Writing Machines

September 8, 2020

TODO: add photos of the devices

As part of my intermittent but long-standing quest for the perfect solution to electronic writing, I recently revisited some of my old devices, and acquired a new one. The objective of this quest is to make writing technical papers, letters, autobiographical notes, and blog posts accessible when not sitting in front of a proper computer; generally speaking it translates to 1) a decent keyboard, 2) a display of at least a few lines by more-than-a-few columns, 3) compact size, 4) low power consumption, 5) nearly-instantaneous startup, 6) inexpensive enough to tolerate being used in public settings where it might be damaged or “borrowed”, like e.g. a bar. These desirements overlap quite a bit with the specs for the “barputer” as previously discussed, but unlike the barputer, this hypothetical device doesn’t need to be able to build code or do anything more sophisticated than a text editor, and it’s probably more important to have extended battery life.

Rummaging around in my box ‘o old electronic stuff, I found a couple good candidates: a Palm T|X and a Palm Pilot Pro. The T|X wouldn’t power up, but I knew it worked fine when I put it in the box. A new LiIon battery restored it to good health, although finding all the cables for it was a chore – but they were in another box (of old cables!) and pretty quickly it was syncing to a Raspberry Pi. I had a folding keyboard for this device, and it’s surprisingly pretty good to type on. Not great, it has some quirks in functions mapped to keys, but it’s a tidy little package. The keyboard uses its own batteries to power a tiny IR LED that beams the keystrokes into the Palm. This is an energy-efficient approach, which is good because the T|X has a brightly backlit color LCD display. It does have an ancient Bluetooth stack and WiFi too, but the WiFi’s support for encryption is also quite old and I haven’t had a lot of luck getting it to connect to anything I have now; my recollection is that both the WiFi and the Bluetooth were kind of power-hungry, so it’s probably just as well that I don’t need to use them. A little text-editing experiment on the T|X went fine, it would be a perfectly reasonable device (well, pair of devices) to use for the purpose except for somewhat limited battery life and the need to unfold and deploy the tricky little keyboard.

The original Palm Pilot, surprisingly, still works like a champ! The same syncing software I set up for the T|X also works on the Pilot. This thing runs on a couple of AAA cells, and since the LCD display has no backlight, it’s quite visible in the sunlight and is thrifty on power. No radios in this device, either, to consume current. I’m not sure just how long it will run on a set of batteries, but it’s pretty good. I have a keyboard for this one, too – it doesn’t do the fancy folding party tricks of the T|X’s keyboard, but it’s bombproof! The key action is OK, and there’s a little shelf for the Pilot to sit on. It uses the Pilot’s accessory/syncing port for comms, which requires an app on the PDA in order to work, but the power use by the keyboard doesn’t seem too bad… it just means the serial port has to be active all the time. As with the T|X, it’s a viable solution, and probably with better battery life, but there’s still the need to tote two objects and deploy the keyboard when you want to do anything more than jot a quick note. But it’s got some pretty good retro cache’ now that it’s over 20 years old!

Having revisited these fun old devices, I was quite curious about all the good things people have written about the AlphaSmart devices. A few years back, I was looking at the kickstarter that was to become the FreeWrite, and there was clearly a big community of writers who had found the AlphaSmart units to be ridiculously affordable counterpoints to the expensive FreeWrite. They’re still popular - and have even gone up a bit in price since I last looked, since they haven’t been made in many years and are now seeing a resurgence in popularity, perhaps because of the marketing efforts of FreeWrite? The Neo has been called “the missing link for novelists and serious writers” – high praise indeed! Looking at the specs for the AlphaSmart, and comments from the lively user groups, I figured I’d try a Neo2. The Dana is based on the Palm, with all the pros and cons that entails… the ultimate combination of simplicity and improbably long battery life converge in the Neo though, and the Neo2 was the pinacle of that model. I found one in very good condition on Amazon, and soon had it sitting in my lap.

It’s everything it was cracked up to be, but there are always some nits to pick. It’s a chunky, clunky thing to haul around, even though it’s as close to indestructible as you would expect for a device built to survive elementary school classrooms. The keyboard is pretty good – there’s apparently an improvement over the older models, and I find it to be better than many laptops I’ve used. The LCD display has excellent contrast, albeit no backlight; but there’s a nice hack of the USB port you can do, to add your own external lamp if you want to write in the dark. The batteries – 3 AA’s – last effectively forever. 500-800 hours is estimated As I discovered the hard way, these are not the only batteries in the Neo! There is also a coin cell inside, that serves to preserve the memory when you change batteries. If your AlphaSmart has been around for a decade or more, likely living a mostly maintenance-free existence in some classroom, that coin cell is very very likely to be on the verge of dead. The consequence of that battery dying is loss of all your work and corruption of the firmware; it’s not hard to replace the battery and I recommend doing it straight away if you buy one of these. You get nearly instant on, it takes maybe a second to be writing, and equally fast access to 8 files via function keys. You can have many other files stored, and assign them to one of those keys. The only practical downside I’ve found, is that transferring those files is a pain. You plug in a USB cable, and the Neo emulates a keyboard! You can actually use it as a keyboard in this mode. To transfer a file, you hit the “send” key and it types it in to whatever app you have open on your computer, and not very quickly. There’s an option to change the serial comm rate (Cmd-option-S in case you are looking for it), but it maxes out at what, in moden terms, feels like a slow crawl. While it makes its way through your big text file, remember not to click anywhere on your computer – if you change focus, guess where all the text is going to go? And you’ll have to start over. You can transfer files the other direction, but it requires AlphaSmart’s manager software, which is not a paragon of design and never was even when it was new. How a teacher managed a classroom full of students’ writing assignments with this thing, I do not understand… they did have a wireless system, but I haven’t found any info on whether it’s possible to make it do anything useful in a modern sense. I’d be tempted to build a little serial-to-Bluetooth dongle, but I don’t think that would actually solve the basic problem, which is that the AlphaSmart pre-dates our current expectation of syncing. I don’t mind having to initiate the sync, but you have to transfer the entire file, every time, letter by letter, and it’s one-way. Despite the annoyances, it’s a hardy device, with a good keyboard, and checks all the boxes at a very low cost. I’ve been having lots of fun with it.

What I’d really like is an open-source version of the Neo. Imagine what we could do, if we could hack the thing properly… I looked a bit at building an equivalent device. The Neo has a pretty capable microcontroller, but technology has marched on and there are better ones now, with more features and faster, for cheap. The big dot-matrix LCD might be harder to come by – that’s not what people want today. You can get much fancier displays now of course, but they are power-hungry and don’t serve the purpose as well. Perhaps the biggest obstacle is actually the keyboard, at least as a DIY project. One could go with the nice Cherry switches or clones and a custom PCB, but that quickly turns into “real money”. Not least is the software. There are oodles of text editor options if you’re running an actual OS (e.g. on a Raspberry Pi or some such) but the boot time and power consumption don’t line up with the concept for this device; it needs to be a microcontroller and I have yet to find a single decent editor written for a micro. Really, it shouldn’t be that hard - and the Neo is an existence proof - but the open-source community doesn’t seem to have produced one yet. I leave it as an exercise to the reader…

Writing Machines - September 8, 2020 - chad r. frost