Most writers I know love stationery shops. I go in, browse through all the notepads (no matter how many I have already) and get obsessed with finding exactly the right one. That’d be the one that magically allows me to effortlessly write my novel and turn it into a best-seller, of course. It has to be the right size, with the right kind of hard cover, the right kind of binding, and the right kind of closure. If it turned my handwriting into something I could read after scribbling my cryptic notes, that’d be perfect. Then one of my friends asked a question about finding a lighter alternative to her netbook, and I got obsessed with finding the perfectly portable digital writing device in just the same way.
I own a trusty Samsung netbook N130 which I bought cheap second hand from ebay. It has a nice, almost full-size keyboard, comfortable to type on. It just fits in my biggest handbag and it only bends my shoulder a bit. The battery lasted about 4 hours (but has now died) and it runs a cut down version of sturdy, reliable old XP.
But hey, that was a few years ago and smaller, faster, lighter, better, more, right? I saw the Google Nexus 7 at the end of last year and fell in instant geek lust. Quad core processor that seriously kicks arse, a 7 inch screen small enough to take everywhere and big enough to be usable. It has 32GB storage (not expandable) and day long battery life (battery not replaceable), wifi and 3G. Latest Android operating system with option for future updates, no bloatware. I knew I was going to get it anyway, but first I had to find a way to justify it to myself as a writing device. So I did.*
But you can set up any Android device you already own to do your writing on for around £30. It just needs a screen that’s big enough for you to read what you’re typing. Details of my setup below the jump.
First, a caveat. My Nexus is not a replacement for my laptop. It’s for taking with me when I don’t want to carry my laptop or netbook around. (I am a technoslut.)
What it’s not good for: editing multiple documents. You can copy and paste between documents, but Android won’t let you have more than one open simultaneously (or if it does, I can’t find a way to do it). Also, on a 7 inch screen you wouldn’t be able to see much. If you want to work with two different drafts side by side, your trusty PC is the way to go. Probably also not great for big edits where you need to do a lot of scrolling up and down, where split screen on Word is your friend.
What it is good for: a very lightweight, customisable writing and note-taking device with a long battery life that you can take everywhere. Good for getting down new words. Plus you can use it as a kindle reader. And to pick up email. And for Facebook and twitter. And as an MP3 player. And to watch movies and TV. And play solitaire. And anything else you can get an app for.
So what do you need?
An android tablet or phablet**.
The Nexus comes in various different (and cheaper) models, and a 10 inch version. There are plenty of other Android tablets out there. At time of writing, 7 inch tablets start from £40 on amazon, although I can’t comment on the quality and they’re not on the latest operating system. I would go for something that at least supports the “Jellybean” versions of Android. The Nexus’s main competition in roughly the same price bracket is the Samsung Galaxy range of tablets. If you wanted to take a punt on a bargain option, you could look into this one. Of if you have an Android smart phone with a decent size screen and enough storage space, you could experiment with that.
A USB or bluetooth keyboard.
I do NOT get on with touch screen keyboards. As in, RAAAARGGH! HULK ANGRY! do not get on. If you don’t either, pick up a USB or bluetooth keyboard (should be under £20) to make your typing life easier. It will also maximise your view of the text (no annoying on-screen keyboard taking up half the space). I bought this USB keyboard and case combination first with this adapter. Although the keyboard was ok, it was useless as a cover. If you turn it on its side, the tablet slides right out. Then I chose this bluetooth keyboard which also acts as a quite neat cover for the screen, and a stand. It’s ok to use, but not a perfect design. The bit sticking up in the middle gets in the way a little, and the letters are rubbing off after a year, but it does the job. There are plenty of others available, including combined keyboard/case/stand designs for various tablets.
Protection for your tablet.
I still haven’t found the perfect case. I wanted something that would be waterproof, small, thin, light and incorporate a keyboard and stand. I’ve compromised with the bluetooth keyboard/screen cover/stand mentioned above and a cheap neoprene cover that goes over both that and the tablet for extra protection.
Sort of optional : internet connectivity.
Every tablet should have wi-fi connectivity, so as long as you’re somewhere with wi-fi, you can get online. But what if you’re not? Some tablets have options for 3G or 4G connectivity, but you will need to get a SIM card and pay for a data only plan. Both Three and T-Mobile do pay monthly, SIM only, 1GB data plans for £7.50/month, although you might have to go via Tesco to find them. Giffgaff also do 1GB for £7.50, and seem much more straightforward about it.
