Retro Laptops Reviewed for Nano Suitability

National Novel Writing Month is fast approaching, and it seemed relevant to take a quick look at some of the non-typewriter options that a Nano participant might have a mind to use when banging out that magic 50K. On obtaining a slightly beat-up Apple eMate 300 from Ryan this past week, I realized that I currently own 6 of the most lauded retro-tech writing laptops to ever hit the marketplace, and I’m in a unique position to comment on the modern usability of each. The Alphasmart Dana that I’m writing this post on is the newest, and unsurprisingly the most easily adapted to modern use. What is surprising is my second choice, as it dates back to the 80’s, and on the face of it would seem the least useful until you consider connectivity issues, which are the heart of making any outdated writing tech relevant to the modern scribbler.

The Contenders, minus the WP-2, which is in storage right now.

What all of these machines have in common is very light weight, durability, incredibly long battery life, and undeniable simplicity. Although some of them can do other things than simple word processing, they are at heart and by design, simple and very distraction-free writing machines. What they don’t have in common is the ability to get the text you enter into them easily to your modern computer. Here is my list of retro-laptops, with some notes on where they shine and where they fail:

Alphasmart Dana

Easily the hands-down winner.
1) Runs on 3 AA batteries, or a rechargable power pack, and can easily switch between the two.
2) Can be charged via USB or wall dongle.
3) When plugged in via USB, can act as a simple USB keyboard and can dump your textfiles straight into whatever word processing program you happen to have open.
4) Has 2 older-style SD card slots, which work great with SD cards smaller than 2gb. I use a couple of old 64mb cards with mine that are more than enough storage for whatever I happen to be writing. You can also use the SD cards to transfer files back and forth if you don’t happen to have a USB cable, and no worries about funky disk or file formatting with the Dana.
5) A very useable medium-sized screen with a backlight. Very readable fonts.
6) Touch screen and stylus for vaguely mouse-like text selection or cursor placement.
7) Lightest and thinnest of the reviewed models, has a very sturdy housing and a nice keyboard that is very similar to a modern laptop. Light touch and positive action. The keys are generally where you expect them to be when in the heady rush of composition.

What it has that is useless:
1) Wifi. Older B-style wireless card with badly out-of-date encryption. Basically useless, which is good because you really want a distraction free writing machine, and the Internet is the antithesis of “distraction-free”.
2) It runs an amazing array of other applications. As noted above, things like e-book readers, spreadsheets and games are distractions and ought to be eschewed. Luckily, most of these applications don’t run well on the Dana, and after a brief but inevitable attempt to load it up with crap, you’ll likely delete it all and stick to the writing apps.

Apple eMate 300

This one was so promising, and I’ve wanted one for a couple of years, and just picked one up in trade. Where it fails is connectivity – the ability to get your text off it and onto your main computer. This shouldn’t have surprised me, as Apple products seem to be really bad at playing nice with other machines and even newer versions of Apple machines. Nevertheless, design-wise it’s a fine writing machine, and here’s what I like about it:
1) Long rechargable battery life (if you take the trouble to rebuild the battery pack with modern cells)
2) A great keyboard that is slightly smaller than a standard laptop, but is crisp and responsive.
3) Probably the best screen of the bunch. Large, backlit and tiltable to very comfortable angles, no matter what position you’re typing in.
4) Touchscreen and stylus for easy text selection and cursor placement.

How does it suck? Let me count the ways:
1) No option for using AA batteries, which it ought to be able to do. If you get one now, the battery pack will be dead, and you’ll have to rebuild it. While the process isn’t hard if you know your way around a soldering iron and heat-shrink tubing, it’s also not a trivial operation.
2) Plenty of reports about problematic screen hinges. They’ll probably eventually break on you and brick the unit.
3) It has a PCMCIA slot, which would be great if any of my cards worked in it. They don’t, Newtons can only use older linear memory cards which would make them useless for transferring files. There are supposedly ATA drivers for the newer Newton OS, but the support for larger cards is iffy and it may not work at all on the eMate. Plus, how do you get the drivers onto the eMate without a connection in the first place?
4) Other options for transferring files? Well, there’s the obsolete 5-pin Appletalk port, through which I’ve read of people wiring up serial to USB connectors and using the eMate as a dumb terminal, and a weird, very proprietary USB-ish port, neither of which uses readily-available or inexpensive cables. In addition, you’ll prolly have to dig up a copy of the old Newton connectivity software, assuming you finally get it connected hardware-wise. the serial to USB connection might work for text without Newton drivers, but that’s kind of the default fallback for any device with a serial port.

Tandy Model 200
TRS-80 Model 100
Tandy WP-2

These next three are all Tandy/Radio Shack laptops from the 80’s. Still incredibly useful today because of their open architecture, standard (at least then) ports, and simple operating systems. In addition, they have a thriving fan base that provides better than average support and even new products to help keep these litle wonders alive and kicking in the 21st century.

