The Perfect Writer's Laptop

The newly tinified MacBook Air gets more high praise, from the perspective of a writer on the hoof: "After fifteen years I've finally found the perfect writer's machine in the new 11.6-inch MacBook Air. It fuses together both the best software and hardware of which a writer could ever dream, while boasting all of the slender and effortless portability of a composition journal."


  1. I love my 13″ Acer TravelMate but I must admit that what put me off the Mac was the price rather than the features. I just couldn’t afford one!

    On the other hand, I do have everything I want in my little machine, even if it’s a bit heavier and a lot less beautiful!

  2. Best writers computer: Tandy WP2

    Battery life: >24 hours, maybe even 48, on 4xAA.
    Size: A4
    Screen: Reflective, black and white, daylight readable.
    Software: Word Processor, well competent text editor.
    Storage: ~20 pages, ~200 with 128K upgrade.
    Cost: I’ve gotten two at ~£15 each, including postage.

    Down side: I can type a little faster than it’s 5.5Mhz processor can keep up with. Also it needs a serial connection to download documents from. I ended up writing a Python script to handle uploading/downloading as available software (Minicom etc) was lacking.

      1. The Tandy WP2 IS a Z88, just with a custom OS, that 5.5Mhz chip is a Z80. :-P

        Also, over the TSR80 Portable (which is it’s direct ancestor) it has a 14×80 character screen. You lose BASIC however…

        The Amstrad NC100 was another almost identical machine (well the internals and software were totally different, but externally it was the same) that unfortunately I’ve never got the chance to get my mits on (they are rarer and more expensive).

    1. I have to agree with you on this one, although my favorite is my TRS80 Portable, which includes a 300 baud modem. I bought two from a reporter who’d just returned from a long assignment in rural Africa; no moving parts, very tough machines, very easy to work away from infrastructure.

      In my case, I needed something to take notes on in highschool, having finally FINALLY got the school board to admit that I was in fact profoundly learning disabled and would never be able to keep up in my courses via handwriting. The TRS80s were perfect because the school’s last feeble excuse for why I couldn’t use assistive technology (“She’ll just play video games in class and distract the other students”) was pretty laughable when confronted with the 6 line 40 character text-only grey-and-darker-grey screen and total lack of speakers.

      Theoretically I could have typed in an old BASIC text adventure, but nobody told them about the possibility, and I think the dialect was a little nonstandard anyways.

      It was nice watching my grade average go up a whole letter after a semester with being able to type instead of fight with a pen…

  3. My vote for best software: a distraction-free plain text editor (I use Gnu Emacs) set to light-grey text on a black background to reduce eyestrain, plus Perl scripts to convert plan text files into nicely-formatted HTML (for upload) and OpenOffice/Word/PDF files (both reader- and submission-ready formats).

    Can you tell I’m a hacker? :-)

  4. I use a beautifully carved, leather-bound unlined composition journal that accepts replacement pages in standard sizes. It’s faster and more flexible in terms of fonts, illustration, boot time, etc. than a computer.

    Then I prepare for publishing on a desktop system, located near my beer supply, that has superior performance and ergonomics at a lower cost than any laptop.

    But my cheaper, more powerful system is suited to my tastes, and another writer almost certainly has other tastes. Cost of production is not really important if you can make more money from the product.

  5. While we’re on the subject,

    Does anyone know of a way to make OpenOffice (or another Linux friendly word processor) put text in Shunn’s standard manuscript format and save it in a way that actually preserves that format? I dug up some templates, but after I save then as Doc or RTF, opening them in MS-Word (or even in OpenOffice again) reveals that the formatting has been borked in one way or another. I’ll learn to use emacs if it can save a correctly formatted manuscript.

    I also personally recommend the Clark Nova Portable. It has mythic resonance.

      1. Those are the ones I use now. They look great in native OpenOffice, but most people want RTF or DOC format.

  6. I acquired an 11.6″ Macbook Air for writing and travel.

    It’s a bit like cameras; the best camera is always the one in your hand when you see something that needs shooting. And the best computer is always one that’s to hand. The 11.6″ Airbook is about as small as you can physically make a laptop without shrinking the keyboard to unusability or making it so weak that it flexes. I’ve iterated through a bunch of netbooks over the past few years, and the only portable I’ve ever had that could come close to the Airbook was a Sony Vaio TX3 — but the TX series and their successors, the TZs — are actually more expensive.

    The only thing really wrong with the Airbook is that it maxes out at 128Gb of SSD capacity, and OWC will break that barrier (at a price) with a 250 or 360Gb SSD.

