo unit I was originally allowed to use was Apple only. At some point my parents were able to purchase the "Alphasmart Pro" for me which according to Wikipedia is their second model that added PS/2 support.

And you are right, I totally forgot about that extra ADB port on the apple keyboard!

Now that's just an elegant solution.

Really fun fact time:

This functionality still works to the day...and with even works with a USB adapter for iOS. You can write something out, plug it into an iPhone and have it “print” to the screen.

It also can act like a USB keyboard and can be filled used as such in iOS. The support us incredible. I have both a Dana and an Alphasmart 3, I prefer the Bondi Blue 3.

With the Neo2 you can plug in a USB printer as well and it just works. The Neo2 has been the best cheap Christmas present my youngest kid ever got.

Wow this is such a smart idea for text transfer.

That is a truly unique solution to data transfer I have certainly never heard of before! :O

We had these at my school in the 90s too. We used them for writing assignments and to learn to type, but several kids with bad handwriting got to use them for everything. I was always a bit jealous. :)

Lucky your teachers actually cared about you.

1000000%. It was really the school counselor that advocated for me. I was sent to her because I was failing my classes because my teachers couldn't read my handwriting and were frustrated dealing with me "not living up to my potential."

Now that I'm older I can better understand the frustrations the teachers must have felt. If I write painfully slowly and methodically my handwriting is legible so they knew I was physically capable of writing clearly. However I would have never finished my assignments if I had to do that so most of my work was in chicken scratch. My dad was a school teacher and I know how unappreciated/overworked they can feel. I know that sitting at home in the evening going through stacks of assignments and getting to mine must have been a bit of a gut punch. "Do I try and spend 10 minutes deciphering this or not?" As an adult I'm not sure what I would choose if I was in their position.

Still, there is no doubt in my mind I have had many, many lucky breaks and advantages throughout my life.

And had the resources to act on that. I've had the impression a bunch of my teachers did care when kids were struggling, but didn't have a lot of options to help really.

I agree. I think that teachers are relatively powerless/underpaid/underappreciated/overworked (during the school year) and that makes it so hard for them to help kids that are struggling. Let alone help the kids who are struggling without interrupting the rest of the class. It reminds me of the season of The Wire where it shows just how many systemic issues there are in the education system.

My teachers were frustrated and sent me to the counselor, who lucked into a solution for me. Combined with the fact that I was lucky enough to have a computer at home to use, parents who supported me, and teachers who wanted me to succeed was what made it work. Most people aren't as fortunate.

Wow I wonder what the data transfer speed would be using that method.

It wasn't very fast. Since you could see the characters being typed I would say it was about 150-200 wpm? It seemed both very fast and painfully slow...

FYI, port speed on PS/2 was 7–12 kbit/s and Apple's was 10 kbit/s.

it was fun though, I would intentionally have it transfer at the lowest speed to watch the text I wrote earlier be re-written on the computer. somehow it gave you a better sense of accomplishment.

Yeah! It also gave me an opportunity to do a quick edit/proofread of something I wrote which I probably normally wouldn't do.

I think this is a worthy read because it looks a computing product from a user's perspective instead of a engineer or an MBA. Multi-function everything devices with the addictive potential of nicotine may be engineering marvels and business rockstars, but this person wanted to write without distraction and needed to reach into the past to find a product that met their needs.

And it's a fun exercise to take this user's need and whiteboard out a new product for them. How are those ergonomics; could we hinge the display or project it somehow in a way that will let them type longer without discomfort? How's that LCD's readability; would eink be better? Should the device be doing incremental backups to the cloud? Should it offer dictation?

Should the device be doing incremental backups to the cloud?

I think one of the key features would be no network connection.

So a Linux machine (like an old laptop) booted into single-user mode seems like a good approach here. Single shell, single application at a time, no GUI.

I have an old Linux laptop (an old iBook G4) that boots into a non graphical environment and starts emacs in text mode on login with no network connectivity by default.

It's my go-to for focus.

This is so good. Can you please share how it can be done?

This misses the simplicity though, right? $35 and this device arrives ready to record typing and goes 500h+ between charges. I have one of these. The keyboard is also surprisingly good, as in good enough that it also won't be a reason you can't be smashing out prose. I honestly think a "modern" version of this could be exactly this and there would still be a market.

But it won't run for 700 hours on 3 AA batteries.

The console unfortunately has a very limited character set. Perhaps using fbterm or a newer equivalent.

What kind of prose are you writing if your language's default character set doesn't suffice?

Asian, two langs, bullets, etc. utf8 is the bare minimum for a product in the modern world.

exactly. the pitfall of this thing is that it stores everything in RAM and it is more than possible (I've seen it many, many, many times) to lose everything in a blink if the batteries die and the internal backup battery is dead or bad.

The send button is really cool. It turns it into an HID device and spews a stream of characters out over USB. It would be pretty easy and pretty cool to make a tiny little usb device that can accept that stream every time you hit 'SEND' and append it to a file on a... more robust system.

On the topic of improving the experience, this sounds like a good opportunity for using something like 3D XPoint as the the primary / only form of RAM on the hypothetical successor.

The real key feature is the lack of access to the Internet. Having a connection just for backup etc wouldn't really break the single task machine benefits.

Networking is fine, as long as it has no browser.

