The device I’m trying to use in this part of this retro writing series of articles is genuinely unique. I knew I had to try it out as soon as I saw it on the Japanese second-hand goods website I usually frequent. A small format, portable, personal word processor with a built-in printer! This should be fun! I had to order it. And a few days later, the device – CASIOWORD HW-300JS was here.
The word processor came in its original case, which looked like a fake plastic book. I also got a plastic hard shell cover for moving the unit around in a bag (or a backpack, really) and one printer ribbon cartridge. But even before the device itself arrived, I started scouring the second-hand websites again for some things I knew I would need: new-old-stock ink ribbon cartridges and new batteries. Luckily, I found probably the last person ever to sell a bunch of the right type of ink ribbons for just 5$! It also took some looking to find four new AA-sized Ni-CD rechargeable batteries – I knew for sure that the internal ones would be dead and very leaky.
The first thing I did when the device arrived was to open the small doors on its bottom – four very leaked, crusty batteries popped out. Luck was on my side again, though. The batteries leaked in such a way that nothing important inside was damaged! I replaced the cells with new ones (I bought new Panasonic ones with tabs, so it was easy to solder them in), checked the voltage of the wall charger, and I was ready for the first tests. Everything worked fine, more o less – the unit turned on, charged, and worked on batteries with no problem – only the printer would not propel the paper correctly no matter what I did. After much tinkering, finally, a solid dose of WD-40 applied to the printer gears solved this problem too. Now I was really ready for some late 80’s mobile word processing action!
Sadly the information on this device online is very scarce. I was only able to find a short blog post of someone reminiscing about using the CASIO, and nothing more. No user manual either. Let’s figure this out the old-school way!
The unit is pretty simple: on the left side – only a charger port and a power switch. On the right, we find an LCD contrast wheel and a mysterious “floppy disk memory” port behind a plastic door. The blog post mentioned that CASIO offered a floppy drive that used proprietary 2-inch floppies and another one for a more standard 3.5-inch, which was ridiculously expensive. To be honest, I don’t think many people bought those as I haven’t been even able to find a photo of one – but I’m digressing. On the top of the device, we get the keyboard, a small LDC screen, some function keys, and a printer on the top. The HW-300 is quite sturdy and on the heavy side, but I can imagine someone desperate enough to actually use it on the go. Maybe on a Shinkansen bullet train or in the office. The power brick is MASSIVE, though – here again, the blog mentions making a home-brew 4xAA battery pack to power the device on the go for longer.
We shouldn’t be too hard on this device from the get-go, though – it was designed around 1986 and released in 1987, which also gave us such fine things as Windows 2.0, the Apple IIGS system, or the IBM PC laptop that weighed almost 6 kilos! More historical background goodness in this excellent CNET list.
The keyboard is quite nice. The letter keys are a bit cramped and on the small side, but still very usable. They do bind just a bit but still are good enough to write a few pages without making the user too frustrated. The largest “space” key, with a proper stabilizer and a nice click to it, feels very responsive. That’s something I’m grateful about – on many small writing devices the spacebar key is often very annoying. The keyboard has no arrow keys, which are located instead on the right of the LCD screen in a separate four-direction pattern. This approach was also often seen on many Japanese personal computers of that era (see MSX standard computer photos). The top row of keys on the main keyboard and the function keys have secondary uses labeled in blue and are accessible via a shortcut key.
The LCD is a proper graphical one (needed for Japanese language writing) and is quite bright, has good contrast, and is visible even at shallower angles. On the left, we get two lines of text (or, more accurately, two half-width lines – text scrolls as we write), and on the right, a small “thumbnail” view of the whole page we are currently editing and some status numbers (page, line, column, and amount of used memory). This “thumbnail” view actually works pretty well and allows for more proper word-processor-like usage where the user is more concerned about how the whole page will look after printing.
