Minimalist Writing Devices, #3: Raspberry Pi 400

By Gene Wilburn

My Covid-era 2020 Christmas present to myself was an eye-catching red and white keyboard with a computer inside: a Raspberry Pi 400. Like a 1980s-vintage Commodore 64 all it needed was a cable connection to my monitor and I was sitting in front of a fully operational Linux computer. Cost: $70 US for the unit alone, or $100 for a complete kit that includes the keyboard/computer, color-coordinated mouse, HDMI video cable, and a book, The Raspberry Pi Beginner’s Guide.

As a writer, I’m fascinated by low-cost,  minimalist writing devices and the Raspberry Pi 400 (RPi 400) delivers more power per dollar of computing device I’ve yet encountered. Let’s take a look.

Introducing the Raspberry Pi 400.

What you get in a Raspberry Pi 400 is not just an attractive keyboard, but a full 64-bit ARM CPU computer inside, with 4GB RAM, a microSD slot to store the operating system and local data, 2 micro-HDMI ports, 1 USB-2 port, 2 USB-3 ports,, a USB-C port for power, a Gigabit Ethernet port, built-in WiFi and Bluetooth, and a GPIO (general purpose input output) 40-pin port.

The GPIO port is for makers and experimenters — those who create things such as robots and robotic structures, specialty electronic circuit boards, art and light installations, and much more. To this crowd the Raspberry Pi is at the heart of many a specialty project. For them Raspberry Pi is as common a brand name as Dell, HP, Lenovo, Acer, or Asus to most home computer users. Chances are you’ve not heard the Raspberry Pi name bandied about much in writing circles … yet.

With the RPi 400 that may be about to change. This is the first Raspberry Pi model that is a ready-to-boot-and-use Linux computer with appeal beyond its usual user base. I can see parents picking up one or two of these for their kids. It’s a inexpensive and great way for anyone who has heard of Linux, but may have been shy about trying it, to get a hands-on introduction. The purpose of this review is to examine this device as a potential minimalist writing tool that could be used by someone with no previous experience with a Linux computer.

Setting Up the Unit

The RPi 400 arrives with a 16GB microSD card inserted, ready to boot up Raspberry Pi OS as soon as you add a monitor or TV, and a USB mouse for convenience. The first time you boot the system it prompts you for your country, language, time zone, and a new password. The RPi then scans for a WiFi connection and prompts for its password. 

Once set up, the interface looks similar to Windows or MacOS, with the task bar at the top instead of the bottom. Navigation is simple: click on the red raspberry icon in the top left corner to display a menu from which you may launch any of the included programs or apps. The RPi 400 comes loaded with programming editors, text editors, and the Libre Office suite, which includes a Word-like word processor. The default browser is Chromium, the open-source version of Chrome. A file manager allows you to browse through your folders to copy, move, delete, or select files. The operations are intuitive and familiar to any Windows or Mac user.

And that’s it! You’re ready to write.

The RPi 400 as Writing Device

Because I use Google Docs for much of my writing, I fired up Docs for this review and found the RPi a very comfortable device to work with. The keyboard is full size, minus a numeric keypad. Because it’s weighted with a computer inside, it has enough heft to feel solid as you work. The keys are well spaced and the layout is normal with well positioned arrow keys in the lower right-hand corner.

At this price you don’t get a first-class keyboard, but it’s completely serviceable. The one caution with the keyboard is that you occasionally get keyboard bounce — two characters appearing with one press of the key. The bounce is infrequent enough that it’s not a show stopper, but you need to keep an eye on the output for occasional misbehavings. Some of the bounce may be determined by your touch on the keypads. I’m a heavy-handed typist, raised on upright typewriters and the original IBM PC keyboards.

The RPi 400 is not a speed demon. It has enough zip that it doesn’t lag while you type but it’s not a sports car. It’s more like a cute VW Beetle with rear engine. Fun to use and it gets you there.

Who is the Raspberry Pi 400 for?

The RPi 400 is a variant of the small Raspberry Pi 4 used in maker projects. As such it will certainly be of interest to makers and experimenters, but putting the computer inside the keyboard opens the device to a much wider audience.

Parents can purchase this unit for their kids as a way to learn programming, or just for general use. It’s a little sluggish on websites that include heavy graphic material but that’s to be expected.

Writers may be interested in this unit if they’re in need of a cheap computer and already have a monitor or HD TV it can attach to. At this price, it could serve as a complementary machine to a laptop or tablet, or even a unit you might want to leave at a site you visit regularly, such as a cottage or other external location.

Overall, the Raspberry Pi 400 is cute, highly usable and cheap. For most writers I would recommend the $100 kit over the $70 standalone model. The kit comes with matching USB mouse plus the critical HDMI video cable.

The Command Line

Although you don’t need to know much about the included terminal app that is similar to the Windows Command Prompt and nearly identical with the Mac Terminal program, you will need to use the command line occasionally to make certain your software is up to date. This is done by starting up the terminal and typing the following two lines at the command prompt:

$ sudo apt update

$ sudo apt upgrade

Running this once a week or so will keep the Raspberry Pi 400 software and operating system up to date with the latest upgrades and security updates.