As long as you can't use it to get distracted, it wouldn't matter at all, though the setup and battery draw of such a connection might impact the user experience negatively.

Maybe BTLE and an app on your phone for sync/backup would be an option? If I were using such a gadget, I'd really appreciate unobtrusive and just-works-ish features to make sure I don't lose what I've written.

One of the key features is no way for user-driven internet interactions. Backing up data in the background doesn't have to let me hop on hacker news.

It's wild what constraints can actually open up for your creativity. I love making videos but ran out of the time I used to have to spend on it. And so largely gave up trying. But I decided instead of complaining about it or trying to find more time to pile on some constraints:

- only film AND edit on my phone - only create a movie as long as a single song track. don't edit the song track besides muting clips of the song. - only spend < 60 minutes on editing the video - publish daily

So now there's little workflow pauses waiting for files to transfer. It's now impossible to spend too much time in a rat hole of an edit. Of course this limits things I'd love to achieve with it, but on the other side, I get to publish so many more ideas and feel insanely more creative with it.

Feeling stuck? Probably need a good dose of giving yourself what seems like arbitrary and ridiculously limiting constraints.

I've been getting into making electronic music and figuring out a workflow that balances these constraints is really challenging.

The most powerful, expressive, flexible, and affordable way to make music, by far, is to do everything in a DAW inside a computer. Ableton + a few software synth plug-ins is a ridiculously powerful platform to make music in. You could produce albums for the rest of your life and never run out of inspiration. And the user interface for Ableton is just an absolute delight.

But it's so powerful that it takes me forever to get anything done. It's easy to spend three hours tweaking reverb settings and never finish anything.

The other approach is to do everything in dedicated hardware with real synthesizers. It's expensive to buy gear and a hassle to wire everything up. Decide that you want delay on your bass instead of the lead? That's five minutes of futzing with cables versus a single drag-and-drop in Ableton. Want two different reverb settings for the pad and the clap? Better shell out another $300 to buy a second reverb pedal. Undo? You're lucky if your sequencer supports it.

But because the set of options is so much narrower and the cost for rethinking choices is higher, the hardware environment pushes you forward and makes you want to finish things.

The tricky part is that, to a listener, the music made on hardware often just isn't as good in many ways as that made in a DAW. Listeners today are used to lots and lots of layers and very surgical production and mixing. That's easy (but time-consuming) in a DAW, but very difficult (and expensive) in hardware.

Finding the right balance here is hard.

That is totally my experience with my hobbyist music making endeavour too!

I thought owning more plugins and getting better gear would mean I'd make lots and lots of music.

When I started out 9 years ago, I had Renoise, zero paid plugins (only free vsts like Synth1 and friends) and a cheap pair of earbuds. I didn't even understood basic things like translation, gain staging and etc, and I'd always wonder why my tracks wouldn't play correctly on other people's speakers (channels would clash frequencies, elements would downright disappear and etc).

Yet, my most creative, layered and musical (data amount, transitions and overall creativity) time was at that period. And I typed it all in using the computer keyboard. In a computer in the middle of the living room.

Now I have a huge desk with a pro usb audio dac, Yamaha Hs8 Monitors (excellent, btw), all plugged in with proper balanced xlr cables, 2 midi keyboards, an ATH-m50 pair of cans for when I can't be noisy in the Study (small kids), lots of paid plugins like Sylenth1 and Serum, a plethora of sample libraries scavenged and assembled painstakingly through the years... only the good stuff, categorized, ready to double click and peruse.

....It's been two years since the last time I actually used all this stuff

You guys are right. I need to get back to the basics.

What use is to be able to put 80+ tracks in your software because now you have a good pc that can handle that many if you can't even write the first part down because there are soooo many options and you're lost tweaking knobs.

"tweakititis" is a thing in music making.

One of my tracks, btw, if any of you got curious at what kind of music I make: https://soundcloud.com/flipbit03/ibu-kid

Yes, I'm 100% with you. I've finished two tracks using Reason and Ableton with dozens of unfinished things laying around. And those two tracks took weeks.

Meanwhile, with my little Electribe 2 and a couple of guitar pedals, I finished three tracks in like a tenth of the time and enjoyed it a hell of a lot more.

But, on the other hand, those two tracks I made on the computer are, I think, much better songs for someone to listen to.

So a big part of this dilemma is how much do I optimize for my enjoyment of the process versus the listener's enjoyment of the product? The two are not purely orthogonal. It's hard to make something people like if you're miserable doing it. But they aren't entirely aligned either, as can be witnessed by all of the many many ambient modular jams that I'm sure were fun for the artist to make but are just pointless boring noodling to the listener.

> One of my tracks, btw, if any of you got curious at what kind of music I make: https://soundcloud.com/flipbit03/ibu-kid

I like it! The filter sweep on the drums is <chef's kiss>. The overall structure is really cool. So much electronic music just has nothing interesting going on in the arrangement.

I first got into making music like, uh, 20 years ago using PlayerPro on a Mac. I was way more productive back then. Trackers are fun. But also my music was a lot shittier, so there's a trade-off. Have you talked yourself into getting a Polyend Tracker yet?

Here's my stuff:


I like putting it on YouTube because that feels less formal and less like a "release" to me. Though the downside is having to make some kind of video for each thing.

