Dipping Into Digital

Analog/Digital Kit, closedYes, we all love beautiful paper and pens and leather binders and every second item on the shelves of a stationery store. And yes, many of us tend to take notes, write drafts, brainstorm, manage our time, and sketch on paper. But sooner or later, there comes a time when what we write or produce has to wind up in a digital form for sharing with others. For example, my journal and index cards may be the foundation for the articles I write here, but sooner or later I have to put fingers to keys and pound out the words.

But, like most tinkerers attracted to shiny metal objects, it's hard to keep distraction at bay. For example, while I dearly love (though not quite in a carnal sense) my new MacBook Pro, all the bells and whistles conspire to turn my attention from writing. Each bleep of my Google Gmail Notifier, which word or idea or link I want to look up, each Amazon book I want to link to, each photo I need to take and resize and optimise....

What was I saying? Oh, yes... it's hard to keep on topic with so many distractions.

So, the paper angle is covered; I have plenty of focus there. What I need is some way to write without digital distraction.

There are a few programs out there, like WriteRoom and Scrivener, that have dedicated "full page" modes so that you can supposedly write without having your mind cluttered by palettes, sidebars, outlines and icons. For me, they work to a certain degree, but I just know how easy it is to cmd-tab to my email or Quicksilver my way into a browser. These shortcuts are wired into my subconscious, and they are a danger. Likewise, creating a "minimalist" account on my computer just for writing still provides a "quick user switch" back to my old habits. This is not to mention that the heat of the MacBook Pro searing the flesh on my lap can also be a little distracting at times.

In my opinion, some of the best writing I've ever done was pounded out on two keyboards in particular: an ancient 1930's typewriter (currently several thousand miles away, and thus a little hard to use without telekinesis); and a Palm/Stowaway Keyboard with an old Palm III. Now, these have more in common than meets the eye. Both are a little hard to type on at first, though my 80-100 words per minute rate is still faster than my handwriting, typos be damned, and both also afford me the opportunity to concentrate on what I'm writing without being drawn into browsers, email programs, games, and pretty pictures.

Analog/Digital Kit, openSo recently, I went back to an old standby. I carry around a little Eddie Bauer guide bag (no longer made) that typically contains three things:

Basically, I do all my brainstorming, outlining and rough drafts using the index cards or Moleskine, and then I set up the keyboard. It's truly a little marvel: it's not much bigger than the Palm till it folds open, and then it's nearly a full size keyboard, with the notable exception of the number keys, which require a modifier key plus the top row of letters. A little holder props up the Palm, and an infrared arm swings up so it can "send" the keystrokes to the Palm. I've invested in Documents to Go and the Mac-Palm syncing program Missing Sync, which basically means I can read and write MS Office (or, in my case, OpenOffice) files on the Palm. The touch-typing feel of the keys isn't quite as solid as a regular keyboard or laptop, but then again, I can carry both the Palm and the keyboard in my jacket pockets or my little man-bag.

Though I've never run formal tests, the battery time is more than five hours with this configuration before the Palm needs a recharge. Given that this is a five-year-old Palm, that's not bad. The keyboard uses two AAA batteries that generally last a month or so.

If distraction is a problem, I wouldn't recommend getting a new Palm with wireless capabilities, browser, and so forth -- you'll be right back where you started. However, I noted that last week on eBay, a lightly used Palm Tungsten E with infrared but not wireless could be had for $50, and the keyboard can be purchased new for $40-65. That works out to an extremely portable and light-weight digital writing solution for about $100.

As a whole, I find that this solution does work quite well, and I'm able to write digitally without getting distracted or frying my lap. What more could I ask for?

So what tools and techniques do you folks use when trying to focus digitally?

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Excellent combination.

I use a Palm and portable keyboard, too. Back when I was writing professionally I would take my Palm to a coffeeshop or diner to write, because if I was at home I'd get distracted by my desktop computer or a need to do dishes or whatever.

These days I do most of my writing (primarily blogging and schoolwork) on my laptop (which doesn't have heat problems). The Linux GNOME desktop allows me to have multiple "desktops" (called workspaces), so my usual programs are under one workspace. I flip to a blank workspace if I need to focus, because the other open applications don't even show up on the taskbar in that second workspace. Makes for less distraction.

Still, the Palm keyboard comes in very handy when I need to get away and write somewhere without any distractions at all....

Maybe I'm not so unfocused...

But on my Mac, when I need to get work done, I simply quit all my apps--this means iChat (Adium at the moment), Skype, Mail, Safari, and other "communication" apps. This also includes my Gmail Notifier--actually, I simply turned off the Gmail part, and kept the Gcal part. The only things I allow to run are my iCal and Gcal notifiers, in fact. That way any of my easily-forgotten "hard landscape" items will remind me of themselves.