Bottom Line

As you can tell, I’m enthusiastic about the Raspberry Pi 400 as an inexpensive, minimalist writing device. The bang for the buck is incredible and there’s nothing difficult about using a Linux computer for writing. All the usual amenities are here, packed inside a keyboard. The unit, while easy enough to carry to other locations, is not a portable. This is a small desktop computer waiting for you when you’re ready to create the next best seller. Happy typing!

Minimalist Writing Devices, #2: Kindle Fire 7 Tablet

By Gene Wilburn

I was determined not to make any Black Friday purchases this year, but my resolve melted when Amazon offered a sale price of $50Cdn, approximately $30US, on its diminutive, discontinued, 16GB Kindle Fire 7 ereader/tablet. I’m a tablet junkie with a soft spot for minimalist writing devices that goes back to my days of writing on a Palm Pilot. Small, I learned, could be not only beautiful, but also portable and productive.

And so, despite my resolve, I clicked the slightly more expensive ($70Cdn) 32GB version of the device into my shopping cart and checked it out. Two days later it arrived.

On its own, the Fire 7, about the size of a thin paperback novel, makes a fine ebook reader and a minimal Internet browser — nice, but unexciting. However, like the wardrobe in the Narnia books, the device harbours a secret — a passageway that can lead to new vistas. 

In short, the Kindle can be upgraded to include the Google Play Store, which opens up the limited Kindle to a much broader selection of apps than Amazon intended, including Gmail, Chrome, and the writer’s friends, Google Docs and Microsoft Word — apps that Amazon does not make available through its own App Store. (Although not illegal, it should be noted that this upgrade is not officially sanctioned by Amazon, who would prefer you to remain within their gated ecosystem.)

All that is required is that you download four Android programs and run them in sequence, following “Option One” of Chris Hoffman and Craig Lloyd’s excellent instructions on How-to Geek.

With the Google Play Store installed, the Kindle Fire 7 punches above its weight, morphing into a kind of digital David that isn’t afraid to take on Apple’s Goliath, the iPad. (Spoiler Alert: an iPad it’s not, but the Fire’s chutzpah might amuse you.)

Specifications 

Compared to my ancient Palm IIIc, the Kindle Fire 7 Is downright luxurious. Running a modified version of Android on an ARM CPU, it comes equipped with an earphone jack, MicroSD card slot (providing up to 128GB additional storage), front and back cameras, microphone, speakers, USB charging slot, Wi-Fi adapter, Bluetooth support, wireless printer support, and apps from Amazon store. It has a smallish 7-inch, 600 x 1024 pixel screen in 16:9 ratio. It also offers Alexa for voice commands. 

The front and rear cameras are good enough for Zoom meetings and taking casual snapshots, but by today’s standards the camera resolution is minimal — 2 megapixels on the rear camera and even less on the front camera.

The Fire 7 is small and lightweight, easily slipping into a jacket pocket, tote bag, or purse. Larger than smartphones and smaller than an iPad Mini, it’s a ready-to-go device that is easy to carry around.

The Writing Experience

Because the Fire 7 is larger than a smartphone, I found it easy to type on the virtual keyboard in vertical position. Turning the device to landscape position offers an even larger keyboard, at the expense of seeing less on the screen. The device offers word suggestions that you can tap for completion, saving keystrokes. However, it has a mind of its own and will sometimes change a word after you hit the spacebar. If you hit the backspace key immediately, your original word is restored and it stops changing it. It’s something you have to keep an eye on. This word-substitution quirk only occurs while using the built-in virtual keyboard.

Many writers will prefer to work with an external Bluetooth keyboard for faster typing speed. The Fire 7 connected easily to both my BT folding keyboards. It’s more efficient to use an external keyboard and I preferred it on the Kindle virtual keyboard when practical.

To prop up the Kindle Fire while typing, I purchased a case for the unit with a textured back and a “kickstand” to hold the tablet in landscape mode. This works very well, and with no virtual keyboard taking up screen space, the typing window in Google Docs is pleasant to work in.

I generally find that the virtual keyboard is most useful for jotting down ideas, outlining a topic, or writing short passages where typing speed isn’t as important. It’s also useful in editing completed drafts. An external keyboard, of course, allows you to flow at faster speeds.

Speed of Device

The Kindle Fire 7 is no speed demon. It’s akin to driving an old rear-engine VW Beetle — it gets you there, but leisurely. When I return to my iPad Mini I feel like I’ve stepped into a high-end BMW. This is not a device for the impatient, but it’s solid and dependable. Web pages in particular take awhile to fill and refresh, but I’ve experienced no particular sluggishness when using Google Docs.

Battery Life

The battery life of the device is so-so. I’d estimate I’m getting 4-5 hours of active usage, which is better than many laptops, but not as good as other tablets. In the evening, when I’m using the device to access social media or ebooks, I frequently plug in a 6-foot charging cable to charge the device and save battery life. It recharges back to 100% fairly quickly.

