Sharp PC-7000 – a distraction free writing review

Sharp PC-7000 – a distraction free writing review

Our computers/tablets are becoming more and more an entertainment
rather a productivity device. It is getting worse with each operating system
released – it even seems that it is done on purpose. How does affect writing
productivity? For most – not good, for some it does not really matter, when
they are focused on what to write. Still, even those rare moments when I am
really focused on writing on a modern computer, there are unnecessary
distractions. First – I switch on my computer, and what it does – it goes to a
long list of updates to be configured, which lasts from 10 to 30 minutes –
stealing my writing time in front of my eyes, not even being ashamed of the
process. When it is finally loaded, I open my word processing software, to be
nagged by status messages of an Antivirus, some operating system problems I
really do not want to attend now, the sounds of social network messages – all
this creates a distraction at it’s best. At the end I have to solve the problems
my computer has, and instead of a productive writing I have typed a couple of
paragraphs at best, not even talking about the quality. 30 minutes lost to updates,
10 minutes solving the problems for the PC, and only 5 left for a productive
writing.A great writing session, indeed…

Luckily, not everything is that bad, and there are other ways to write
– longhand, typewriter or a vintage computer. Yes, a FreeWrite as well,
however, it still does not live up to my expectations, so it is mostly
gathering dust now. This time I will look at something really old (1986) – how
about a Sharp PC-7000? It’s a portable machine you really would not be wanting
to haul around for prolonged time, unless you need a workout for arm muscles.
It is heavy, it has only 384KB of RAM, and runs ancient version of DOS (2.11).
It has no hard drive, it uses two 360K 5.25 inch floppies, so now there is a
total of 720K storage. The processor is chugging along with 7 Mhz frequency.
Even entry level computer now has about 300,000 more storage space, about
10,000 more RAM, not to mention the processor speed. The keyboard, is completely
OK, better than most of the keyboards we are used to writing today, but sure, not
even close to the best available. Judging by the specifications, it seems, that the
Sharp PC-7000 should belong either to a vintage computer museum or a junk yard. However, let’s do some tests with a timer first:

Operating system startup: 15 seconds
Text processor (PC-Write 2.4) startup:  6 seconds

Total: 21 seconds, and you are ready to write. No unnecessary messages, no
questions, it’s just you and the text on the screen.

sharp-review-sized

Maybe we have too little storage space? Let’s do some math. First floppy is
used by an operating system, text processor, some tools, so we are left with a
360K in the second floppy disk. Sounds very little left, doesn’t it? However,
this time it is more than is actually needed. PC-Write, just as many DOS text
editors, stores the file information as plain text file, which does takes
considerably less space than documents, which are created by a modern Word
processing software. It is more than enough for a NaNoWriMo – you can fit in
about 70,000 words in that space. In case you need more – just replace the
floppy disk, and continue writing.
floppy-sharp-sized
While floppy disks are not the most reliable storage format, 5.25 inch
floppies, which can be bought new, work pretty well. Sure, you need to backup
your data, and there are several ways to do it properly:

First– if you have an old PC with a 5.25 inch floppy drive, just copy
the floppies there, it is the most easiest way, but not an option for everyone.

Second – you need at least a vintage laptop, old enough to run MS-DOS,
which means any machine with Windows 9x(95, 98, ME) is good enough. You will
need this to run Laplink software for a data transfer between Sharp PC-7000 and
another machine. Plenty of options to choose from, you can even buy a nice
vintage Toshiba Libretto 50CT, which takes very little space, and will do just
fine, remember, you will need a small docking station with it. You will need a
Laplink cable – a cross linked cable to connect the serial ports of the
machines. With Laplink program, everything is simple – you can copy files
between two computers like working on the same drive:

sharp-laplink

Third – a highly recommended option for backup – buy an IOMEGA 100 zip
drive, you can connect it to the parallel port of the SHARP PC-7000. While it
does not work with it’s original driver, there is a custom driver palmzip.sys,
created by Klaus Pelch, which works with older hardware. The only limitation –
you can use the partition size up to 32MB, so for a single zip disk you will
have three extra drives – C, D and E, which is not bad at all. The software
costs a fair 8 EUR, and a free trial version is available. Basically, you can
even use the IOMEGA Zip as the primary storage for your documents, and backup
to the PC from time to time, when you need to edit them on a modern machine.

