The first retro writing device I bought was the small clamshell PDA made by Casio, called the Cassiopeia A-51. I did it because I read somewhere that Neil Gaiman typed up one of his earlier books on an early portable Atari computer (Atari Portfolio). I wanted to try something similar. Now, even though I already have a modern distraction-free typing device (the Pomera DM30), I wanted to find out if maybe a cool, retro computer could do better. I think I finally found a very strong contender!
Some time ago, I was fortunate to buy online a clamshell portable computer called the Mobile Gear. This unit, made by NEC in 1999, was sold as “not working,” but I had hope that the seller just did not know how to put in the batteries. The thing is that these old PDAs often had a sensor that would check if the battery cover is closed AND LOCKED correctly. Otherwise, they will not turn on.
When the device turned up, I put the two AA batteries in, locked the cover, and the computer just turned on! Win! I had a near-mint condition Mobile Gear MC/R320 to use.
Like the Cassiopeia, it’s a clamshell, Windows CE device, with a keyboard and a touchscreen. From a typing perspective, though — everything about it is a big step up.
The processor is faster (from 80 to 130 MHz), so the Windows experience is a lot snappier. There is still some lag when turning applications on or off, but it does not bother in daily use.
There also is more memory and a slot for an additional 16MB card (which I’m still hunting for). The device also has one PCMCIA type II port (I’ll get back to it), a serial connector, IrDA wireless, and a modem built-in. There’s also a speaker and a touch pen in the display cover.
The quality of the display is similar to other touch-enabled PDAs of this era. It’s very sharp and of high resolution, but I wish the contrast between the background and the letters was a bit higher. I guess you cannot have everything. The LCD panel is a lot bigger than the Cassiopeia’s, though, which is excellent.
The keyboard is also way better than most of the mobile writing devices I have tried so far. I think that in terms of how good it feels to type, only the foldable Palm Keyboard wins with it, but that one requires a flat space and is quite finicky to set up.
The Mobile Gear’s keyboard keys have a satisfying travel distance. They do not bind up and are positioned in an easy to get used to layout. Only the Page Up and Down keys are in a somewhat awkward right top corner. Luckily holding Alt allows me to use the arrow keys for this function too!
The most significant upgrade, though, is in the operating system. This version of the Mobile Gear sports Windows CE 2.11 (Handheld PC Pro), which means it has a lot more functionality built-in and supports many applications made by third parties.
The main application I use for writing here is just the standard Microsoft’s Pocket Word. It works just great, having many of the expected options — font and paragraph styles, search and replace, zoom, printing(!), and even a simple outliner. When writing, one can choose from a few standard fonts, but it’s also straightforward to add custom ones by copying in the .ttf files. This is a vast improvement compared to the POMERA, which forces me to write in one monospaced font! This newer version of Pocket Word can also save to a few more compatible formats, including TXT, DOC, and RTF, allowing all the formatting to be used cross-platform!
This text editor has some simple downsides that can be alleviated with additional software. It does not have a word count function for some reason, but later Microsoft released a Plus! Pack for Windows CE, which includes a small utility for this. Also, as default, there is no way of typing some characters needed in writing, like curly quotation marks “” nor en and em dashes – —. Luckily I found a free app called WR Tools HotKeys that allows for mapping these onto the keyboard. Also, I cannot get the spellcheck to work, but I’m guessing that’s because I have a Japanese version of the system that has this option removed (and a Japanese-English dictionary put in instead).
This small computer was very capable as it was out of the box. Still, I also installed a file manager (the popular Windows Commander!) and a third-party notes app that supports UTF-8 text files (SuperEditorCE). With these, I’m all set up!
Let me get back to the hardware a bit. The featured IrDA port comes in surprisingly handy — using Windows Commander, I was able to send files to and from my other mobile devices, like Palm PDAs, with no hassle. But it’s the PCMCIA port that opens a lot of possibilities. My everyday use for it is an adapter card for SD memory. It’s straightforward to just pop an SD card in and out of the device to transfer files to and from my other PDAs and my desktop Mac. The card can even be used on my iPad and iPhone with a card reader! I can write something and put it online, being completely away from my desk.
Out of curiosity, I even tried installing a LAN card in the PCMCIA slot, and after some fiddling with IP and DHCP addresses, I was able to even surf the internet using the awesome frogfind.com! Mostly in only text, no color, and somewhat slow, but still!
I guess this is exactly what I like about this small computer. It’s simple but featured just enough that it works great as a distraction-free writing device, but it also has some potential for trying stuff out and just playing with it, so it’s great as a hobby project too! The software is a bit harder to find compared to the Palm PDAs (I’m yet to find an English dictionary, for example).
Excellent battery life (months on standby and days of use) and the fact that closed-up it can be just tossed into my bag are fantastic points that make it a great portable machine. It’s quite chunkier than the Cassiopeia or my Palm PDAs, but because it needs no folding out, it can be used almost anywhere. No screen backlight, though, sadly.
I don’t think my adventure in looking for small, retro things to write with has ended, but for now, the Mobile Gear R320 is the distraction-free writing device in my collection that I use the most. So much so that it even found a permanent spot on my desk!