Although my Nexus has a SIM slot, I don’t use it at the moment. I have a tiny, crap smartphone I got free from T-Mobile. But I’m on a (cheap) phone plan with unlimited data allowance. If I want to hook up my tablet to the internet in a place with no wi-fi, I use my smartphone as a wi-fi hotspot and connect (tether) my tablet to it. Just about every smartphone has this function, but watch out for data fees if your phone’s data limit is capped. Likewise, if you’re using your phone or phablet and use the DropSynch app (see below), check that you’re not overrunning your data allowance.
Access to an app store.
I think just about every device comes with an app store installed, and for Droids it’s usually the Google Play store. This allows you to buy and download vetted and verified new programs for your device.
A file manager app.
A file manager app allows you to explore the contents of the storage on your Droid; open, move, delete and rename files, etc. I use ASTRO File Manager which is free from the Google play store.
A Dropbox account.
A writing friend with a day job in system management tipped me off to this. I think every writer should have one, or an equivalent, regardless of what they’re writing on. Dropbox gives you online backup of your files (i.e. in the cloud) and synchronises your data across all your devices. So you can edit a file on your laptop, and the changes will show up on your tablet, and vice versa. This effectively gives you multiple physical back-ups too, if all your devices are regularly connected to the net. It’s free for up to 2.5 GB (expandable by referring others to the service). That is plenty for several novels.***
It works like this: you create a Dropbox account, you install Dropbox on your devices, and you get a Dropbox folder on your disc or SD card. Anything you copy into the folder is managed by Dropbox and automatically backed up. If your device is not connected to the internet, changes will be uploaded to the cloud the next time it is. Changes are downloaded and synched to other devices the next time those devices connect to the internet. The online backup keeps a history of changes, so you can restore earlier versions of files and folders if you need to. Set it up once, and forget it. (Pretty much. I’ve had things get out of synch once, and I know other users have had very occasional glitches, but nothing we couldn’t recover via the web interface and the change history. Dropbox also have helpful support.)
Once you’ve got your Dropbox folder set up on your main computer you can move all your writing files and folders into it, and then use it just like a regular folder.
The Dropsynch app.
Dropsynch is the app you want to install on your Droid. The Dropbox Android app does not work as you might expect. It does not store files on the device. When you open a file, it always downloads it from the net. It’s designed for use on devices with very little physical storage. The Dropsynch app is made for tablets and works the same way Dropbox does on your regular computer, by storing data in a folder, and synching via the internet. Using Dropsynch, you can choose to map some or all of your Dropbox folder’s contents to folders on your Droid’s SD card. Like Dropbox, you can set it up once and forget it.
File Editor app compatible with your PC’s word processor.
My laptop and netbook are both Windows PCs, so that means Microsoft Word. QuickOffice seems to be the one that’s usually recommended but I found it annoyingly hard to navigate and the toolbars took up too much space. Most of the apps are free to try, so you can give them a go and see what suits.
After experimenting with a few, I paid just under £10 for the Office Suite Pro app (I’m using v6.0) which is compatible with MS Word files. In fact, it’s brilliant. I’ve experienced no problems at all swapping between editing on my laptop and on my tablet. Bonus points for having a (swoon) decent and comprehensive menu system which allows me to quickly find whatever I want to do (unlike newer Word’s stoopid toolbar ribbon thingy). If I could use this instead of Word on my PC, I would. I have very rarely had to resort to the help.
Bonus level – note taking app.
Evernote is the one that everybody has recommended to me. I’m just getting started with it. It’s a searchable, digital scrapbook/notepad/sketchbook/dictaphone. Like Dropbox, it can be installed on your PC(s) and your Droid and synchs data across devices. You can create notebooks, capture links, record sound, add photos and draw sketches. It gives you comprehensive search and tagging facilities. It comes in free and professional flavours, so you can try it out first and go pro if you like it.
So that’s it. Then all you need is willpower, to get some writing done instead of playing with all the other things your Droid can do. Well, you can always switch the wi-fi off. And maybe installing Facebook and Twitter wasn’t such a great idea…
May the muse be with you and your Droid wherever you are! If you have your own favourite writing/creativity/productivity apps, I would love to hear about them.
*I love my Nexus, but I do regret buying it from Google. Their customer service is infuriatingly abysmal. Here’s the short version of a long, tedious saga: I ordered it from Google’s own online store. They sent me the wrong device and although they got my replacement to me straight away, they took 3 months to sort out the return while obfuscating like it was an Olympic sport and they were in training for gold. I would now happily pay extra to buy Google products from somewhere other than Google. If you would too, try amazon, PC World, Argos or Curry’s. Or even HMV.
**Yeah, sorry about that. But that’s what they’re called, apparently.
***But not nearly enough for photos. If you want 1TB free online space to backup your pics, take a look at flickr.