Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The Great Laptop Debate, Revisited

Many moons ago, I posted an entry comparing the advantages and disadvantages of laptops versus writing in longhand in a notebook. At that time, I decided that writing longhand was narrowly the better way to go, mainly because the laptop doesn't really allow you to write anywhere due to its limited battery life, heat generation (so it's can't really be used in your lap), weight, and the fact that it could get stolen at any time. After subscribing to the OWW SFF list, however, I was clued into a third option: the AlphaSmart Neo portable word processor. I remember when the first electric typewriters would store text and let you edit it on a little two-line LCD display (this was before the ago of personal computers). Once you got the text the way you wanted it, you just hit "print" and the typewriter would type out your paper. Pretty cool for a low-tech world, but it was still big and heavy, paper was difficult to align, you couldn't really do any formatting, etc.

The Neo reminds me of these old electric typewriters, but they've carried the idea into the digital age. Neo runs Palm OS, so it is very stable and has good editing capabilities. There's even a spell-checker installed. All you need to do is to sync up to your PC through the USB cable and you've got a plain text file ready for final formatting. Neo's memory can easily handle a 50k-word novel, even though it only has 512k of memory. It runs on regular AA batteries, but the batteries will last for over 700 hours of use. That means I can go over six months without changing the batteries! It can store only eight files, but since I'm rarely working on more articles than that, it's not such a big deal. Because it uses Palm OS, it is instant-on and left in the same state as when it was turned off, just like any PDA. That's a huge boon, since my laptop takes a minute or more to power up and the same to power down. That makes working in short flashes (such as when you are out around town) very difficult. Because of the lower power and lack of a big screen, the machine doesn't run hot at all. My only real complaint with it is that I'm not sure its six lines of text is enough to keep up with where I am in the story, although Neo users say it's plenty for first drafts, just not really good for editing. Since we are comparing Neo to writing longhand, that's not really an issue -- by definition you can't get much more than a first draft when writing longhand.

Neo has a big sister called Dana. It has more memory, a brighter screen (with 13 lines instead of 6), and is basically a fully-featured PDA. It has a larger screen than most PDAs, and it will use all of the regular Palm OS programs. There is also a wireless version that will let you surf the Internet or transfer files wirelessly. Unlike Neo, which is strictly plain text, Dana stores its files as Rich Text, which can show any font or formatting and can be read directly by MS Word. It also has a backlight, something Neo lacks. The big disadvantage is that you only get about 20 hours of use out of the batteries, so it has to be plugged in periodically. 20 hours isn't bad at all, of course, but I do like the appeal of essentially never having to charge the Neo. The big thing the Neo has going for it, though, is its simplicity. There are no Palm OS games. No web surfing. No distractions from the writing, and that's a very good thing. It does only one thing, and does it well. Someone said that Henry David Thoreau would have use the Neo for his writing, since it was simplicity itself, something he stressed as necessary for daily living. Truth be told, I don't want all the extra bells and whistles Dana has. I have a great laptop that does all of that. The Neo would let me write anywhere in the house (right now I'm still tethered to the power outlet, even though I have wireless Internet) or out around town. No email interuptions either. It's sort of like taking the digital phone off of the hook, and that can be a powerful thing for writers like us.

Most of my work needs to be converted to plain text before it can be e-submitted, which is sometimes a pain. If Notepad had a spell-checker, I'd probably just use that and save myself the hassle. When the file is ready for print submission, I just load it into MS Word, set formatting to double space and font to Courier (if it's not already), and I'm good to go. Neo runs $250 new, so if I can ever find one on eBay, I should be able to pick up a used one for $100-150. This will be on my Christmas list. :) In the meantime, eBay has a number of AlhpaSmart Pro keyboards for as little as $10, so that may be a good way to go for the short term. The AS Pro is just a keyboard with a memory. You can edit files just like with the Neo, although there is no spell checker. When the file is ready to be transferred, you just connect it to the PC keyboard connector, open up Word or Notepad, and hit "Send." Just like those old electric typewriters, it then "types" your document into the PC application, just as if you had typed it directly. It can even be used as your everyday keyboard. It only stores 64 pages of text, which is nowhere close to what I would need, but for ten bucks, it just might do me until Christmas. It certainly seems to have all of the advantages of writing longhand, but is easier on my writing hand and also much easier to edit on the PC later (since I don't have to re-type it). Heck, since I've got Blogger for Word, I can even write these entries on it, send the text into Word, and upload it from there!

Ain't technology grand?

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