I agree 100%.

For the longest time I meant to write about the experience of working on my startup as a solo founder. I kept putting it off as it felt like a daunting task.

So I set a strong constraint for myself that I'll just talk into the camera every morning just while I have my second cup of coffee.

I'm very happy with the output and I actually enjoy it now https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCHkgOonAQd5haT8HHJhpg6g (Building a SaaS business)

I use the Alphasmart, also. FYI, there's MacOs software for transferring the text that works great. It needed a PR and Xcode, so I bundled it into a dmg and am distributing it here: https://glassdimly.com/blog/tech/macos/alphasync-macos-catal...

Thanks for the pointer. Do you use yours for prose or also for more technical (or even research) text?

My partner is a novelist and owns two of these. She's been drafting with them for a little over a year and swears by them. She says the appeal is that you can't go back and read more than a few lines so you just kind of go and then edit later. I also think the appeal is the keys themselves. Similar in feel to an old Thinkpad.

I wouldn't go as far, the typing feel isn't as good as old Thinkpads and the keys are definitely more fragile. Can't replace them, either. A device of the same form factor, even display, with an Arduino for tinkering and mechanical keys would be a godsend.

I use an Atreus [1] as my daily keyboard, and Phil has been experimenting with various forms of "cyberdeck" based on that [2,3]. Something like that, with a minimalist emacs config like [4] would be an awesome portable writing device.

1. https://atreus.technomancy.us/

2. https://atreus.technomancy.us/decklog

3. https://www.reddit.com/r/cyberDeck/comments/d2rwp1/atreus_de...

4. https://github.com/rougier/elegant-emacs

It reminds me of the TRS-80 model 100. I seem to remember reading a story linked here a while back regarding the 100 and how popular it was for journalists to write stories on, and maybe be uploaded via modem to the editor when completed? (I might be remembering this incorrectly)

You are thinking of this http://wayne.lorentz.me/This_TRS-80/

yes, thank you. I'll have to read over it again and refresh my memory.

The common setup that I've seen photos of consisted of a model 100 and an acoustic coupler set sized to fit a north american standard payphone handset. Typically a 300 baud modem to dial in to a special system operated by wire services and large newspapers and file the plaintext of the story.

ignore the cellphone part here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uQqWHLZjOjA

My dad used a Tandy Dreamwriter for many years to write on while working as a travel journalist, well into the 2000's.

Small, Z80 based, with a few lines of text on the screen and powered by AA batteries. Other journalists used to laugh at the 'old guy with the Fisher Price computer', but the instant-on and distraction free typing was a definite advantage. Pretty nice not having to worry about a fragile, expensive laptop while out in the jungle or whatever, too.

In the early 1990s I got to shoot some NCAA Div 1 basketball. Some reporters that showed up and worked from the press room often had these old TRS80 "Slab portables". They're hard to describe, but a 2 inch thick open-face notebook coputer, with a real keyboard and a small black and white screen.


Our students reporters had to take notes on paper.

In the early 90s dedicated word processing machines seemed to be pretty popular and writing papers with small lcd screens was common.

Oh cool. The Dreamwriter was based on the Amstrad NC100:

A very cool little device, at the time. I borrowed one as a kid and it seemed very exciting to be able to type things wherever I was.

I'm kinda nostalgic for that less connected era, where life moved at a slightly slower pace. Like all nostalgia, I'm leaving out the bad parts.

You make the link unclickable when you format it as code.

I am not a novelist. The problem isn't the device, it's my brain. But when I have a creative block, I take a page from the novelists that just works.

I close my eyes and start typing.

In fact, Iv'e closed my eyes just now as I write this. Touch typing obviously helps! But it allows me to hyper-focus on my writing and not on anything else. If I wanted to, I could turn off all notifications. or just turn my sound off completely with "mute". No big deal. Granted, this isn't very portable, but I could do this with my laptop. The only thing I lack is the huge battery life.

As I open my eyes now, I re-emerge into the Real World where there exists more than my writing. I fix the typos, make an observation, and click "add comment".

But not before I add one more thing: You don't need a device to write. You need a process, and you need to get out of your own head.

Although the author mentions using outdated and unsupported software to transfer the text, it isn't actually required.

These also have a mode where it just "types" the text into the program of your choice, via the usb cable. No drivers required and works with any OS that can recognize a usb keyboard.

I believe we'll see a return to more single use devices. They won't supplant smartphones.

For one, I've thought a lot about having two separate computers: one for writing code and a second for googling when I need help / slack / email / HN.

And then keeping the two devices in physically separate places.

I could accomplish this with software and accounts, but I know for myself it would be less effective.

I have that, I have a work laptop, that i dock into a displaylink set of screens to run my work dev environment. And then sitting on the desk next to me is my personal laptop. Totally different uses and the seperation is really important because i never worry about typing the wrong thing into the wrong context because the full size keyboard is attached to the work computer.

It's worked really well for me for about 3 years now. And i hardly look at my phone.

I do pretty much the same, but I have my phone sitting next to me with an external bluetooth keyboard. I'd use an iPad, but there's no Whatsapp for those currently.

>I believe we'll see a return to more single use devices.

I believe that too. I tried using my smart phone to take notes at trade-shows, and it just doesn't work well. I found having a little notebook + pen to be much faster than unlocking your phone, loading OneNote and writing down some notes.

