Ideal mobile text-editing device

Dear Lazyweb,

I’m looking for a small, (easily fits on my lap on the cramped seat of a bus,) inexpensive, (around $100 CAD,) mobile text-editing device with a 90%-sized keyboard and decent battery life that runs an open source OS and Vim, and that I can sync to my desktop system.

My first mobile device was a NEC PC-8201A, circa 1984. It ran on 4 AA NiCad batteries which I hardly needed to change more than once a week. At the time, it was my ideal mobile notetaking device. Its near-full-sized keyboard, Wordstar-compatible text editor, terminal program and serial interface allowed me to take notes which I would sync to my father’s Mac at home or to the VAX at the university.

Today, my mobile computing needs have hardly changed: text editing is almost all I do. I don’t ask for much of a display, but as an 80 to 90 wpm touch-typist, I won’t settle for anything less than a near-full-sized keyboard. I’d prefer a system that runs Debian, and Vim is a must. Some means of easily synchronizing the device with my home system is necessary: PCMCIA wireless-B would be ideal, but is not a must-have.

At the moment, I’m using an old Zaurus (not Linux-compatible) ZR-5000 which has good battery life but a very cramped keyboard, poor software, and no functional means of synchronizing the device to my PC. OK for jotting down quick notes, but frankly, I’d rather have my PC-8201A back again. I could at least type on it and sync it across the serial cable.

I took a brief look at various Psion models, but they appear to be near-impossible to find. The HP Jornada 720 looks intriguing. And the NEC Mobilepro 780
appears to be another possibility. Have I overlooked anything?

So, suggestions please.

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11 responses to “Ideal mobile text-editing device”

  1. This question’s a regular on slashdot, there’s never been an ideal answer. The regular candidates are ‘second hand stuff’, like you mention plus education-market wordprocessors: and For slightly less money (140 USD), you can get a TI-83 and a keyboard from vernier:

    Since you reminded me I went digging around for one of the alternatives that came up a few years back, which was a USB keyboard which you could detach to take to meetings; it was essentially a keylogger with a small display, so all you did to synch up was hit ‘play’, out the text came into emacs/vim/whatever; nice simple idea, but I can’t come up with the google incantation. Maybe someone else will remember who made it.

  2. for your needs a jornada 680 or 690 should be fine. I didn’t have any time to continue my porting efforts, but a debian port that should be enough for your needs is still available on is a fdamiliar port for them. and netbsd works on it also. and while it has the same keyboard as the 720 it is a lot cheaper. the jornadas dont have 90% keyboard size,though. feel free to contact me if you have further questions or need help installing the debian port.

  3. Nokia 770 is a perfect device that runs vim and fits into your pocket. If you don’t need it to fit into a pocket, it may not be ideal for you. Besides, it is rather more expensive.

    Re USB keyboards: yes you can, but you need a USB hub to supply power to it. This link might be interesting/informative:

    Perhaps an old second-hand laptop would be best? Although battery life might be a problem.

    (The MIT $100 laptop (aka OLPC) would probably be ideal, but those won’t be for sale to the general public for a while yet.)

  4. I have an Alphasmart Dana. It’s light, small, has a seven-fingerkeyboard, gets good mileage (wattage?) and comes with usable built-in programs. It syncs as a Palm and connects as a USB-keyboard to “type” directly into OpenOffice (or Word, for Windows users).

    On the other hand, it costs more than 100 CAD, is too big to fit into a shirt (, coat, or whatever) pocket and doesn’t run “real” programs. You can’t have everything.

    R. G. McKenzie

  5. Well, I just got my Eee PC yesterday. I will blog about it soon. Works great in the bus with Vim! The battery life at 3.5 hrs is not stellar, but it is acceptable. The price is OK at $400, even if it is a bit off of my ideal — but then the Eee PC does way more than what I was looking for.

  6. I’m using my HTC PDA with a bluetooth mini keyboard.
    Not exactly a $100 solution, but if you already have a PDA (and if not – recommended), its a great solution.

    I have Windows Mobile OS, not exactly open source, nor the best OS ever (usability is a joke). But on the other hand i have word/Excel, and GPRS+WiFi internet, so i can also get the pda version of gmail, which is great. plus the option to finish writing and backing up immediately, while checking email.

    Efficiency is fun on the bus.:)

  7. If you look at my “more recent articles on the Eee PC”:, you’ll find I finally settled on the perfect device for me. Sure, it’s not my $100 ideal, either, but at $400, the Eee does far more than the requirements I outlined above. And with other devices like it in the wings from other vendors, I think they’re just beginning to catch on that there is great demand for this sort of thing, so I expect competition to drive prices down and continue to turn out better models in the few years to come.

  8. I am a happy user of Psion 5mx since 2002: 20-30 working hours with 2 standard rechargeable AA cells; a very good OS (EPOC R5, renamed Symbian since version 6); 640×240 grey scale screen; a port of vim 5.5 and other GNU/Linux console apps; Opera 5.14; many good apps; Compact Flash storage; instantaneous shut down and wake up; good keyboard; touch screen… all in 354 g! So cheap these days that it’s worth buying spare ones.

    The weak point: comms interfaces. The machine has only serial and IR connections (the 5mx Series was launched in 1999).

    Debian can be installed ( , though with some limitations. So I’m moving to Asus Eee because of the need for more powerful apps and better connectivity. But I think I’ll keep using my Psion for many tasks. It’s so reliable and well designed that it’s still an useful computer.

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