    1. Really? 128GB isn’t enough? For a writing machine?

      You could store about 31,000 copies of Larry Lessig’s ‘Code (version 2.0)’ as a PDF file with graphics (4.13 MB each) or;
      about 78,0000 copies of Little Brother, as a typeset/formatted PDF suitable for eReaders (1.78 MB each) or;
      100,000 copies of ‘Moby Dick; or The Whale’ as a TXT file (1.20 MB each)…

      /even allowing for an operating system and word processing software.

      //and a copy of Angry Birds.

      1. You’ll notice he said “for writing and travel”. Implication: the device needs to do more than just be a writing machine.

          1. Well Stross probably answered your comment, but why are you ignoring the “travel” requirement. That implies all sorts of things beyond simply being a writing machine. At that point I suspect you want the device to also be an entertainment machine.

      2. For writing and nothing else, 128Gb is fine. For use as a travel laptop when I’m away from home (which I am, for weeks at a time) it’s less good. I have an iPhone, and iPad; iTunes automatically backs up iOS devices into your ~/Library folder, which can take up an enormous amount of space. And that’s before you add the 70Gb iTunes library I like to keep around for music, never mind videos.

        I can get around this limitation with an external USB hard drive (I use a symbolic link to shuffle the iOS backup image folder onto the external drive), but it does mean travelling with another gadget, be it ever so small. And a plethora of small gadgets sooner or later adds up to the equivalent of a much heavier laptop.

        Reasons I hate the Asus Eee with a fiery, livid passion? Look at the keyboard and tell me you can touch-type with a right shift key that’s in the wrong place and much too small. (This is admittedly not unique to Asus — I’ve noticed a lot of Japanese, Chinese and Korean manufactured laptops have tiny or non-existent right shift keys, and I suspect it’s to do with the requirements of non-western character sets.)

        1. “Reasons I hate the Asus Eee with a fiery, livid passion? Look at the keyboard and tell me you can touch-type with a right shift key that’s in the wrong place and much too small.”

          Once I got used to it, I’m sure I could. More to the point, the current ones have it in the right place and almost the same size as on a full-sized keyboard. I have absolutely no issues writing essays and the like on mine.

          1. Well, I have used a great many keyboards, from Royal and Underwood typewriters to Sun to IBM 3270 to VT52 to TTY-30 to Beehive to Esprit 105 etc. etc. etc you get the picture. Nearly every english-language keyboard every made, really.

            But laptops, especially the eeeeeeeePC, have keys too small for my giant american ham hands to comfortably use. If you can palm a basketball, just one of your hands will engulf that teentsy little keyboard.

            So I use a pencil or a desktop PC most of the time, and a Dell Lat420 if I must have wireshark or ksimet or something like that handy.

  7. I’ve got the ThinkPad X100e about a year now. It’s 11.6″ kinda netbook with 4 GB of RAM, 320-GB HDD, quite serious video card, typical ThinkPad’s ability to withstand enormous hardship of writer’s life and possibly the best (for heavy writing) keyboard of all netbooks and ultraportatives I’ve ever had in my hands.

  8. Ah hah! I just KNEW there had to be a reasonable explanation for my laziness (although I prefer the term “perfection paralysis”) when it came to writing. All these years, I’ve been using a less-than perfect writing machine!

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll finish the rest of my comment when I get back from the Apple Store.

  9. Second the Eee PC: The clamshell design has a spring-mounted keyboard that’s extremely comfortable and the battery life is 5-8 hours. If something breaks I can take it apart and fix it myself using commodity parts I can find online cheaply or at a local office or electronics store immediately if I’m on the road.

    Also, unlike the Air it’s small enough to be unfolded fully on an airplane folding tray.

  10. My own MacBook Air 11 actually replaced an x100e! Both are great machines, but the Air is in a league of its own.

    Charlie’s right, the only alternative are the Sony X series. Unfortunately, they’re even more expensive and the long-life battery is a thumbscrewed-on monster.

  11. The 11″ Macbook Air is the most beautiful form factor I’ve ever observed but the g33k in me speaks out that it’s sibling of the same price – the white unibody Macbook – has more than twice the system resources, 2″ more display area, Gigabit Ethernet, a SuperDrive optical drive plus a Volkswagen Beetle kind of appeal to me.

  12. I’ve been chained to my underrated Acer Aspire One 10″ since I bought it while traveling (out of desperation when my HP bought the farm at the airport). It was less than $300, has never crashed in 18 months, it has a lightning quick start up and it does everything I need. Because it fits into my purse, I take it everywhere with me and get a lot of writing done in odd places, like the park. The battery life, off the net, is up to 8 hours. It’s also candy-apple red and that pleases me.

    The lifespan of any tech in my house is two years before I start itching for an upgrade. The bottom line is that I’m not about to shell out more than a grand for something that I’m going to replace in that time frame.

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