I love to experiment with writing tools and software. I don’t have many hobbies, I don’t bowl or collect things, but I’ve always been a tinkerer and since writing is one thing I am passionate about, I like to try new ways of pursuing the age-old craft of putting words to the page. We’ve come a long way since the early days of computing where a “portable” machine meant lugging a fifty-pound box around. We have endless choices, but with those choices comes added options that can cause a decrease in productivity.
I have been looking for the perfect machine for just plain writing and I think I’ve settled into something that works for me. This is my experience and it might not be yours, but I’ll highlight why I like it and also shine a light on some other options that you might find beneficial.
First off, here are some things that are important to me. I want something light and portable. I want enough battery life that I don’t have to worry about it and constantly monitor the power indicator. I want true cross-platform sharing. I want to be able to access my files no matter where I am.
I am a Windows user. This is not a discussion about platforms, I don’t care if you use Win10, Mac, Linux, or DOS. This is my platform of choice for general purpose computing and I have my reasons. Maybe I’ll talk about that one day, but it is not this day. I have a great laptop that is powerful enough to do podcast editing, writing, the minor Photoshop stuff I do, web coding and all that good stuff. I’m happy with it. I am not happy with the battery life, though. Not for portable writing at least. Three or four hours is great, but what if I’m stuck out somewhere with no power outlets? Not ideal.
There are single-purpose writing machines like FreeWrite. I am intrigued indeed, but I don’t have one so I can’t really comment. I do like the idea of loooooooong battery life and the simplicity of the single purpose design. I am reserving judgment. I’ve also seen some friends online that have been finding these little plastic writing devices from the 90’s that allow you to write in plain text and store a few documents on the device to later sync to your pc. It runs on AA batteries that last for a long time. Again, I am intrigued, but I don’t think the keyboard is great, and I’m kind of a keyboard snob. Not a snob, but I like what I like.
I have an old iPad Air (first gen) that I’ve had for several years. It doesn’t get used much, the occasional Netflix watch or Spotify listen on trips, or Scrabble games when we don’t want to get out the board. Other than that, it sits unused. I began looking at ways to use it for writing and I settled on a system that is working surprisingly well for me.
Software: I think I’ve tried every word processor, text editor, and word widget known to man. Probably not, but it feels like it. I used to use Scrivener, but I had a horrible syncing nightmare once and it scared me. I like a lot of their features, and I am waiting for the Windows version of 3.0 to release and I might revisit it. Maybe. I really like Ulysses for the iPad. It’s a great text editor and has some nice organization features. I like the look and feel of it. I bought a copy. Now they have switched to a subscription model and I hate the idea of paying perpetually for a piece of software I already own. Yes, I understand the concept of software “licenses” and the idea of actually “owning” software is a strange one. Again, a discussion for another day.
The other problem with Ulysses is that it is only Mac and iOs. There is not a direct counterpoint for the desktop when I want to work at the desk or sitting on the couch with the laptop. There are some great text editors for Windows that I like. Write! is one of them and I use it for lots of short-form writing. It has a distraction-free environment, full screen, and allows for multiple documents open in tabs. I really like this. But again, not exactly cross-platform.
Microsoft Word. I have been a Word user since Word was the underdog. This app has grown so far from its original use to now be more than just a word processor. If you are working with an editor (and if not, why not?), then chances are you are going to send your manuscript to them in Word format and you will get edits back in Word format. You will use the track changes feature back and forth. Having Word is almost non-negotiable. But I don’t necessarily like to write in it all the time, although there is a free version for iPad that is completely usable. But when I am going back and forth from the iPad to the Windows machines there can be some lag in syncing, and you have to use a cloud service like OneDrive or Dropbox and it can be iffy sometimes.
Over the years I’ve used Google Docs here and there, mostly for collaborating on something small, and honestly, I wasn’t overly impressed. It just seemed like a stripped down word processor that lived on a web page. The fact that it lived in a browser window especially turned me off. Remembering the days of dial-up internet and the years of no connectivity makes me distrustful of always-on connections. What if my internet is down? Where is my work? These questions haunt me to this day. But seeing the iOS version of Google Docs made me take another look. My opinion began to change. Docs has really grown up.
One thing I like is that GDocs instantly saves and syncs, nearly in real time. It’s crazy to watch two machines sitting side by side and watch the changes update. You can also have your Docs sync to your PC so that you can access them even if you are offline. Same goes for your iPad. You can also create a shortcut on your desktop to the Docs page and it will open like a native app without all the distraction of all the browser bells and whistles. Docs feels less like a place to fall down the rabbit hole and more like a modern distraction-free writing app on the PC with just a few tweaks.
On the iPad, I have all notifications turned off, and since I don’t have any social media apps or email installed, there is little to distract anyway. The Docs app on the iPad feels very similar to the desktop version and is easy to navigate in. I can change page and text colors to save my weary eyes and minimize the toolbar to get everything out of my way. The battery lasts over ten hours on the iPad, and if I switch off Wifi and dim the screen I can probably squeeze a little more.
I found a Bluetooth keyboard that I really like. The Anker A7726 is less than twenty bucks and uses 2 AAA batteries that I have yet to kill. It feels good and is super light. I can throw this keyboard and the iPad in just about any bag and take it with me. Super simple. I also found a case for the tablet that folds into a stand. Again, super simple.
I discovered something else, with this handy little “camera adapter” made by Apple, I can plug my big honking mechanical keyboard into the lightning port on my iPad. Not conveniently portable, but if I’m at home and want to write on the back porch or at the dining room table but still use my favorite keyboard, I CAN. So much epicness.
The iPad only uses wifi, so if I find myself in a spot where I don’t have the internet connection to sync up the latest changes in my Doc, I can use the wifi hotspot on my phone and let the iPad sync. It usually takes just a few seconds to download and uses very little data. Since it is syncing the same file on my iPad and my desktop, there is no worry about saving, syncing, and then converting for whatever program I’m using on Windows. Super simple.
When I finish a writing project and need to send it to my editor, I can simply export it as a .Doc file and Word handles it perfectly and I can go through edits using Word on my computer and never look back.
This is working really well for me. I’ve found a system that allows me great portability, battery life, doesn’t overcomplicate moving from portable device to “real computer”, and allows me to put an old piece of hardware to good use.
I know that Chromebooks are a thing. Some of them have super long battery life, and since I’m using Google Docs, it seems like a great solution. I’m open to trying it, but honestly, most Chromebooks seem greatly underpowered unless you spend the same money that you could invest in a powerful Windows machine. My iPad has 64 gigs of memory, and since I don’t have a bunch of junk installed it is still snappy even though it’s a few generations old.
The quest continues for the perfect writing machine, but in the meantime, I’ve found something that makes me happy.
How about you?