In my quest for interesting writing devices, I often turn to retro PDAs and old computers just because I finally can lay my hands on devices that, as a kid, I could only marvel at in computer magazines. I also think it’s good to breathe new life into obsolete and unused machines so we can rescue them from e-waste retirement. Why buy a 600$ Freewrite if a 50$ MobileGear will sometimes do better at the same task and maybe in better style. And, of course, there is the thrill of the auction site hunt, repair, exploration, researching, and figuring out all the quirks of retro devices.
Still, of course, I keep my eyes open for newly released devices that try fresh ideas and tackle problems in unique ways. The series of mobile writing devices — Pomera — is one example. I would also like to try the Freewrite, even though I’m not impressed by its price. Thus, I was recently surprised and delighted to learn that the company ClockworkPi that made the unique looking mobile gaming device (GameShell) some time ago decided to release a modern version of a small form computer called the DevTerm.
I stumbled upon it because I was researching a series of retro computers based around a design made by Kyocera in Japan around 1983 – the Kyotronic. This model later became a series of very successful small computers — the TRS 80 model 100 being the most well-known, and the Olivetti M-10 writing device most drool-worthy. The newly released DevTerm is a modern computer inheriting the form factor of a wide panoramic screen put right above a keyboard, even though, of course, it’s smaller and lighter than the 80’s machines. Excited about trying it out as a writing tool, I reached out to ClockworkPi, who were happy to send me one for testing!
The DevTerm (like the previous game console GameShell) is a device aimed mainly at digital tinkerers — it even arrives as a big box of parts that one has to put together! Following the included manual, I had a lot of fun getting all the pieces fitted into the plastic shell. All the necessary components (excluding only the batteries due to international shipping rules) are included in the box, and I needed only some flush cutters and a small screwdriver to build the device in an hour or so. The DevTerm is very modular on the inside. Even the “core” mainboard containing the CPU, etc., can be swapped. There are a few options currently, including ones compatible with the RaspberryPi standard. The other modules are also designed to allow anyone who can make circuit boards to make one that fits their purpose better. As a standard, the package also contains one accessory module — a small thermal printer that fits into the expansion port on the back of the device. I also imagine DIY-retro-computing community making different expansions in the future.
Making new modules or expansions is all a bit over my level of DIY electronics, though. I was pleased that I was able to build the device mostly OK. It was not perfect as I had some problems with a faulty screen part. When a replacement arrived, I was able to turn on the DevTerm and start exploring.
From the start, I was surprised by how small the device was. On the online photos, it looked somehow bulkier. I expected something as big as my iPad PRO, maybe, but the DevTerm is actually very close in size to the HP 200LX opened flat, or for a more easy-to-understand comparison, to a thick softcover novel. It feels nice and sturdy and has just the right weight not to feel cheap or too heavy.
It has three usual USB Type-A ports, an HDMI for video output, an audio jack, and a USB C port for charging. There is also a slot for the Micro SD card that acts as the main file and operating system storage. An expansion slot on the back now houses the default (and so far, only) printer module. The DevTerm also has modern WiFi, and Bluetooth capabilities, so overall wired and wireless connectivity is ample and simple to achieve. I’m a bit sad to see no serial or infrared ports on such retro-inspired device, but maybe someone will make an additional module for that.
The screen is a very wide, IPS LCD panel that is (sadly) not protected by any additional means, not articulated, and does not have touch capabilities. One is expected to use the device with the keyboard and a small trackball located in the middle, just under the screen. Below the main keyboard, there are also three buttons emulating mouse clicks and scroll. The trackball can also be “clicked” by pressing. I will get back to the quality of the keyboard and the screen later.