Bottom Line

To say the least, it would be challenging to find a cheaper writing device. Costing 1/10th of the price of an iPad, it’s been a fun purchase, despite a few quirks. That said, this model has been officially discontinued. The next best price is on the Kindle Fire HD 8, a device I tested and can readily recommend. It’s faster, with better battery life, almost identical in size with the iPad Mini. It, too, can be upgraded to side load apps from the Google Play Store.

Still, if you see a Fire 7 for sale, and love small but workable writing devices, the Kindle Fire 7 Is a bargain.

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Gene Wilburn is a retired Canadian IT professional who frequently writes on technology topics. His website is located at http://genewilburn.com

The Case for Google Docs

The Case for Google Docs

By Gene Wilburn

For years I resisted using a word processor. My preference is to write with a simple, fast, and uncluttered text editor, such as iA Writer. For things like headings, bold or italic, and links to URLs, I use Markdown notation. I find Word, LibreOffice Writer, Pages, and Scrivener overkill for my needs. Hence it came as a surprise to me to discover that I like using Google Docs.

There were two factors that drove me to try Docs:

  1. The acquisition of a Lenovo C330 Chromebook as a portable writing machine. A browser-oriented laptop, it uses Google Docs by default, and;
  2. The need to store documents where my co-author could access them for collaboration.

Prior to Google Docs I had been storing my plain-text Markdown files in a Dropbox folder. This worked fine when I was writing solo, but it lacked convenient versioning and collaboration tools. I needed both for a book project — Shift Happens — that I co-authored with my wife, Marion.

To further complicate things,  I use a number of devices for writing: Macbook, Chromebook, Linux laptop, iPad, and iPhone, while my co-author uses a Windows laptop. We needed something common to all of them – something to act as a universal host. Google Docs filled that role.

Setting up Google Docs

The first thing I learned about Google Docs is that you also need Google Drive, a separate but related web application. Drive is where you create folders to use to organize your documents, and it allows you to mark a folder as shared, setting it up for collaboration or mutual access.

Any web browser can be used to access Google Docs and Drive, but, on a tablet or smartphone, Docs and Drive are separate apps that need to be installed. With this done, every computing device you own can access your files.

Because docs are stored in Google’s cloud, you never have to worry about losing your work due to disk failure, theft, or fire. It also means that your document is always up to date for both you and your collaborator.

All this assumes you have WiFi access to the Internet, of course, but Google Docs has a provision for working offline when you don’t have access. You can tag any document or set of documents with a “Make Available Offline” feature that stores the document locally as well as at Google. I use this for documents I want to edit while I’m travelling by commuter train into the city, or at least I did in pre-Covid times. When I later connect to the Net, Docs automatically synchronizes the local file with the cloud version.

Version Control

Whether you’re writing by yourself or with a co-writer, Google Docs offers outstanding version control. Docs tracks your changes and keeps copies of your editing sessions, automatically, in the background. Available from File > Version History, you can inspect the edits in various versions going back in time. This offers the peace of mind that allows you to flail away at a draft, knowing you can restore from an earlier version if you mess things up. Versioning also shows you which collaborator made which changes to a document.

Simultaneous Editing

One of the impressive features of Google Docs is that it allows you and a collaborator to edit together in real time. My wife and I used this feature extensively while revising chapters of our book. Sitting in the same room, each of us with a device open to the shared document, we could each see what the other was doing, and any changes made by one of us quickly showed up on both screens.

This meant we could discuss the wording of the text, decide on changes, and see those changes reflected in real time when one of us typed them in. Although we were in the same room, connected to WiFi, this could also be done while in a Zoom session or on a phone call with a distant collaborator.

Download Formats

Not only does Google Docs act as a kind of universal host, it’s also a kind of universal donor. It can export (File > Download) to a number of highly useful formats: docx, odt, rtf, pdf, text, html, and epub. When I’m using Google Docs with Markdown notation, as I did for our book collaboration, I export as plain text.

From Google Drive, you can batch download any number of tagged files at a time. When you choose this option, the files are converted to .docx and placed in a single compressed zip file. There are no other options for batch downloading.

For our book project, we would batch download our files and run a custom script to unzip them and convert them to LaTeX files for typesetting.

Document Map

Another useful feature of Google Docs is its ability to display a document outline beside the document being worked on. This is similar to “document maps” in other word processors. The outliner is based on assigned heading levels. You could outline an entire story using headers, then fill in the details later.

Conclusion

All in all, I found Google Docs to be a solid writing tool. With its highly useful versioning, its excellent support for collaboration, and its comprehensive export features, Docs could easily become the centre of any writer’s workflow.

This is not to dismiss other excellent writing tools, and if you’re already happy with your setup, there’s no compelling reason to change. But if you’re not totally convinced about your current editor, Google Docs is well worth taking for a spin. You may find it liberating to know your files are safe, in sync, and accessible through any computing device you may own. Its attractiveness is not lessened by being accessible for free, with no upfront or ongoing subscription costs. Of all the writing tools out there, Google Docs stacks up highly favourably. Recommended.

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Gene Wilburn is a retired Canadian IT professional who frequently writes on technology topics. His website is located at http://genewilburn.com