Since I generally use multiple apps for my work, I don't worry about "full-screen" mode, but once everything's quit, I am able to concentrate quite well.

If someone needed more "help", and uses a Mac, then I would recommend logging out, and logging back in, holding down the Shift key. This will force a boot without any third-party background apps running. That would include items like the Google Notifier, and yes, Quicksilver. Once you get rid of all your conveniences, you are forced to concentrate on what matters.

I would love to use just my Palm for these things, but I really need the access to multiple programs, and the Palm doesn't multi-task yet. I have done it, and I enjoy it when I can, but it does slow me down in the end. I like using my Palm (and its keyboard) when I want to _really_ get away, and not just from computer distractions. It's fun for a season, but in the end, I really need my Mac.

For extreme time, take a train. ;-) I never cease to be amazed how productive my 3 hr train rides to the capital are. I used to do a weekly commute--3 hrs in the morning, and 3 hrs in the evening back home. That was the most productive day of my week! But that's _really_ hard core. ;-)


Doug Surely you've heard of


Surely you've heard of the AlphaSmart Dana which is a Palm powered PDA with a full size built in keyboard? That's my preferred machine to write with. It's less than 2 pounds, has battery life of 25 hours but what I love most about it is the full size keyboard.

For less distraction, there's the Dana's "baby" brother, the AlphaSmart Neo. The Neo has been rated to write up to 500 hours on 3 AA batteries.


I've never seen those before. Coooooooool.

I looooove to look at the AlphaSmarts

I used to have an old Tandy 200 bought secondhand. I used that thing for rough drafts for papers in college. It was the same idea -- long battery life on AA's, "always ready" mode, and simple, simple, simple! The AlphaSmarts look perfect, and I've wanted an excuse to write the Great American Novel just so I could buy one.

Neo's great!

I have a Neo and it's perfect for when you just want to write. Over the years, I've had an Alphasmart Pro, an Alphasmart 3K, and a Dana, and it's the Neo that's just the right fit for me. Love the keyboard and the screen and the incredible battery life.

The Dana was great, too, and the only reason I don't have it anymore is that I already use a regular Palm device. A big plus of the Dana, though, was the SD card slots for programs and backups. The Neo doesn't have that, though it's pretty easy to use the IR port to backup to a Palm.

I used a Radio Shack Model

I used a Radio Shack Model 100 to take notes on in college. (I'm not that old -- it was from my then-boyfriend's antique computer collection.) I loved that thing. Ran on AA batteries and could take a real beating...

AlphaSmart Dana

Oh, I would certainly love to get my hands on a Dana one of these days, but there's two things that prevent it:

1. The cost. Those things aren't cheap, even if you snag a used one from a school on eBay (eek!) for $200.

2. The form factor. It certainly can't fit in my pocket. I like to run around with just a little guide bag (about 9" x 5" x 2.5"), and prefer not to sling around a laptop bag unless I have to.

But yes, I would love to test one out some day....


As a Palm replacement, no...

Any of the AlphaSmart products would do poorly in terms of form factor when compared to a PDA or smart phone, but compared to a laptop I can see clear advantages. A good deal cheaper, much longer battery life -- 100x more than my own -- and durable enough to withstand knocks and bumps in a bag, and still be usable on a lap or coffee shop.

I have serious geek-lust about them. :-)

Polyamorous Geek-Lust

This discussion is fascinating. I'm having exactly the problems you're discussing, and can't decide what to do. (I'm also coming very late to this discussion - hope someone's still listening!)

Tell me what you think:

I've got a Treo 680 (Palm OS-based smartphone - replaces my old Palm Pilot and dumbphone). I used to carry around the Palm Pilot and folding keyboard, but found I didn't really get a lot of use out of the keyboard. It was kind of clunky and required a flat surface. I have the usual collection of aging laptops, but also don't carry them around that much because of the weight. I basically have to plan ahead and make a big production of it if I want to get anything done, so I don't. What I really want is an "always there" device that's light enough that I'll carry it and easy enough that I'll use it, but robust enough that I'm not making too many compromises with it.

As for the options . . .

I could get another folding keyboard for the Treo (the new ones use Bluetooth, which is cool), and basically have total Palm functionality plus the phone, color screen, and Web access, for only $50 to $75. Adds almost no extra size or weight, which is fantastic. The screen's pretty small, though, and, again, the keyboard is clever but not really such a great keyboard per se.

The Alphasmart Pro is available on eBay for about $20, and provides super-barebones text input (not even cut-'n-paste editing) and nothing else, but is reasonably light, has excellent battery life, and is a steal at the price. Pretty limited functionality, but it does one important thing well.