>I found having a little notebook + pen to be much faster

I actually took a cue from the disability world for this and use a neonotes notebook and smart pen. You get the little notebook for immediate writing, but you can digitize it later and transcribe it into text for editing.

Immensely helpful tool. Just a god-send for those long technical conferences as well as day-to-day program meetings.

Based on this comment I checked out their website... and holy crap is it awful. The "Description" is just a video, there's no explanation of the difference between the different pens, all the different kits are confusing, it just seems like a mess.

Please tell me the experience of using the pen(s?) is better than the site?

Absolutely, their website is simply garbage. Their niche in my world is use with disability services and accommodations in colleges. Notetakers will use their pens to take notes for folks who need that service, and then send the transcription to the student in question. They're nice because you can record the lecture to accompany notes for classes where the context of the notes is important (higher level math and english especially). You can then play-back the notes as they're written down along with the audio. Super handy for that.

I started using one just to test it for our students. They're not getting mine back.

It's nice because you can change the weight and color of the ink electronically, highlight, and record audio to go along with it. It uses bluetooth to your phone, where you can transcribe, add tags to filter and search, and generally organize your notes in a very short amount of time. You can edit your writing on the computer or on your phone, so you can remove sensitive notes for individual people and share the page with very little work. It automatically recognizes separate notebooks and organizes them appropriately. It can integrate to my calendar; that way calendar events are added automatically if I write them on the notebook paper. The same for contacts via e-mail or phone - it can automatically add them to your contacts if you write them down. You can e-mail several file types straight from the pen using an e-mail link on the physical paper (small picture of an envelope). It can automatically backup to several cloud providers as well. There are picture editing and video illustration options as well, but I am not familiar with them.

They're pretty intuitive. My handwriting is garbage and it does a good job of learning what I'm writing based on the first few pages of transcription changes that I've made.

I use mine for all meetings and notes in my day-to-day. It is invaluable for those of us with garbage memories. I assign my team tasks in different colors and send the .pdf page out when necessary.

100% their website is crap.

> And then keeping the two devices in physically separate places.

I've recently gotten to experience this somewhat, although on a single machine. With the whole "no in-person meetings" thing, I've been working out at my cabin with LTE tethering as my only Internet connection. Since I've got a limited amount of bandwidth, I spend most of the time off-line. It seems like the (admittedly miniscule) activation energy to set up the tether connection is just enough to make me be thoughtful about when I'm connected to the Internet, and it's really refreshing to not have all the notifications popping up all the time.

If you use Windows, a similar experience can be attained by choosing the "taskbar where window is open" option in the "show taskbar buttons on:" setting of the Taskbar Settings window. this only shows the apps you have open on each monitor on that monitors taskbar. It provides me with a sense of using two separate computers, one for slack/email and one for code, while still having the convenience of copy and pasting between "computers".

I made another comment here about owning one of these.

Yeah, there is a really compelling idea in single use tech/computers, especially for creative use. AlphaSmart really is distraction free to an extreme and instant on, writing where you left off in like three seconds is amazing.

Problem though is that this is a cottage industry at best and any new devices will be priced in the same range as a POS laptop.. so why buy it? $600 for a new Justwrite? That’s a little dear.

agreed, unless you need long battery life any old Thinkpad for 100-150$ will do same job


I now leave wifi turned off on my main computer except when I need to transfer a file or edit a web page, and I have a separate laptop on the other side of the room that I use to check mail or browse the web. (Irony of ironies, it's the computer Steve Huffman wrote Reddit on. When Steve and Alexis auctioned off their old laptops for charity, I bought them for the Y Combinator museum.)

He added a note to the top, however, saying that he gave up on his method.

Seems similar to this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cambridge_Z88

The Cambridge Computer Z88 is an A4-size, lightweight, portable Z80-based computer with a built-in combined word processing/spreadsheet/database application called PipeDream (functionally equivalent to a 1987 BBC Micro ROM called Acornsoft View Professional),[1] along with several other applications and utilities, such as a Z80-version of the BBC BASIC programming language.

I bought one of these new when they came out and it was life changing. The BASIC was surprisingly good and I got almost as much out of the spreadsheet as I did the word processor.

One area that was a disappointment is really doesn't like x-ray machines (or maybe the other bits in the scanning process — magnets?). I asked for hand inspection at LHR, they refused, and putting it through the scanner corrupted what was stored in memory. Only upside is doing something again is usually quicker and better than the first time.

Seems like any laptop booting a minimal Linux distro straight into a similarly simplistic text editor should be able to provide the same experience. Could be carried around on a USB stick, effectively turning any available computer into an AlphaSmart.

Yes, but Alphasmart was self-contained, and had 100s of hours of battery life.

Except for the part about "Three AA batteries power it for up to 700 hours". Not having to carry a power adapter nor worrying about battery life is really nice.

I've always liked WordGrinder. It runs in the terminal/console!


That's what I use! It's pretty minimal by modern standards but might still be too full-featured for AlphaSmart simulation.

I like this idea. Like having a grub boot option for GhostWriter (https://www.linux.com/news/ghostwriter-linux-distro-writers/) or something similar.