The question, which might arise for most, who had never seen a DOS
machine or it’s operating system – does it have a hard learning curve? In fact,
the answer is reassuring – No, everything is pretty simple, once you know the
basics. Everything is command line, however, you can use a simple file manager,
such as Norton Commander 1.0 on this machine.

When DOS is loaded, you will see a command prompt, getting ready for
your command. You can either type a command or a program name.

For example you need to copy file from drive A: to B:.
Just type: “copy A:test.txt B:“.

Need to launch file manager, Norton Commander – type NC. You will have an
access to more user friendly file management.

Ready for text editing – (PC-Write) – type ED.

If you need to open a particular file, you can type: “ED B:test.txt“.
IF you are lost and do not know the floppy contents, type “DIR” –
you will see the floppy contents listed on the screen.

Deleting a file – use a command DEL, for example, DEL B:test.txt

That’s about all for the basic things you will need to know in order to get
some work done. Everything else is not mandatory – you can either learn more
about DOS commands, or do not care about them.

There is no multitasking in DOS – once you have launched a text editor,
you wont be nugged by some other messages, all you can do now is write. Or do
not write, but you will not be doing anything else. Period.

Final rating:

Distraction free – 7/10 – once everything is running, all you can do is type,
however, there remains a place for some old DOS games, especially text
adventures, which might serve as a distraction.

Screen – 6/10 – the contrast on a blue back-lit screen is not the best, but the
text is readable, and you can get the work done.

Keyboard – 7/10 – an OK feeling, but nothing to rave about

Ease of use – 6/10 – you need to set up the system first, and have a ways for a
data transfer. When all is set, I can give a score 10/10 – it just works!

Price – 8/10 – not bad, but there are even cheaper devices. However, you can
get a fully working Sharp PC-7000 for about 100 EUR or even less on Ebay. It is
best to buy it with an original master floppy available, but, just in case I
have made a backup image of it:
https://www.dropbox.com/s/ca3o6j37g3388vg/SHARP%20PC-7000.zip?dl=0

Portability/autonomy – 3/10. Best left on your working desk, table, or wherever
your writing place is. As for power supply – Sharp PC-7000 has no batteries, so
it is totally grid dependent. If you are strong, you can take this machine to
write-ins, but make sure the power outlet is nearby.

Design – 8/10 – it is a well built and well designed machine, with attention to
details, such as mechanically tiltable LCD screen, which can be adjusted by
pressing a button near the screen,dark grey LCD frame with silver margins,
floppy drive access indicators in front of the device, and a convenient place
to store the keyboard cable when carrying it around.

Software – 9/10 – there are thousands of DOS programs you can run on the
device, many of them, such as different text editors or utilities are available
online as a freeware/abandonware, you can customize it for your writing needs.

Final rating: 7/10

Sure, as with all vintage electronics, they may fail after some time,
but still. given the fact that they survived that long, there is a pretty good
chance they will survive even longer. There are many under-appreciated machines
out there, which are outdated by todays standards, but are perfectly usable for
a distraction free writing, SHARP PC=7000 is just one of the many. I will cover
more of them in my other posts.

* Written on a Sharp PC-7000, with a PC-Write 2.4*

Advertisements

Astrohaus Freewrite review

1814147-sized1

It has been more than a year since I made my preorder of the device, once known as Hemingwrite, often called as “The typewriter of the 21-th century“. I was intrigued by its simplicity, e-ink screen and mechanical keyboard. If possible, I always type on mechanical keyboards, they give much more tactile feedback, and makes writing much nicer than membrane keyboards of today’s era.

