Retro writing 02 – ARDATA

In my search for an interesting, distraction-free writing device, I went first for the most capable options – my laptop and the iPad Pro. With a good application, such as Scrivener, writing and editing on my iPad is just a pleasure (especially lately with the wireless keyboard and trackpad support enabled).

I could just end my search there, but I got curious about things like old palmtop computers and dedicated writing devices I wrote about in the previous part. The Pomera DM30 will probably be my goto for truly distraction-free writing outside.
Again, I could have stopped at that, but I remembered one more thing. As usual, with small obsessions that somewhere along the way turn into a hobby – there is always that “one more thing” to check out.

When I first started living in Tokyo, I spent some time walking around and exploring the electronics and anime/manga culture center, Akihabara. My interest, however, was less directed at the anime stuff but rather at the various used and old computer parts stores selling all kinds of things that I did not know even existed. On one of my explorations, I stumbled upon (in a dark subway passage) a shop selling only weird, grey computer-looking things that I could not identify at first.

I remembered that when I was a child, my father borrowed from his office an electric (electronic?) typewriter. A grey and bulky thing, too heavy for me to lift, but it was so fun to type on it! I think I used more paper and ink ribbons than my father doing his work. That machine did not have a screen, but it allowed for automatic re-typing parts of the text and saving files to floppy disks.

The grey things lining the shelves in that Akihabara shop looked a lot like that typewriter but with LCDs attached above the keyboard. I later learned that these were called word processors. It was a type of computer with an integrated keyboard, LCD, floppy drive, and a printer on the back used for composing and printing text. Of course, these devices (popular in Japan around the 1990s) were completely replaced by modern laptops and now are used by only a few enthusiasts.

During my recent writing devices exploration, I started to wonder if it would be possible to use a word processor like this for distraction free work. Still, after some searching online, I decided that there were too many downsides – these machines were extremely bulky, non-portable, and horribly obsolete.

Except a few special ones. In 1997 (again), the NEC corporation made a portable word processor that was small and light, did not have the printer or the floppy drive inside the main case. There were only two models made, and after some research, I decided to try the better one – ARDATA CA-2000T, I bought one used for 18$.

Small paperback book for size comparison.

Even though the unit was sold as “junk” after some cleaning, it turned out to look quite OK and work perfectly. I spent one day learning how to use it and exploring the possibility of applying it to writing blog texts, articles etc.

There are many pros to this cute retro device: it’s light and compact but still has quite a big screen, which is sharp and has better contrast than the Casio. The keyboard is good (these are rubber dome switches with plastic keycaps), and after some getting used to is pleasant to use. It will not beat any full-size modern laptop keyboard (or even the Pomera), but for a mobile device, it’s good. The batteries (four AA-size) last at least 60 hours(!) and can be replaced without losing the memory contents. The word processor turns on in less than 1 second and is quite responsive – I experienced no lag while writing.

I went for the better CA-2000T model because (unlike the cheaper 1000T version) it can save files on CF memory cards via CF to PC card adapter. This is still a bit fiddly and fails sometimes, but when everything goes well, it allows me to get the .txt format data and open it on my computer. If this option were not here, I would probably have to use a floppy.

Of course, this device was not only limited to writing text. There is a simple calendar app, calculator, scheduler, todo list, spreadsheet (with the graphing capability), a train schedule checker (with data from 1997 I would not use it today) and even an e-mail client! The unit I bought had a PC card modem in it, so I wondered if it was used for sending electronic mail. I checked the settings, and yes, it was still configured to use the network! I can imagine how cool it must have been then to use this word processor to respond to e-mails by connecting to a cellphone or even better – an ISDN public payphone!

There are sadly many downsides – mostly, it’s about the original function of the device, which was made for writing Japanese text in the late 90’s so forcing it to work with regular English characters was more difficult than I expected. What’s more, it’s mostly geared for making pages of text and then printing them. All the options that allowed for that can be a bother if I just want to get a simple text file in the end – for example, while word-wrapping the word processor will use spaces to move the word to the next line which results in a text file full of weird gaps. Word processors, in general, also used different editing methods to what we are used to on modern computers. Instead of Ctrl+C for copy and Shift for selecting, here there are dedicated keys for all that – all of them labeled in complicated kanji characters, so it took me a long time to even figure out how to copy or delete something.

Of course, even if you find one, I don’t recommend buying an ARDATA. I’m glad I did – figuring it out was A LOT of fun. Even if it’s not very efficient, it’s cute, and the form factor is just right. With a set of new rechargeable batteries in, it should work even longer than the original 60 hours. Adorned with cool stickers, it looks great, so I can not wait to take it out somewhere for a writing session. For regular writing stuff I will stick to the Pomera or my iPad though.

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