Dell used to include a minimal Arm/Linux system inside some of their laptops as an instant-on, long battery life option. No idea whether anyone actually bought them though.

Got any more info on this? Like what models? Sounds really interesting to me.

Dell Latitude On I think:


Doesn’t look like it ever took off - I helped port an office suite to it.

Cool! Just found some youtube videos of it.

Makes sense. Single-purposes devices are kind of cool. It's why eBook readers have a place in a world where tablets exist.

I don't know about AlphaSmart though - the screen is too cramped. I suspect after the initial euphoria of finding another way to write wears off, the author will get tired of the limitations and go back to writing on a tablet or PC. Having said that, maybe there is a market for a writing-only device, similar to a read-only eBook reader.

I've been using one for long-form writing for about a decade now. Haven't gotten tired of it yet.

Cool. I'm not a writer so I don't know what works and what doesn't. If it works for you and the author - great!


The other device I often use is a Thinkpad A20m running Linux. The only web browser on it is lynx (which I mostly use or Wikipedia).

> maybe there is a market for a writing-only device, similar to a read-only eBook reader.

The article mentions just such a device[0]

[0] https://getfreewrite.com/collections/writing-tools

The screen is not really relevant in this case since the point is to get words onto the page. It is to avoid procrastinating enabling distractions in this author's case, but I have also heard of authors turning off their monitor while writing to avoid premature editing. Other authors find archaic software most effective, while some use modern applications that are designed to display as much or as little information as they need.

It seems as though writing is a highly individualized process.

For people wanting something like this, there are still plenty of Apple’s EMate devices available on EBay: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EMate_300

These people have a somewhat modern alternative with mechanical keyboard and eink screen. It has wifi and that's it. From watching the reviews I understood that a major drawback is that no editing is possible on the device itself and it is very expensive (600$)


I personally use occasionally an android based ebook reader with a bluetooth keyboard (Onyx BOOX Poke 2 with logitech k380). Distraction free writing is a thing.

I picked up a bluetooth keyboard that folds to a size that fits easily in my pocket and paired with my phone that turned out to be a really good writing experience. Writing apps on the phone still default to taking over the full screen and using the phone's "Do Not Disturb" mode was enough to get a good distraction free environment. (On the phone at least, one day in November I was writing in an Irish pub. There was a football game on I was half interested in. A bagpipe band showed up to play a set. The power went out for an hour or so and I was writing under candle light. Plenty of interesting, weird distractions outside of my phone were had.)

This feels like the sort of thing people buy to kid themselves that the problem with their writing lies outside their own brains.

Don't get me wrong, I love the idea of a dedicated writing device but, for me as someone who writes pretty much for the entire working day, inconvenience is the biggest bar to writing other than lack of sleep. If I can't edit on the device, or find the text in my usual GSuite/Office 365 spaces, then maybe I'd be better off with a $40 dictaphone and Rev.com.

> This feels like the sort of thing people buy to kid themselves that the problem with their writing lies outside their own brains.

I posted elsewhere in this thread about this, so to summarize: I've been at a cabin using LTE tethering, and am consciously turning my Internet connection off and on.

I fully realize that the problem is in my brain, but putting up just that tiny of a barrier is enough of an effective "hack" to change the way I work in a positive way. Because there's no connection most of the time I'm working, there's no HN, there's no email popping up, there's no Slack notifications, and there's no "falling down a rabbit hole searching for a solution". I'm spending way more time writing down/rubber ducking the problem I'm trying to solve and coming up with the solution myself (which generally results in a much better understanding of the problem)

I have an kindle fire keyboard with bluetooth, writing in Jotterpad. I switched to the AlphaSmart NEO2 and it's far superior both in price, time-to-write, and lack of distractions for initial drafts. I chose it after being stalked by relentless $400 FreeWrite ads for months. My wife googled "freewrite alternatives." I have also used apps like "Concentrate" and all the other distraction-free apps.

I have also considered minimal linux distros but realize that it's not going to be much better than my kindle fire.

For editing, I would still use my kindle fire.

I use a custom gulp-based build process from markdown files that I wrote which spits out manuscript format, and the NEO works fine with that. Of course it can only hold 9 scenes at once.

I'm using an old asus transformer with external powerbank because its battery has crapped out. It's one of the worst devices I've ever possessed but still gets the job done.

Now if I only knew where to get antiglare screen protection that actually works. I renewed it recently and the new one is not anti-glare at all. :/

Sometimes I wonder how often these "productivity tips" mask a deeper feeling of indifference or rejection of the task entirely. People spend hours finding the right tools for a task thinking it will make them want to do it instead of examining the task itself and their feelings around it.

To a certain extent I agree. If you were really passionate about something like this you would make it happen regardless of your circumstances. Think about kids who grow up in impoverished island nations who make it to the MLB through sheer perseverance.

The difference is unless you're already wealthy or talented, you _need_ to write effectively to compete in the modern 'white collar' workforce.

Writing something that people want to read is very hard. People don't read for the sake of reading, they read to learn something or feel something. It can take years of consistent practice to evoke anger, sadness, or laughter through writing. Think about how many books, workshops, and college courses there are on writing itself. It is sort of like programming, it is a skill that anyone can learn given enough time and it has very little barrier to entry. This makes it extremely competitive, so a lot of people need to exploit whatever edge they can get.