Finally, it was Friday the 13-th of May, when I received rather small package, and to my surprise it seemed rather light as well. However, it was the machine I was waiting for – the Freewrite. Inside the package is Freewrite itself, charging cable, and a very thin and small instructions booklet with basic information. When turning on for the first time, the device starts about the same speed as Windows 10 on my laptop – which means, under all this simplicity there is a powerful kernel hidden under. However, once its loaded, it takes 2-3seconds to resume it from standby, which is more than acceptable:

The build quality of the device is excellent, even beyond my initial expectations – it feels very sturdy and robust. Black matted case is no finger magnet as well – well thought!.

1814148-sized

Here you can see carrying handle and charging/possible data transfer connector on lower right. It’s a proprietary one, so my advice – do not lose charging cable which came with your FreeWrite, your mobile phone’s charger will not fit:

My only compliant would be back of the unit – white plastic somehow does not fits there, it just feels a bit cheap:

1814151-sized

When placed on a table, it stays solid as a rock, and is not moving anywhere, thanks to the rubber pads and overall weight of the machine – a great feature for typing.

Screen – backlit e-ink screen offers excellent readability in any lighting conditions, indoors or outdoors:

1814156-sized

However, it has one serious drawback, which affects all e-ink screens – redraw rate is too slow, it is especially visible when using larger fonts for better readability. I would prefer backlit LCD screen instead – it really gets in your way when typing fast:

1814157-sized

The screen is divided in two parts – upper part is for writing, lower – for status information, you can choose word count display, analog clock,digital clock or timer, which counts your writing time. It’s not hard to guess which one will be used for NaNoWriMo:

1814169-sized
Keyboard is a real pleasure to use – I have tested different mechanical keyboards as part of my obsession with vintage computers and typewriters, and this one is one of the best I have used. It’s tactile feedback and ease of use is very similar to the keyboard of IBM PC
Convertible, which I really enjoy to type with. The only keyboard, which does feels superior, and feels even more “clicky” is IBM model M, which I have with IBM PS2-70, red plasma screen luggable monster.
Keyboard is not the same we are used to see on our computers though – it’s missing several keys, such as Ctrl and arrow keys, so no way of selecting text, or editing something in the middle of the page:

1814174-sized

This is done on purpose, to keep the words flowing, just like you would do on a manual typewriter. It does allows to backspace though, so if you really need, you can erase and retype last sentence or paragraph. While many see this as a limitation, I would agree with developers, that in fact it is a feature. As a writer, you need to go through several drafts, so keep the work going, you will correct everything later. Keyboard has some other keys though – two red “new”, Send and Special, and some of them can be used in combinations. For example, pressing both “New” keys starts a new document in selected Folder. Pressing “Special” changes information display modes in
lower status screen, and “Send” – sends the current document to your e-mail
address, I find this feature very nice.

Controls – simple, but very effective. Left side – red power button, which is designed not to be accidentally pressed while carrying Freewrite in a bag, below – Folder selection, you can select three folders for your documents, but each of them can have many files in it:

1814150-sized

Right side – the only control here is wifi switch, which can be set to on/off, or new, which allow to select your preferred network:

1814175-sized

Configuration is pretty straightforward – select network, enter password, and all set!

1814153-sized

Additionaly you need to login to Freewrite PostBox from a computer, and choose additional settings, such as services you want to synchronise with (Currently supported are Evernote, Google + and Dropbox), additional keyboard layouts, font size for display and timezone you are in.

A community support forum is waiting there as well, providing help for early adopters of these machines.

Storage options – unfortunately, Freewrite is limited to internal storage only, which is also specified in “millions” of pages. No way to use any other storage is a very overlooked feature in my opinion. In case you decide to abandon civilisation for a distraction free writing, and go somewhere without wireless connection, you can only rely on device’s internal memory. If something goes wrong, all your work will be lost.

Battery life – according to Astrohaus website, it will last 3-4 weeks if used for 30 minutes a day with wi-fi off. It translates to 10-14 hours of autonomy, which is not bad, however, with wi-fi off you will be constantly reminded to switch it on to prevent from loosing your data – a distraction in its purest way.