The DevTerm is a Linux device. Depending on which “core” (the small module containing the CPU etc.) of the computer you choose to purchase, the flavor of the Linux distribution changes a bit, but for writing purposes, it’s all similar. I decided to install in my DevTerm the simplest module compatible with the popular RaspberryPi Linux distribution. It’s slower than the other “cores” but less power-hungry, and it’s very simple to install pre-compiled software and look up answers for any questions (as the RaspberryPi community is so huge). Yet this core still gives the user an ARM64-bit Quad-Core Cortex-A53 1.2 GHz CPU and 1 GB of RAM — more than enough to run simple writing apps.
I downloaded the appropriate Linux version from DevTerm’s website, burned it onto the included SD card, and was ready to go! I will not be writing here about using the operating system — it’s a very standard affair with everything you could expect from a simple Linux desktop seen so many times on RaspberryPi devices. It has a desktop, “start”-like menu, some pre-installed very common applications (like a web browser, mail client, etc.), and that’s it.
Let’s get to the writing!
Writing — software
As this small computer is named DevTerm and is advertised mostly for programming and retro-DIY stuff, I thought using just the pre-installed Libre Office word processor would be a shame. It’s sluggish and over-bloated for my taste anyway. It’s helpful to have it there just in case, but I doubt I will ever use it for any writing.
Instead, I tried some more exciting options:
FocusWriter — I think this application is the standard “distraction-free” writing tool for Linux. It’s a bit odd because it is a pretty well-featured word processor that just hides away all the functionality, so you are left with only the writing editor window, but you still have a ton of options if you need them. This is a graphical interface app, so you will probably use it with the trackball or a USB mouse if you prefer. To be honest, though, I was not convinced even after adjusting the editor template, so the app looks decent on the DevTerm’s screen. All that interface and options make it a bit too sluggish for my taste.
The other text editors that I checked out are all working in the terminal (the command line interface). This might be discouraging for some, but if you are considering buying a DIY Linux-based portable computer, working in the terminal should not scare you off that easily.
First, I tested the WordGrinder, which is aimed mostly at people who want a simple to use editor that will allow for writing prose without any distractions. This application works very well on the DevTerm — I just had to compile it to have the newest version. It’s fast, offers some basic functionality like search, text styles, copy-paste, simple spellchecker, and so on, through keyboard shortcuts or a menu available after pressing the ESC key. WordGrinder uses its own file format to store groups of files but can also import and export to various popular formats (like Markdown). I like this program a lot, but it has some limitations (like the spellchecker that does not underline mistakes but only goes through them one-by-one) and not many options available for customization.
I also spent some time recently getting basic knowledge on how to use the famously powerful but challenging to master Vim text editor. This knowledge proved to be very useful on the DevTerm. After setting it up to my liking with some plugins, Vim works very well on the device and is just perfect for typing even long texts. I installed a wordcount plugin, the Pencil plugin (which makes Vim more pleasant to use when writing prose), turned on the spell checking, markdown support, and installed the distraction-free plugins Goyo and Limelight. Thus, I have the full power of Vim and a very capable Markdown editor, or a zen-like distraction-free environment when I wish. Indeed, I was so pleased with this setup that I installed it also on my mac laptop. As expected, Vim works very well on the DevTerm with its panoramic screen. One can also, of course, switch the terminal window to full-screen mode for an even cleaner experience, but I like to see the status bar and sometimes use the browser.
At last, also a terminal application, but with a less steep learning curve – the Tilde editor. A bit more user-friendly with easy-to-understand menus and keyboard shortcuts and with mouse support — good for those who are used to using Windows or Mac desktop apps, but still text-based, fast, and very light on resources. This app reminds me of some of the DOS text editors that I have recently tested on the HP 200LX. It works well on the DevTerm. There are many more interesting terminal-based text editors (for example, Micro or Ash) to explore, but that may be a theme for a separate story.