I still remember as a child playing on a 1980s word processor that my mom had. It had maybe a 4 line display, with an ugly greenish backlighting and no battery whatsoever. It did however have a hinge mechanism so that little text only screen would fold over the keyboard.

These dedicated word processor devices were quite popular and cheap. Built-in printer and floppy drive, shaped somewhat like a typewriter.

We had two in my house, even though we also had general purpose computers. I think they were still in use into the early 90s for school reports.

For the mechanical keyboard lovers out there, there is a Cherry MX compatible AlphaSmart 3000 PCB: https://geekhack.org/index.php?topic=91504.0

One of my writer friends accomplishes a similar workflow by just having a writing account on his laptop, where everything is disabled except a text editor.

I was given a first generation Alphasmart in middle school and told to use it for all my assignments since I had such terrible handwriting. At the time I thought it was incredibly cool, but in retrospect I wonder if I fell prey to some ill-thought technology in the classroom program. Perhaps it would have been better if they had just helped me fix my handwriting.

Alphasmart HN thread from 2017 here, with comments by co-founder Ketan Kothari and Freewrite's founder too:


Given the amount of work going into custom DIY mechanical keyboards, it's surprising that there aren't DIY solutions out there. All you need is a $5 MCU (think ESP32) and a cheap display. Would make a fun side project :)

One problem is that cheap LCD displays are not easy to source. E.g., the largest old school lcds I find are 4x20 characters, which is a bit confining.

There seem to be tons of TFT options out there on the cheap, but they're probably not great in terms of eye strain and power consumption.

If price is no object, then e-ink displays seem a great choice, e.g. $70 for a 7.5'' display: https://www.banggood.com/Waveshare-7_5-Inch-E-ink-Screen-Mod...

Many of these larger epaper displays are meant for very low refresh speeds - I'm talking 5 seconds plus. This one takes 6 seconds.

The Psion series got some legendary status for its attention to detail. The Psion 5 had backlight, was running on batteries (25-35h battery life) and it has a slot for Compact Flash Cards. The keyboard is foldable. If you find an adapter for the CF cards they can still be used today for writing similarly to what is described here with the AlphaSmart.


Loved that thing! Batteries lasted forever and the LCD was perfect for the job of being focused. My hands are almost too big to touch type on it so notes often needed editing when transferred to a desktop. Typing on it is kind of like writing with Graffiti on a Palm, it takes some practice and then all of a sudden you're pretty good at it.

If you liked the Psion you might like its successor the Gemini from Planet Computers (https://store.planetcom.co.uk/products/gemini-pda-1). Same awesome keyboard.

Oh, I really fancied the Gemini. A tiny Linux computer the size of a Psion 5 sounded pretty awesome to me as a former Psion lover. I'm not unhappy that I did not buy it in the end though - battery life, and it comes with all the smart phone distractions - the Psion 5 used to be my distraction free writer, not a terminal access device.

If you need to frequently do admin tasks (e.g. config file and script editing) it's still a pretty interesting choice.

Who's tried coding on one? Own up :-) You could bang out 500 lines of JS without stopping and then upload it to your PC and see if it runs...

To maximize focus I've used the "One system user per project" trick. It works well because now everything in your desktop has to do with your project (files/notes/calendar/bookmarks/etc)

I've been able to ship a few projects using this trick.

Not sure who was (Maybe Seth Godin?) who recommended using a different computer, which may even work better.

Along these lines I've been thinking a nice device would be an e-ink reader that _only_ loads Wikipedia. (You know, for kids!)

Similar idea: https://youtu.be/R63x2TXm0s8

It's a raspberry Pi, with an e-ink screen, and battery to provide an 'offline' repository of information, including Wikipedia.

You might be interested in the WikiReader, but not actually. You could probably do a Wikipedia export to a good e-ink reader and disable networking and call it a day?

https://www.osnews.com/story/131180/the-alphasmart-dana-in-2... has a few more technical details of the device for those interested.

It runs PalmOS!

> I found a free text editor specifically written for the dana’s wide screen (SiEd, dana version) on SourceForge in alpha, and left abandoned 4 years ago. That editor will sometimes crash the whole system...

Nice to know my crappy code is still causing problems all these years later.

I use Amazon Basics keyboard ($13), super comfortable for coding. Bought it just for fun after reading this thread: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20866319

On a related note, I've been imagining this product idea, as an educational toy that would help kids practice typing and spelling: A small physical keyboard with a small (but larger than the AlphaSmart's) attached color display, which does nothing but present a single picture of the thing that you've typed, and show nothing if the current input is misspelled or otherwise not found. I'm thinking that it would have an internal (no internet connection) visual dictionary similar to the one that comes with the Scribblenauts game and would be rugged enough for 3 year old kids to play with.

Do you happen to know of any existing product like this, or the feasibility of building one?

I don't know if they have something specifically like what you want, but VTech has a whole range of educational toys with keyboards and assorted phonics and spelling tutorials.

If you do a search for "vtech abc" and variations you'll find a huge number of different types of devices.

Wow I didn't know they were still around. My first PC was a VTech XT clone!

Honestly every kid I know has a chromebook or at least access to a laptop. It was in their curriculum to learn to type and they picked it up quickly.

There are a bunch of toy laptops for toddlers too. I dont think there is any space inbetween.