Charging and additional connectivity options – charging is done with supplied USB cable, you can use any source you like, however, at least for now, charging from a PC may result in unit becoming unresponsive, and you need to reboot it by holding power button. However, no information is lost, and your document is where you left.  It also has no battery status indicator, only warning when the battery is too low. I believe this and other issues will be fixed by future firmware updates. Currently you can not transfer information by using cable connection to PC, this may put off some writers, which prefer not to use online services, however, this feature will be implemented in future update as well, according to Astrohaus website.

Summary: As usual, it’s time to describe some pros and cons to see how well
the device performs.

Pros:

  • Excellent build quality
  • Great mechanical keyboard, on par with the best one’s currently
    available
  • Great quality backlit e-ink display
  • Simple, straightforward operation
  • Document syncing to the cloud is very convenient

Cons:

  • No external storage options available
  • Some early technical issues, which should be resolved in future updates
  • Significant screen lag, especially noticeable when typing fast, or using
    larger text size
  • One way syncing only – you can not edit your document on your phone or
    tablet, and then continue on a Freewrite, when you return.

There is no case or bag provided as an additional accesory, however, as I found out, a standard laptop bag correct size might fit very well, and it’s possible to use the device on a lap without taking it out for extra protection:

1814168-sized

Conclusion:

I know how hard it is to release a product, from start, usability testing till the real product. Astrohaus have done a great job here, to deliver the product as promised. It does have it’s flaws, but in general it works as expected, and for the most part it’s usability is excellent.

You might be surprised, why there is no price mentioned in “cons” – indeed, I wanted to mention it, however, it would not be really fair. Freewrite is not a computer, not a tablet. It’s a very specialised tool for writing. Sure, you can not do anything else on it, but it’s exactly what it was ment to be. A small example – almost any cell phone can take photos. Do we see many people complaining, that professional cameras are way too expensive, because mobile phone can take photos and do a lot more? It’s the same situation with Freewrite, so why do people complain?

Competition:

Direct competitors – none, however, it’s possible to find cheaper distraction free writing devices, and there are many to choose from – starting with vintage portables/luggables from the 80-ties, such as IBM 5140 or IBM PS/2 series, Tandy 80 model 100/102, rugged Husky Hunter series, different devices of 90-ties, such as Windows CE handheld PC’s or Alphasmart series, such as Dana or Neo. You can choose manual typewriter as well.

However, for a modern distraction free writing there is currently nothing better in the market than Freewrite itself.

Some pictures comparing Freewrite to different other writing devices:

Alphasmart Dana (and Neo) are often used today by writers, offering distraction free experience for much lower price tag, featuring dual SD card slots for storage.

1814159-sized

Tandy 80 model 102 – very popular device for writer’s and journalists in the 80-ties, with mechanical keyboard as well. Can be used for writing today, however, it’s memory is limited to 32 kilobytes, so prepare for frequent data transfer, to another machine, or spend some more money on hard to find accesories, such as external floppy drive or memory cards:

1814160-sized

IBM PC Convertible – it’s mechanical keyboard with brown Alps switches is one of the best I have used. Keyboard on a Freewrite offers the same experience, however, the screen on IBM’s laptop has very poor contrast:

Husky Hunter 16 – rugged handheld PC, running DOS 3.3 from ROM, running from 4AA batteries. No mechanical keyboard though, Freewrite’s keyboard is undeniably better:

1814163-sized

Toshiba T3100E – a 286 processor based laptop, with great mechanical keyboard and red, eye burning plasma screen without brightness adjustment:

1814165-sized

IBM PS/2 model 70 portable – it’s model M keyboard feels even more clicky and more nice than Freewrite’s, however, the machine is so noisy, that it becomes a distraction itself:

Last photo – a mechanical typewriter. A machine Freewrite is trying to emulate in 21-th century. Roll in the paper, slide the carriage, and let your thoughts flow:

1814161-sized

An introduction…

Hello and welcome to vintage writing blog! A blog about distraction free
writing as well – typewriters, vintage computers, vintage PDA’s – it all fits
in there. I will include tips and reviews of vintage equipment from a writer’s
perspective.

