So the MacBook Pro is finally all ‘Zenned out’ and ready to serve as a dedicated writing machine. It’s a luxury. I don’t deserve it in the least. But it is a necessary luxury for my productivity.
I do need a machine for doing the grinding everyday ticky-tack work on the web, in spreadsheets, in databases, making charts and graphs, VOIPing in one way or another with clients and co-workers and committee members and all that jazz.
That’s what the desktop (probably the last one I’ll ever build, and a fabulous Hackintosh so far) is for.
But I’m a writer. That’s what pays the bills and has since 1997. And I struggle, as in struggle to actually write productivity in a computing environment where all of those distractions are present.
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Thoughts on writing tools at this stage in my career:
Tandy Model 102—One of the coolest writing tools ever, and great for flow and distraction-free writing. The age of the technology and the unavailability of replacements or spare parts make it implausible for serious work anymore. To get your text out of the damned thing, you need to connect to a PC via an RS-232 null modem cable, then transfer as raw ASCII using a terminal emulator. Try doing that with any modern machine without wanting to beat your head against the wall. Awesome keyboard, though.
Apple Newton 2100—Same problem in many ways, only worse. At least you can get the data off of a Model 102 anymore if you’re really dedicated. All that you have to do for a Newton 2100 is get ahold of an old Motorola 68k Mac (from the Mac II series circa the late ’80s and early ’90s), download the ROM to a file, compile a Mac 68k emulator (BasiliskII), manage to compile the aging Netatalk codebase on your host side, try to remember how to configure it, track down a copy of Mac System 7, then install it in your emulator and transfer the files from Newton to emulator, then from emulator via virtualized network interface to your host—oh, and then do file conversion. In short, no. It’s a pity—the Newton environment was very conducive to writing and thinking, though the keyboard was tiny and did not last.
Bog standard laptop or desktop where you do your other work—Don’t try it. You’ll just end up multitasking, attending to other pressing priorities, managing your burgeoning email box, or even browsing the web. Disastrous.
AlphaSmart 2000—Fabulous for flow, but the screen is just a touch too small and the keyboard ages poorly, freezing up and sticking something fierce. Very clacky, too—annoyingly soo—and looks like a kid’s toy. Also, while the USB keyboard interface is ingenous, transferring files that way takes far too long. Type 10,000 words and spent an entire afternoon slowly downloading and naming them one-by-one.
AlphaSmart Neo—Solves every issue that faced the 2000 with flying colors, save but one: download speed. The rest of this device is freaking awesome—fabulous keyboard, great display, amazing battery life, highly portable, looks reasonably professional, and so on. But you’re still stuck with long waiting periods to get at your work.
AlphaSmart Dana—Still have two of these on hand. Like them well enough; the keyboard is the same as the Neo, so that’s fabulous, and the Dana does away with the download issue. It’s Palm-based, so you can use Palm sync to get your files off of it quickly. This does require another virtual machine, as was the case with the Newton, but in this case it’s just a Windows 2000 virtual machine running in VirtualBox or Parallels or similar, which is much more manageable. The Dana problem is that the battery life is back to being measured in hours of on-time, rather than in weeks of on-time, and that it’s Palm interface is fiddly once again, presenting like a word processor, with fonts, styles, alignments, pagination, and all the crap that led you to look for a dedicated writing device in the first place.
iPad—Getting there. Deadalus is fabulous and I’ve now written half a dissertation on it (or four dissertations if you’re just going by page count). There is probably no better writing software anywhere on the planet. The basic problem is the hardware; the on-screen keyboard is a no-go for serious writing work, obviously, and while Apple’s bluetooth keyboard is great, it’s also one extra thing to cart around and have to connect and disconnect. Some accessories (i.e. the Logitech solar folio) go some way toward correcting this, but at the cost of a worse and less-than-full-size keyboard that’s far less well-suited to touch typing. And if you’re going to go with a full-size keyboard, which is physically larger than the iPad, and the battery life constraints and portability constraints that these impose, you’re basically back to…
Macbook Pro—Yup, an entire 13-inch 2010 unibody MBP dedicated to writing. We’re about to give it a try. It’s still in great shape, has a fabulous full-sized Apple keyboard, and has been tricked out with 8GB memory and a 240GB SSD to ensure that response is always immediate. I’ve un-installed everything but my writing tools, have emptied out and hidden the dock, have removed just about everything that I can remove from the menu/status bar and from the desktop, and set a dark-neutral wallpaper. It’s synced to my Dropbox and the plan is to make sure that I only ever save files there, to avoid any temptation to give this machine a “presence” as an actual computer. I even pulled out the optical drive, just to keep myself honest. We’ll see if it works out.
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Yeah, this is a bit OCD and something of an obsession. I’ve been pursuing writing tools of various kinds for well over a decade now in an endless search for the holy grail of writing tools: minimal, instant, effortless, without technical issues or complications, full-sized keyboard, able to to hold lots of text, minimal eye-strain, no distractions, cheap.
Obviously this last criterion has fallen down, in a more-than-ridiculous way, with the assignment of a MacBook Pro to this task. But we’ll see what happens.
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As an aside, I haven’t mentioned here nearly as many devices as I’ve actually tried, only the devices that I’d thought—for a moment—were my “one and only” before learning, over weeks or months of using them, that we’d likely have to part ways in the end after all.
The best runner ups that didn’t get mentioned above? A Sharp Tripad PV-6000 and a Palm smartphone with a fold-up portable keyboard (I kid you not). Neither made the cut for more than an afternoon, but neither was so ridiculous as to make me laugh, either.
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I think, as writers go, I qualify as fidgity and a bit of a prima donna. (Okay, I know. I mean, look at this.)
But I write good copy, and I get better with every passing year. That’s what it’s all about, right?