> I dont think there is any space inbetween.

I suppose my proposed target audience is 3-5 year olds. Do you think there wouldn't be enough interest?

I personally try to keep toddlers off electronics, but I imagine others might like it. https://www.amazon.com/s?k=toddler+laptop has a bunch.

In terms of age ranges, toddler generally refers to 1-3 years old, while 3-5 (which I'm interested in) would be pre-school. But going from your Amazon query did lead me to find this one, which seems to be the closest to what I'm thinking of. Thanks :)


I toyed with the possibility of something like this, in my case I was thinking more in an app with a similar functionality. Maybe more oriented to simple phrases than single words.

I wonder if creating a different OS account on the same day-to-day work laptop with limited access to app, games and no internet would trigger the same "Pavlovian response" the article talks about. Did anyone tried this approach?

Reminds me of the Radio Shack portable:


There were also a few simple word processors by Brother I think.

This is a very vintage & romantic way of going at it.

If you don't have a way to acquire one of these devices, a similar solution can be implemented with a Bluetooth keyboard (Like the Logitech K480,U$D 35 @ Amazon, and has a slot for tables or phones) and a tablet or your phone (Or _a_ phone).

You'll need an app for that, and my current choice for writing in my tablet is Joplin [1] that has apps for all the OSes and phones, and can be hooked with different ways of cloud storing for your files (Like Dropbox or NextCloud)

[1] https://joplinapp.org/

You missed the main point of the OP: the AlphaSmart lacks the distractions (temptations to procrastinate) of a smartphone or tablet.

Do you never find yourself using your smartphone or tablet to procrastinate after intending to use it for a productive purpose?

Yes. That's actually why my tablet (That I use mainly for reading) doesn't have my main Gmail account linked to it, plus I always use it on airplane model.

My take was that not that many people will have the choice to get their hand on one of these devices (I, for one, can't).

I use a Hermes Rocket (typewriter) for similar reasons: similar form factor, does not require electricity, saves your work to paper rather than electronic storage. About $50 used.

The keyboard is mechanical, as is the rest of the device.

That thing looks kind of like a TRS-80 model 100


Requisite HN comment but also a genuine one too: Is there any chance any of these Freewrites, Alphasmarts or machines from Japan support, or could be hacked to support, emacs keybindings?

There’s a guy who reflashed Pomera DM200 to run XEmacs, though at that point it’s just an ARM laptop with no mouse

I've recently bought a handful of these (the more basic Pro and 2000), with the aim of replacing the insides with an ESP32, but otherwise do the same job. There's a community of people, weirdly on Flickr, who provided enough motivation to buy one.


The Alphasmart! We did typing class with that back in the early 00's. The IR beam to the printer felt like science fiction back in the day.

We had these in school when I was young. I loved them. I could carry one around the playground and write a story. When you got back to the classroom, you transferred it to the computer by hooking it up as a keyboard. I’ve been dreaming about getting one for a while. The passive matrix LCD works well in sunlight and the batteries last a long time.

In the very late 80s, a co-worker of mine, a corporate-productions scriptwriter, gave up his Mac and started using a Neo2-like device -- it looked very similar and used AA batteries. I remember him crowing about how it was a game-changer for him, and that it made him a much more productive, and better, writer.

I also recall thinking he was nuts.

tangentially related, i've been playing a bit with a brother ep-44 (see, e.g., https://darrengoossens.wordpress.com/2018/08/09/serial-termi...).

i've mostly been running it as a linux tty, but in spite of being designated a 'personal electronic printer', it has some memory and editing features so could pass as a portable word processor.

unfortunately its keyboard is quite unsatisfactory, so i'm considering acquiring a https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silent_700 also for use as a tty.

i would be interested in further suggestions along these lines.

Why use medium.com with this login-wall?

Probably because it's free and easy.

This reminds me of the Tandy 100, which was widely used by news reporters even into the early 80s.

That device looks fantastic for what the author wants. Another approach if you need a little more flexibility in the software might be using a deliberately limited old laptop. (I'd rather type in emacs, for example.) Battery life would be a lot worse, obviously.

I own a neo2. They are nice for first drafts or noodling with words. There really is something in the idea of dumbing down tech to get things done. I have written quite a bit on it but three things have held me back from being a power user:

1. It uses a dated, proprietary cable to transfer your writing to a computer. Worst part of this is that the AlphaSmart re-types your writing so if you’ve written the 50000 word max then it will take some time to save it. The process is just annoying enough to trigger procrastination.

2. If the battery comes out then you’ve lost everything. This isn’t such a dealbreaker since I want a dumber word processor to get out of my way but I think it makes the keyboard a little too dumb.

3. Honestly, it’s not sexy. It’s huge, too. And people with no interest in writing just don’t get it at all. The looks people give me when I’ve used it in the public are like “what insane Jesus cult stuff is this guy writing on that??” Nothing crazy here, just hunting bugs on TempleOS.

I see a market for a machine like this but done better. The just write or whatever branding they are using checks a lot of boxes but the price is insane.

I think I’ll just rig up Atom to work a little bit more like Scrivener.

> It uses a dated, proprietary cable to transfer your writing to a computer.

I use the cable that came with mine, but isn't it just a regular USB A->B cable, available for $0.50 at any thrift store?