The Tandy model 100/102/200 laptops from the mid-80’s have been going fairly strong since their introduction in 1983, in large part due to the unflagging support of a vital fan community who recognize the continuing usefulness of these great little laptop computers. For over 20 years, the undeniable figurehead of this community was a man named Rick Hanson, proprietor of Club 100, who built a small friendly business out of fixing, refurbushing and selling parts and supplies for the little Tandy computers – long after the commercial world moved on to more profitable platforms. Today, thanks to Mr. Hanson and a handful of other enthusiasts like Ken Pettit (designer of the NADSBox) and Stephen Adolph (designer of the REX ROM/RAM add-on), the T100 laptops are still relevant and useful for many applications, including as a writing machine) in the 21st century.

Sadly for the Model 100 world (and the world in general), Rick Hanson succumbed to cancer this year and died peacefully in his home on April 30th. While the death of such an important supporter in such a tiny community might have also killed off the support enjoyed by that community, such does not appear to be the case with Club 100. Thanks to Rick’s supportive wife and key members of Club 100, the community has rallied together to keep Rick’s legacy and the peerless support for old Tandy laptops alive. Club 100 continues to offer the modern upgrades that have helped to keep these machines alive and kicking, and it appears that Ken Pettit has picked up the reins and has committed to keep the Club going into the future.

I know that this is ranging pretty far from a straightforward review of the practicality of using the Model 100 as a writing machine, but I really would like to make a point about what the world lost when Rick took his final nap. I’d only dealt with Rick via a few emails when buying stuff from the Club 100 website, but those few exchanges gave me a pretty good idea of the sort of guy that Rick was. He was the kind of guy that bent over backwards to make sure you were getting exactly what you needed to keep your Tandy laptop going, and always took the time to write a personal note with just about every order you made. If you had questions, he’d gladly give you as much free advice as you needed. He was a true gentleman who really enjoyed the niche he had made in the world. Even though he was only a passing aquaintance, I am one of the many people who miss him and the impact he made in his community.
[UPDATE: while all the above was true a few days ago, when I went to check on Club 100 today when posting this review, I found that both the Club 100 website and Ken Pettit’s website appear to be down, which I can only hope is not a sign that the effort to preserve Rick Hanson’s legacy has failed. Let’s all hope that this is a temporary glitch and that someone picks up the pieces and rebuilds the vast Model 100 software library and product support that made this machine a contender in the modern age. Failing that, I’m afraid that the Tandy machines might just have suddenly dropped out of the running. That would be sad indeed.]
[UPDATED UPDATE: Whew! the Club 100 site is back up, prolly was a temporary hosting glitch. Man, that was scary!]

Sharp PC3000

I picked up this pocket-sized wonder in the early 90’s, when an 8086 DOS 3 compatible pocket computer was actually a very useful thing to have. It runs (for a few hours anyway) in 3 AA batteries and is mainly counted in this review because of its tiny but surprisingly comfortable keyboard. I actually did quite a lot of writing on this keyboard, and the included text editor actually was pretty nice. The 4-shade CGA-compatible LCD screen meant you could run early versions of Word Perfect on it, and I remember even getting the first Duke Nukem’ game to run on it. Eventually, it came to the point that it started eating a set of batteries within an hour or two, and the early PCMCIA drives couldn’t be made compatible with non-linear memory cards and I had to toss it in the closet. I keep it to remind me that it *is* possible to fit a useable keyboard on a pocket computer, and to keep the dream alive. If some manufacturer made a machine just like this with a very-low-power 486 processor, USB ports and modern SD drives running a stripped down Linux or FreeDos, I’d be on that like white on rice.

So there you have it. One machine to rule them all (the Alphasmart), and a bunch of also-rans that have less-than-easy ways to transfer your Nano text to a modern computer. I would have reviewed the other Alphasmart offerings (the Nano, etc.) but I don’t have them and wouldn’t get them because the screens seem just a touch too small for my liking. In the end, I absolutely recommend the Alphasmart Dana, and you can easily pick one up on eBay for $20-$40 in great shape.

Happy Nano-ing! (:

Updated: November 2, 2019 — 12:38 am


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  1. Ah; I’d love to find an old laptop again. I’ve had some early 90s ones but for some reason I don’t have them anymore. I think what I’d want most of all is a very early Powerbook. As long it it has 1.4k floppies I’m good to go!

  2. Nice rundown! I have an Alphasmart Neo that I picked up a few months ago. It’s largely been sitting in my closet after I fiddled around with it for a few days. But, it’s my tool of choice for NaNoWriMo 2011, so it’ll be pulled off the bench, dusted off, and put to work in just over a week. It’s gotten to the point where I can’t write on my laptop anymore. It’s (cough, cough… Internet…) just too distracting.

    1. yeah, last November I noticed most of those with laptops were busy showing each other flash animations and youtube videos at the write-ins I attended. There were two Eee-PC users who studiously tippity-tapped their way to 50k, but most didn’t even beat my rather flaccid 28k typewritten words, despite their free trial copies of Scrivner. The internet is to be avoided at all costs if you’re in composing mode, for sure.

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