WriteBox: Part 1 - Concept & Design

There’s a problem I’ve been thinking for a while now:

For everything they enable, computers are distracting.

me, irl

Specifically, there’s a certain set of tasks that require a computer but which I find myself getting easily distracted from once the laptop’s cracked open.

Those are:

  1. Writing (prose and code)
  2. Remote admin of servers, and
  3. Fiddling with command line tools

You might see what these have in common. They’re all graphically boring, require very little more than a terminal emulator and an internet connection, and are easy to ignore when faced with alternatives like “check the latest shitposts on Twitter,” “play videogames,” or “play with some GUI tool instead.” Suddenly, what began as “let me get my laptop out to settle in to write” becomes “it’s four hours later. I’ve written barely two sentences but doubled my reaction GIFs collection.”

I’ve also never found those “distraction limiting” software tools or those minimalist writing apps very useful — I’ll either stop using them, or not bother with the extra setup step in the first place. Software-imposed exile clearly wasn’t the solution. For the minimalist apps, it also didn’t solve the ever-looming distraction issue of other programs.

This was also not a viable option. Too expensive, too heavy, and I don’t want to be the person who whips one of these out at a cafe.

So I started looking at hardware solutions, and it turns out I’m not the only person tilting at this problem. There’ve been some attempts to solve it, resulting in some neat machinery — the GPD Pocket, the handheld Linux terminal design from NODE, and a few others. They get about 60% of the way to what I’m looking for.

The biggest problem with those solutions is their keyboard — it’s fine for terminal or light coding tasks, but not for long-form writing. I could write a fun Python or Bash script on something like the NODE device, but not a rough draft of a legal brief. A micro-laptop like the GPD also looked a little too capable — the format (hard to type fast on, fairly big screen) is going to encourage the same distractions I’m trying to avoid.

(The Scripto came pretty close to hitting all the marks, but I’m almost positive it’s still vaporware.)

It looked like nothing off the shelf was quite fitting my needs.

But seeing what was out there built a pretty good idea of exactly what I was looking for:

  • small and portable
  • good battery life
  • great keyboard
  • design that lends itself to writing & command line tasks
  • something not too good for casual web-surfing or other time-wasters

And as bonuses:

  • expandable — USB ports, monitor ports, anything that would let this become a full-function device in a pinch
  • interesting — if I’ve gotta custom build something, I want it to be fun to tote around, maybe even a conversation starter
  • not too interesting — I’d rather not spend more time building it than using it

I’d seen some people using old microcomputers for this purpose. One writer suggested the old NEC 900. That’s close! The 92% size keyboard isn’t bad, but an archaic OS and lack of modern networking hardware meant offloading written work would be tough. That’s a no-go.

Then I found this:

The Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100

The TRS-80 Model 100, 1983’s cutting-edge microcomputer. Designed by Kyocera, and featuring some of the last Microsoft code that Bill Gates had a personal hand in writing. It was one of the first truly portable computers. It shipped with a BASIC writing program, a text editor, a telecom system, and a blazing 2.46Mhz processor. It ran about 20 hours on 4 AA batteries. Most importantly, it sports a full size mechanical keyboard.

OEM guts, circa 1983. Fun fact: the keyboard (bottom right) runs a passive matrix, so it draws no power at idle

With some modern hardware under the hood, this could be just the thing.

And thankfully, for the “not too interesting” factor, there were some prior examples out there to run with.

Now to find one for cheap and start hacking at it.