Haha, yeah I see that you’re right. I never realized it before. That gives me a little peace of mind if I ever lose or break it.


I remember something like this being announced a few years ago called The Hemingway. This is what I found when I DDG'ed The Hemingway typing machine.

Yeah these are the guys I was referring to when I wrote Just Write. Their prices are still insane. Plus are they ever going to release the traveller? I’m pretty sure it’s been listed as presale for 2 years now. My neo2 was $40 CDN with shipping. Paying like 20x that for something which is just a tad bit nicer is kind of wrong. You’ve either got to be a working novelist to justify the cost or like someone whose been sitting on the same handful of story premises for 20 years but never finished anything you know like I’m gonna throw down $700 on this thing because I’m actually really very serious this time about writing a book. No thanks. Laptop will do here.

It was called the Hemingwrite when they first did the kickstarter. They've since done a laptop-style version. I have the original from the kickstarter and I enjoy it.

This is interesting but I wonder whether no fewer and fewer folks remembers the pleasure of writing by hand with a nice fountain pen in a nice notebook. Not being able to edit also forces one into a different writing mode.

I've never had good handwriting, and I find the process makes my hand tired pretty quickly, so for me there is nothing to remember.

I hear you but this is true of typing on a keyboard for some:RSI. Last time I was doing a lot of hand writing was in college and my writing has gotten way worse since because of lack of practice. But, I remember not having to think much about writing, my hand had a brain of its own.

GRR Martin still writes in DOS with WordStar: https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-27407502

A very similar productivity trick, to having a separate 'office space' when working at home. Triggers the mind to enter work mode, and minimizes distractions.

Of course it does but for many the problem is affordability so I'll take it as a nice to have luxury.

How safe is your text on this? What if this thing breaks or has some glitch? Is there some form of cloud backup? I'd be terrified of losing data to this thing.

Nope, if it breaks, it's lost. However, I don't really think that's a practical issue. The workflow is going to be one where you write in chunks, and then copy over to your computer.

After all, part of the appeal is that you can't edit anything beyond what you're currently typing right now, like a typewriter. However, you still need to edit eventually, and that naturally forces you to move data occasionally to your computer.

And even if it does break, you probably remember what you wrote enough to recreate it anyway.

If you're writing hundreds of pages at a time, it's probably a mess anyway.

If you read the article, you’ll learn the only method of getting data off the device is via usb connection to a host computer.

You caught me, I didn't read the whole thing.

Based on the article, it's simple enough to just use your computer to back up the text. They seem to adopt a flow of "write for 30-60 minutes, upload to a computer".

It also seems stupid-simple enough that losing data will require a pretty major event (i.e. more than just a power loss).

It seems like if you transfer over your work after every writing session it shouldn't be a serious issue.

Are there any OS projects that would turn a computer into a word processor like this? Seems like a nice way to bring an old laptop back to life.

ThinkPad X40 is the perfect machine for this. I’d love to see a dedicated disro with only writing + simple local and/or network backup.

for similar reasons, I swear by my Remarkable tablet.

The keyboard in question is a 1993 AlphaSmart device

The author is using a 2007 model from eBay, but it is cool to see the technology from my childhood classroom almost 30 years ago persist. I definitely wrote a few elementary essays on these in my day.

My first thought when looking at this thing was neck pain.

Personally, I would be in rough shape if I used this thing for more than 15 minutes.

I actually don’t look at the screen when I’m typing on mine. I’m like zoning out when I use it.

I write my first drafts on my MacBook in a similar way where I turn the screen off and type away.

Wow that's pretty cool insight to a writer's process. I'm not sure that ever would have occurred to me

If you’re thinking of trying it, I recommend having soft targets for scenes or chapters. Some kind of direction. Also it takes a bit of time for the engine to start running. At first it’s kind of weird and you’ll be prompting yourself with like “what’s next what’s next” anxiety but if you tough it out for about 15 minutes then the dream logic kicks in. All these cool things float up from the subconscious. Lots of typos,too.

Serious question: does anyone writing professionally or as a hobby use voice input as main input device? Why?

I wonder how you could modify one of these to be more suited for writing code.

Upgrade to a laptop, boot up into a stripped down verison of your OS

Not what Im looking for, a laptop is both too overkill and to underkill on the battery life

Tired of links to paid content, pay walls, Admiral anti-ad blocks.

Hardware is a useful abstraction.

Digital minimalism!

Posting paywalled-articles in HN should be highly discouraged...

Nah, I don't only want to read the products of charity and advertising.

Medium has a very weird paywall where you are rewarded for clearing your tracking cookies after every visit. They strongly encourage you to sign in, and if you do, it will say "you're out of free articles". But if you sign out and clear cookies, you get to read the article for free.

I guess this is better than "you don't have an account, no article for you!" but it still strikes me as odd.

I think folks here might enjoy the idea of cyberdecks


Am I doing something wrong, or is that subreddit essentially empty?

Also, aren't cyberdecks the complete opposite to these devices? They strike me as a multi-purpose device like any laptop, but in a different form factor and maybe a bit more optimized for hardware hacking?

I linked to the wrong sub, there shouldn't be an s on the end

I would say that cyberdecks can be whatever you want. I've seen some single-purpose form factors like network testing or radio telemetry before

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