The printer is a very simple device – a black-only thermal transfer ink ribbon printer. It prints on regular paper up to A4 size and does it quite well but PAINFULLY slow. I think the whole printer mechanism is propelled by only one motor, which handles both the head and the paper movement, so the printer cannot do both simultaneously. Printing just one A4 page of text makes us a nice coffee-break wait, as we cannot do anything else while the unit is printing. Also, I noticed that the ink ribbon cartridges are used up pretty quickly (maybe a dozen or so pages per cartridge), so the days of me playing with this device are numbered, really. I can maybe get 50 pages from my second-hand ribbon stock.
UPDATE: After some research and tests, I confirmed that thanks to the fact that the printer uses thermal transfer ink ribbon, it is also possible to use it with thermal paper (like the one used for fax machines). I can simply take the ribbon cartridge out entirely, and the printer will still print fine on thermal paper. This also has downsides – the thermal print paper being fragile and the print not lasting – but at least this option gives this word processor a bit of a lease on more life.
The writing experience:
Here’s the fun part: let’s write something! In the standard Japanese language mode of input, the whole bottom row of keys is used for the many letter conversion options needed to write hiragana, katakana, and kanji (and sometimes the Latin alphabet too). We can, however, when making a new file, decide to write only in the Latin alphabet! This makes writing in English on the HW-300JS a breeze! An option like this is a bit unusual, really, as all the Japanese word processors from the similar time I used so far did not have anything like this at all, or it was a lot harder to find. Here we just make a Latin alphabet document, and all the conversion keys in the bottom row become “spacebars .” And we get a proper English word wrap too. Nice!
There’s not much real word-processing that can be done on the device – we get text alignment, underline, grey background, double size font for titles, sub, and super-script, and that’s that. Oh, we also can use a very simple copy-paste and tabulation. All very barebones (I think as I have no manual).
Writing itself worked well enough but had a few caveats: after inputting about half a page, the device becomes sluggish, sometimes even slow enough to start skipping letters if I wrote too fast. Memory (or lack thereof) is also very problematic. THIS is as far as I got in this article before getting an “out of memory” error and not being able to do anything more. The built-in memory can hold only about 6000 letters, which gives the user three and a bit pages of text in English (about 1000 words). Moreover, this memory is also shared with the device’s rudimentary calendar functionality. If we put any appointments in, we get even less word processor text space to work with.
The printing works well and is quite straightforward. We can print a whole document, only one line, or a selected part of the text. The second option is interesting because it allows using this device as a rudimentary electronic typewriter. Just write one line, check if it’s ok on the screen, and print.
The printed text is very readable, sharp, and double-spaced for easy corrections with a red pen. I was able to OCR scan it with my iPhone quite easily and with almost no errors – this is how I got what I wrote onto the blog, by the way.
Thanks to the device using an ink ribbon, we can print on normal A4 printer paper, which on the one hand, is very convenient (no fiddling with thermal fax paper, etc.) but creates the problem of prints being quite expensive per page and ink ribbons being scarce.
As I said, I was not able to find anything about the floppy drives, not even a single photo or a model number, so printing is the only way of “saving” or “exporting” what I wrote.
And that’s basically it! At first, I was a bit baffled by this weird device. I could not figure out who would want a word processor with a tiny screen that can barely store three (!) pages worth of text in its memory, print only a handful of pages on one ink ribbon with batteries that lasted only for printing two sheets on the go.
But, when I spoke about this to Kana, she reminded me that this device comes from quite a different time – a time with virtually no mobile computing, where people were still only using pagers and public payphones for communication and watching their movies on VHS or Betamax (although that format war was close to an ending). It must have been quite cool to be able to take the word processor off from the desk where it usually resided connected to a power outlet and write a page or two on the go. Or maybe take it to a meeting with a client and write a short agreement form on the spot (and print it in good quality for signing with those small red Japanese “inkan” stamp seals, too!).
It would take another TEN years for Japanese technology to get to the much more useful mobile word processor I tested earlier – the NEC ARDATA 2000T, which would have a proper, big screen, loads of memory, and even a PCMCIA slot for a modem (to send faxes!) or more memory still. It would also have an external floppy drive which used regular, cheap floppies too! For now, in the late ’80s, the CASIO HW-300JS was a viable solution for mobile, albeit simple, word processing.