Machines for writing on the go

I have a problem and I’m here today to admit it. A compulsion, an addiction. A displacement activity. A quest that I’ve been on for, oh, a decade. A quest that I might just have completed. Let me explain.

I’m a boy and I like toys. The kinds of toys that I like are the kinds that help me to write. Now, I move around a bit and I like to be able to write wherever I am. So for over a decade now I’ve been pursuing a particular kind of Holy Grail: the ultimate portable writing machine.  

I started out on this odyssey with a Psion organiser back in the early 00s. An impulse purchase in Selfridges in Manchester, together with an admittedly cool fold-out cradle-cum-keyboard.  You could take it anywhere, and if you liked you could write yourself notes, ether keying them in or by hand with the stylus. Learning the simplified glyphs that the machine translated into readable English was pretty easy. I loved it. Utterly impractical for writing anything longer than a memo, but nevertheless it was fun.

Then came the first of three (count ‘em!) AlphaSmart machines. An AlphaSmart, if you’ve not come across one before, is a full-size keyboard with a simple memory (eight file-spaces) and an LCD display. No internet, no distractions. Plus it runs on three AA batteries; hundreds of hours of productivity with no need for cables or a power supply. If there was a downside, it was in uploading the files to a PC; the AlphaSmart is little more than a keyboard emulator, and the loading speed of the work to your Word document is about that of a fast typist. So, more than fine for a first-draft machine as long as you accept the limitations.

Then came the era of the netbooks.  I did a PhD largely on a Samsung netbook – an extra gig of RAM to give it some oomph, a copy of MS Office and I was off. A sturdy little performer, and I was kinda sad when I got rid of it at the end of the doctorate and treated myself to a tablet.

I went for a Google Nexus 7 – I’ve never been attracted to Apple devices of any stripe – and at first it seemed fine. This was Kindle and computer in one, and a perfect little portable solution. I bought a keyboard to go with it. Then another. There might have been a third as well. Problem: I don’t get on well with Bluetooth keyboards. The intermittent nature of the contact means that I miss characters. I’m not a touch typist (I watch my index and middle fingers as I type) so it was often a couple of hundred words later that I’d finally wake up to the missing data. A palaver. On top of that the issues between getting a Word document to talk to a Word-emulating piece of software.

Also, I had an Android smartphone, and there was too much crossover between the smartphone’s functions and the tablet’s. All too soon, the tablet went back in its box awaiting a new owner.

I soldiered on for a while with my main computer, a straightforward though basic-specced Toshiba laptop. My needs aren’t great. As long as there’s internet access on occasion and a word processor I’m good to go. That said, I’ve been working professionally and personally with MS Office for twenty years. I’m used to it. I’m comfortable there. I know what the buttons do.

More fool me for buying a Chromebook then. Don’t get me wrong, the Chromebook I got (an Acer 13) is a fine device provided that you can work in Google Docs and you don’t mind some kerfuffle when dealing with moving documents across devices and in and out of Word. It’s light, fast, has incredible battery life. But I was struggling when on the move.   

So the Chromebook’s been retired.

Do I get another Windows netbook? I decided not to. What I’ve gone for is a Microsoft Surface. It’s a dream of a machine. Zippy, light, full Windows 10, MS Office on-board plus it talks easily via OneDrive cloud storage to my desk PC.  And it’s a tablet that’s got full USB ports onboard – a proper computer in a casing the size of a photo frame.

And then there’s the keyboard. Jiminy.  I know it’s nerdy as heck, but I just like the way it feels. The motor function of typing is a pleasure in itself. The device wants me to write more.

Part of me knows that in a couple of years I’ll probably get itchy technological feet again. Part of me knows that I’ve got to be on guard against my magpie instincts, and try to resist the shiny-shiny.  But for the first time since, well, ever, I’ve got all the elements that I’ve told myself that I’ve needed – lightness, portability, MS Office, decent battery life, easy co-operation with myself across different machines.

I really haven’t got a reason to complain. So let’s hope I don’t!    


My novel The Prospect of This City is out now. It's available in paperback from my website (say so if you'd like it signed!) and also in ebook and paperback via Amazon.