The Alphasmart Dana is lovely, as you've all agreed. Price is pretty high, though, the screen is great for a Palm Pilot but lousy for a laptop, and it basically just duplicates the same functionality and the same apps as I already have in my Treo. It's a wonderful device, but it basically seems like I'd be paying over $400 for a full-size keyboard that weighs 2 pounds and offers no functions I don't already have.

The Palm Foleo is supposed to ship sometime this year, though they don't seem to be in any hurry about it. It's Linux-based but offers *exactly the same apps as the Palm itself*, ported to the new platform. It's billed as a "Treo companion", whatever the hell that means, and is supposed to provide basic e-mail and "document preparation" (i.e., the Docs-to-Go apps of the Palm Pilot, not fully functional software), with a full-sized keyboard, WiFi, and a better screen. No one seems to know why this would be a good idea. It also weighs two pounds and costs $600. The Linux community is lusting after it as a lightweight, instant-on, flash-memory-based, ultra-ultra-portable Linux machine, but the version of Linux it's shipping with is not a full distro, and the company refuses to say whether it will accept a real Linux and run OpenOffice. If it does that, it would be a killer laptop alternative; if not, it seems that they've just managed to replicate the Dana with a color screen and a $200 larger pricetag.

I keep going around in circles. I lust after the Dana, but realize I really have no use for it because it duplicates the Palm applications on the Treo. If I'm going to buy that, I may as well just get the folding keyboard - same functionality with much smaller size, weight, and price. But if I don't need extra functionality, I may as well get a used Alphasmart Pro - even cheaper with a full-size keyboard, and I'd still have my Treo for the other Palm apps. But if I want to lug around a boxy 2-pound keyboard, I may as well get one with lots of functionality, like the Foleo. But if I'm going to pay a lot of money for basically the same functionality as the Treo, I may as well get the really cool Dana at a lower cost. But the Dana is really just an add-on keyboard for the Treo, so I may as well get the folding keyboard . . .

Where's the sweet spot?


Personally, I'm surprised at the confusion over the Foleo. I came to the Palm (Tungsten T) from the Newton. One part of me that has _always_ ached with the Palm is its tiny screen, and lame keyboard support (the Newton keyboard in comparison is a dream!). I've long wished for a larger "window" to my Palm screen. I originally thought the larger screen on the T3 or later TX would meet my needs, but I've now played with a TX, and it's not really any better! Somehow, which I've never understood, the Newton screen, though the same resolution as the TX (320x480?) just seems so much larger and more comfortable in use. A spreadsheet on my Newton is easy to work with, but on my Palm, frustrating. Same goes for email. I cannot read email on my Palm, while I spent months on end using nothing _but_ my Newton for email! (back in the days before the "web"--Remember AOL version 1?) The Palm is just too small and cramped feeling. Same holds true for every other smart phone I've played with or tried to use. They are great for looking things up quickly, etc. but for heavy work, just don't cut the mustard, so to speak.

However, I don't want to sync back to my laptop, and be forced to carry it around all the time. Also, it would be nice to have the instant-on of my Newton or Palm (essential, actually--I've been stuck in my car, either alongside the road, or in a parking lot, waiting for my Powerbook to wake from sleep, and then launch the required app to get the info I needed) So, along comes the Foleo, and this is how I view it--

The Foleo is a window to my Palm. My Palm holds my important data--events, emails, documents, etc. but with the Foleo, I have the larger screen to see all of that comfortably, and have the full-sized keyboard to enter all this stuff comfortably when necessary. My phone/Palm is still my data storage and retrieval device, but the Foleo makes it work. No need to lug my 7lb laptop with its short battery life and slow startup/launch times. I open the Foleo, and I'm working. Sorry, but that is as close to perfect in regards to my connected life, as I could hope to get. My orignal thoughts (before the OQO came out) were to have one device or module that would hold all my apps and documents that would plug into my phone when I wanted/needed, and work there, then plug into a handheld when I wanted that, and then, into a laptop, and finally into a desktop. However, this system--with the phone/Palm being the central hub, totally changes things! Now, to extract that out further to the desktop operating system environment, and we will have perfection! I love it! ;-)

Now, as to whether or not I will buy a Foleo, the jury's still out, but I'm sorely tempted at the moment--although I won't need it for a year or two, when I next go back to the States. (I suppose I will "need" it to learn how to use it, etc.) ;-)

In any case, I hope that my explanation helps, and I suspect that you are probably one of the people the Foleo was designed for! Just ignore all the negative press... If you need it, it will call to you. ;-)


I went through college with

I went through college with an HP Jornada. SOO much cheaper than a laptop ($100), longer battery life (~6hrs) and a 3/4 keyboard, and instant on.

I would pound out papers between classes while others would not because of start up and shut down times.