This guide available in video: https://youtu.be/a6guaEdeBVE
A distraction-free technology guide for modern writers.
I suppose we need to start by defining what distraction free writing is because we are often sold on the idea that “distraction free” is the most basic of basics. A pen and paper in the park; a typewriter in a cabin by lamplight; or a computer with all of the computer-y bits stripped out of it and sold for such a premium price it would make Ernest Hemingway blush.
Writing style is a a major determining factor in how we define distraction free on an individual basis. What you need for distraction free writing is not what I or someone else needs for distraction free writing and your technological needs will differ based on where, what, and how you write.
Let’s run down the various options available to writers today as well as the pros and cons of each solution. Let’s start with the obvious.
If you are the type of writer that needs to capture a stream of consciousness in the moment, then getting back to basics is likely what you need. When it comes to this type of distraction free writing technology, Astrohaus practically has the the market cornered with their well-built, well designed Freewrite machines. It has a clickey keyboard that is comfortable and enjoyable with an E-ink display that is easy to see in bright light and is excellent for battery life. With the simplest, most rudimentary interface, almost no editing functions, and such primitive WiFi Fred Flintstone could operate it, this has been the answer for many writers and certainly an upgrade to lugging around a typewriter. At $649, however, this is an expensive proposition for many. Not expensive enough? Not to worry, Astrohaus sells an Ernest Hemingway signature edition in chrome and green for $999.
A sleeker, more portable version of the Freewrite is available in a familiar laptop format called the Traveler. It loses the clickey keyboard for a well-engineered full-size laptop style keyboard. It looks small but is about as wide as a standard laptop but half the height. Same e-ink display, same WiFi functions to sync to cloud storage, and same limited editing capabilities make the lower $499 price tag only slightly easier to swallow.
Almost as though Astrohaus reads the comment section of their Twitter account, they are crowdfunding a more budget-friendly Freewrite device. It has a simple LCD display that can display up to 6 lines of text while barely sipping power from a 4200mAH battery. Made from what appears to be white ABS plastic and most likely a high end membrane keyboard, the Freewrite Alpha seems to be courting a market at around the $350 price range. What a bargain!
Tandy TRS-80 Model 100
The design of the Alpha reminds me of the Tandy TRS-80 Model 100. During its time, it was a favorite among writers and journalists because of its portability and the ability to run off of 4 AA batteries. After all, if you are going to spend $300+ on a stripped down computer, why not just get one with some basic functions and a bit of nostalgia?
Well, there are several reasons. First, the Freewrite can store millions of words / pages (depending on the model). With the the Tandy Model 100’s 32k of memory, prolific writers will quickly fill that up. Add to that no internet or WiFi connectivity, rarity of replacement parts, and lack of compatible ports, even a bargain working Model 100 at $300 is far less than ideal for modern writers.
Vintage PC or laptop
That’s pretty much going to be the case for any other vintage PC or laptop. Components will degrade, break and be difficult to find replacements. Even early internet machines are not suitable to handle modern internet. Best to just move on.
Tablets are cheap and plentiful. You can even get a new one for less than $100. Add a Bluetooth clickey keyboard for another $50 – $100 and you will feel like you have just put one over on the man. Yay you! However, tablets are not terribly battery efficient as they are essentially a big screen. No problem, get an e-ink tablet. Unfortunately, those are priced at $150 or more currently. Now, you are approaching the price of the Freewrite Alpha. Not to mention, tablets (and phones) are the exact opposite of distraction free. Even if you manage to keep from signing in with your e-mail account, the capabilities of the tablet make it all too tempting to install other apps that will endlessly pop up notifications, wasting time you want to spend on writing.
Ok, as long as we are talking about cheap computing devices that you can buy new, why not a nice, portable Chromebook? Many have decent battery life as they are designed with the student in mind and it really needs to last all day. Plus, used ones are dead cheap – sometimes costing less than $50.
Well, you don’t want one for the exact same reason you don’t want a tablet. Chromebooks require you to sign in with your account and, once you do, forget about being distraction free.
Raspberry Pi Devices
Well, we’re getting warmer. If you are not opposed to assembling the parts for a little raspberry pi laptop, these devices come in a variety of capabilities. There is plenty of support for those that need it and the operating systems are simple and do not require your e-mail sign in order to work. Plus, they are as distraction free as you need them to be. You can remove the graphical interface and use a basic text editor from the command line if you really want to go hard core. Let’s face it, though, your average user is not going to build their own rig. However, if you do, my best advice is to use a Raspberry Pi 3, Zero 2w or better. Anything older isn’t really worth your time.
Video on how to build a Raspberry Pi laptop: https://youtu.be/K1rjBnM7FoQ
If you are a writer like me, you need a few more capabilities than just basic writing. You may need to do some research or fact-checking as you go and that also means more than just some stone-age editing features.