Writing — hardware
The overall construction of the DevTerm is suited for writing well enough. I would not recommend it for a full-time novelist, but if you want to take it somewhere nice and maybe type a two thousand word article, it will do well and provide ample retro style. The first DIY thing that one needs to do is put on some rubber feet on the DevTerm’s base to prevent it from sliding all over the table. After pushing the power button, the computer turns on relatively quickly (10 seconds in my case), and we are ready to write. The battery life is good enough for a solid few hours of writing on one charge, and if necessary, the DevTerm can be charged on the go from a USB C power bank.
The screen is good for indoor usage. The brightness can be controlled via a keyboard shortcut and is high enough for even brightly lit rooms. I would not want to use the device in bright sunlight, though, as the screen is placed horizontally and would reflect the sky. If you’re going to write your next treaty on fruit genetics in your orchard, an e-paper paper device like the Pomera or Freewrite would be a lot more suitable for that. For indoor types, though, the DevTerm LCD screen works well and is visible from most working angles.
The keyboard. The keyboard is just OK. To be honest, it was the only part of the device I was a bit disappointed about. The keys are small, not spaced apart enough, and can be hard to press. Pressing them does not exactly require force, but because they are strangely tall and a bit wobbly and “spongy,” they often have to be pressed at just the right spot and angle to feel right. The height of the keys also works as a disadvantage increasing this wobbliness. I think the keys could have been a lot easier to press if they were a bit flatter.
On the other hand, I like how the keyboard has all the keys that can be needed. Often on old PDA devices, I met weird keyboard layouts that quickly showed their limitations caused by omitted keys.
My view on the quality of the keyboard also changes for the better when I compare the DevTerm to my other retro writing devices. The computer’s size is similar to very small PDAs, like the HP 200LX or the Casio Cassiopeia when opened flat, rather than bigger or foldable devices like the MobileGear or Pomera. In this light, I can forgive the DevTerm’s keyboard a bit more. At least it’s not a chiclet (calculator) style one, and the only similar size devices I tested that beat it so far would be the famous Psion 5mx or the NEC ARDATA word processor.
Yet, I cannot help but wonder if a simpler keyboard with bigger but fewer keys and mechanical switches wouldn’t be possible. Yes, having fewer keys would mean that some functions would be accessible only through key combinations or “layers” and would require a bit of getting used to, but small keyboards (like the Planck, for example) seem to be very popular, and a lot of small laptops also used this trick. Maybe in the spirit of DIY, someone will make a mechanical version of the keyboard module, or even just one with more “flatter,” properly clicky keys. It would make the DevTerm so much better.
Storage and accessories. The data can be stored on the main SD card or sent to the “cloud” via WiFi or transferred via Bluetooth. Thanks to USB ports, external drives can be used for storage and keyboards or mice for input. I used a USB mouse with the DevTerm for the initial setup, but after a recent firmware update for the keyboard module, the built-in mini-trackball works well enough for the occasional file management. Still, I mostly work in Vim, which does not require a mouse anyway.
One of the things that pleased me immensely about the DevTerm was that my IBM brand USB floppy drive worked with it without any issues. I have a floppy drive attached to my Mac MINI, too, so I can store and swap files using floppies very easily. This is so retro-cool and surprisingly usable that I have been doing it for most of my recent texts. One floppy can fit about fifty longer-form article files with no problems. And it’s so nice to save a file to a floppy after finishing work, actually listen to it saving, eject the disk, and then write the file name on the label. So satisfying.
Also, the small printer module allows for printing text and graphics on thermal paper rolls (like shopping receipts), but I will cover it in a separate article. The print size is not so useful for writing, except maybe if you specialize in short-form poetry.
Overall, the DevTerm is a very unique and well-made modern device. While not necessarily built with writers in mind, it can be used for typing and editing even middle-length texts with no problems. I would recommend a more dedicated and fine-tuned device for a professional writer (or anyone writing longer prose) though. Still, if you would like a compact, cool, retro-looking computer with the advantages of modern components and software, the DevTerm is a very good option. If you already know a bit of Linux and would also like to try dabbling in indie games, emulation, programming or open software, and DIY hardware — it’s an excellent deal!