One thing no one can deny – today is we live in a distraction full environment
– all communications, phones, tablets, computers, we sometimes forget to live
our lives. How many new likes my picture has on a Facebook today? How about
Instagram? Did I tweet something today? New update messages on our computers,
especially if you plan to use Windows – does 30 minutes long “configuring
updates” message helps when you plan to write something? It’s one more
distraction preventing you from reaching your goal.

I’ve spent many years of searching the perfect writing machine. And, before
you wait for the announcement of the best one – there isn’t. We all ar
different, we have different needs, feelings, preferences. This leaves a mark
on how we choose things, either for live, or writing as well. However, my
experience can help for those, who are starting to appreciate vintage
equipment, and find the most appropriate one.

First, the definition of vintage. Typewriters sure are, all of them, except maybe some cheap built Chinese made plastic typewriters, hiding under name of once great U.S. manufacturer – Royal.

Computers – that’s another story. While many would call their 5 years old laptops a vintage, it really isn’t – it’s just old. It’s not that powerful as today’s laptops, but is sure full of distractions as well. In my opinion, a vintage computer is a computer (either portable or desktop), which is able to run DOS, or even earlier operating systems, and can run Windows 95 at most, not more. It’s memory will be Kilobytes or some Megabytes (Not Gigabytes), and storage space will not reach one Gigabyte (when we have Terabytes today). Even then, many of them offer more capacity than you really need. Remember, it means writing, not gaming, photo viewing or anything else.

For your own sake you really do not need online services as well – with that I do not mean you do not have to back up your data – sure you do, since vintage equipment may fail (but so can the modern one as well).

Software – all you really need for writing is an editor, which can save plain text only. Sure, features as word search/replace, automatic backups and word count ar handy, but you can live without it. What about formatting? Do you care for formatting when writing longhand? So why should you care about it when you start to type? Remember, all you need is to get your thoughts written, you can do all your formatting later, on a modern machine.

Oh, so you mentioned a modern machine? Yes I did, and you will need it sooner or later! Remember, you use vintage equipment for drafts, and do your  final processing on whatever system you like or need – be it Microsoft Word, LibreOffice or anything else you prefer. However, for drafts, nothing can beat a vintage machine.

Before I end this topic, let me explain, why vintage equipment is better for writing:

*  It is unique – in good old days there were many different machines, with different design, ergonomics, weight, autonomy – not like today’s one’s, which look like they all are made in the same factory with slight design changes. You have large choice of very small, portables, ultra portables, luggables, and desktops, and all kinds of typewriters as well

* Distraction free – no updates, social networks or other things will take your writing time. When you use it, it’s for writing only, and this is where it really helps.

* It has better ergonomics. You think your computer’s keyboard is good enough? Think again. It’s most likely built on a cheap membrane, providing no or little tactical feedback. If you are old enough, you sure remember “clicky” keyboards from 80-ties? There is a reason – it’s a mechanical keyboard.  If you press a key, it’s movement presses mechanical switch, which provides great tactile and audio feedback as well. There are some mechanical keyboards made today, but they are really expensive. You can get a vintage machine with similar keyboard rather cheap today.

*  It’s not expensive – unless you are patient and do not click on first “buy it now price” you see, you can get decent machines in a great shape for a very reasonable price. It all depends on your patience and a machine chosen – a more rare machine will cost more, and then there are some, which are simply “collectables”, and it drives the prices higher.

*  You can always sell it later – unless you manage to burn or break the machine, market for vintage machines is growing, as more and more people start to appreciate the features they give.
That’s enough for the introduction, it’s time to write reviews of actual hardware. As interesting as typewriters are, it’s time to review vintage computers first. Somehow, there is very scarce information from writer’s perspective, at least much less than for typewriters. So, keep reading, and drop me a note, if you have experience with vintage writing equipment as well, and have some thoughts to share!