So let’s talk about computers you can nerf yourself. The term “nerf” or “nerfed” refers to the dumbing-down of capabilities or features in a game – we’re just applying the term to a computer.
This is really easy to do with any Windows PC as it mainly entails simply not installing or uninstalling applications. Avoid things like games or anything that requires a login like e-mail or social media.
If you want to go even further, you will want to get rid of Windows outright and install a lightweight Linux distribution like Lubuntu or Xubuntu. This will keep distracting software to a minimum and still provide the basics like LibreOffice and a mouse-driven interface. You can then install the software you prefer. You will still want to avoid installing games or signing into accounts like Gmail or social media.
GPD Ultra Portable
This leaves a lot of options – including new PCs. As long as we don’t need a ton of horsepower, let’s go ultra portable and GPD makes some of the smallest laptops on the planet.
Cool. We have a tiny, ultra-portable PC that fits into your front pocket. Problem is, the keyboard is cramped and unpleasant. Bonus, it cost us even more than the Freewrite.
So, let’s get cheap. Like, free cheap. You may have an old PC moldering in the back of a closet somewhere that you could fix up and use for this basic purpose. As a bonus, re-purposing electronics is much greener than throwing it away.
The question is, how MUCH repair is this thing going to need? If the screen is OK, you may need to have the laptop itself cleaned out. Is the hard drive in decent shape? Even if it is, you will want to replace it anyway. That will give it a performance boost and you don’t really need to spend more than $35 on a small SSD drive (64Gb is more than enough for this purpose). Oh, and let’s not forget the battery. That’s probably gone the way of the ghost as well. If you haven’t used it since the Bush administration, it may need a few extra things to make it compatible with today’s technology.
It may seem like a lot, but it’s not that it can’t be done. It’s just going to get expensive fast if you can’t do all the repairs yourself. Then you could end up with a giant laptop with a dim screen and limited battery life at the end of it all. The reality is that it might not be worth it.
Low Spec Used and Refurbished Laptops / Netbooks
Ok, ok. So you aren’t going dump a whole bunch of time, money, and parts into a computer that might not last the day. Now what? Time to hit up Ebay! But what exactly are you looking for and where do you start?
The first thing you want to consider is a recent, low-spec machine. Why low spec? You won’t need or want the performance of a full laptop because you just want to write, edit, and maybe upload your work. Let’s take a look at some prime examples of machines that not just work for this purpose, but are very inexpensive.
EDU Spec Windows 7-10 machine
Let’s start with Lenovo. You are looking for old school laptops. The screens are about 11.6 inches so if you search Ebay for 11.6 Lenovo laptop, they are all less than $100 for a good one. Some have even been refurbished with Solid State Drives (SSD), but stick to ones that either have Linux or Windows on them. If they are Chromebooks, there is a chance that they are incompatible with other software.
With these Lenovo laptops, you are looking at school notebook computers – particularly the ones with the ‘e’ suffix (11e, x131e, etc.). They are semi-rugged PCs that were bought by the hundreds or thousands by schools and rotated out after a few years of service. As a result, there are some truly decent systems to be had for CHEAP. Parts are really easy to get as well. In my opinion, Lenovo keyboards – especially the more rugged EDU keyboards – are also some of the nicest laptop keyboards to type on.
Acer Aspire One
If you are looking for something a little more portable, you can hardly go wrong with an Acer Aspire One Netbook. They are slightly more compact but still have a 10.1” LED backlit screen and excellent battery life. The later ones (with the 10.1” screens) had much improved performance, but when considering the limited purpose this PC will be used for, processing power is the least of the considerations. The keyboard is a little flat but the keys are large and it is decent to type on. You can always plug in a small mechanical keyboard if you wish as well (which is what I do when using it at home).
These netbooks have been largely panned by critics since they were introduced but that just means they can be picked up for a song. $30 can get you a decent used one. $60 can get you a refurbished one with more RAM and an SSD.
Two of my favorite features on the Aspire One is the ability to disable the touchpad with a Fn+F7 keypress and the ejectable SD card slot. The entire SD card is contained entirely inside the laptop rather than part of it sticking out to get caught on things and is a standard feature on the D270 series netbooks. I save all my writing to the SD card rather than the main drive and just leave it there.
Detailed Video on the Aspire One build: https://youtu.be/1GNwgUqIoOg
Both the Lenovo and the Aspire One were built with serviceability in mind. In other words, if you have to change a hard drive or pop in an extra memory stick, even if you are a gym teacher in rural Saskatchewan, you’ll have little difficulty in doing so.
So, there you have it. A distraction free writing device guide for every budget. Happy writing.
This guide available in video: https://youtu.be/a6guaEdeBVE
Bonus Writing Software Guide: https://youtu.be/HxESdhcwpkE