Ministry of Prose: making words work for your business

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Alex Cruickshank's writing machines: Palm IIIxe

October 2015

A decent writing device needs a good keyboard and screen. Ideally it should also have a long battery life, since creative writing isn't always achieved when sitting (or standing) at an office desk. It's rare to find a device that combines all three qualities. Unlikely though it might seem, the Palm IIIxe does just that, even though it was made in the year 2000.

Palm IIIxe

First, the screen. This is a monochrome LCD display that can show just a few shades of grey. It's useless for graphics, gaming and video playback, but ideal for writing. I'm a big fan of mono LCD screens (such as on the Psion 5mx and AlphaSmart Neo) because you can use them in almost any lighting conditions, even strong sunlight. They're extremely power-efficient, too.

Then there's the size of the screen. This one is small, but large enough for writing purposes. In fact the size is a welcome constraint. It makes it easy to focus and concentrate on what I'm writing. Seven or eight words to a line, 12 lines to a screen, 650 words to a Memo entry. It's the ideal machine for first drafts.

This Palm has had its brain wiped by me, the flash firmware replaced with a modified package combining writing tools, useful file utilities and a few games. The cut-down Palm OS is easy to use and reliable. Put two AAA batteries in, switch on and start typing...

Oh yes, the keyboard. Obviously this tiny PDA doesn't have one as standard. So how do I type on it?

Palm IIIxe with Palm Portable Keyboard

Good keyboards can be found in surprising places. Some old PCs have them. You can buy them for new computers too. And Palm made a beautiful folding one for the IIIxe and other models in its PDA line-up. They can be picked up for peanuts today.

The Palm Portable Keyboard is a lovely piece of kit. The design is elegant, it has a stand for the IIIxe that holds it at the perfect angle, and the key feel is just right. Even though it uses rubber membranes rather than mechanical switches, this is one of my favourite keyboards.

Finally, the battery life. Two AAAs provide enough juice for about 25 hours of solid typing. There's no scrabbling around for a charger when the power gets low, since batteries are easy to buy. When I find the time I might even convert this Palm IIIxe to solar power.

I sometimes go out for the day, write a few thousand words on this machine and then transfer the text via jPilot in Linux. With a USB-serial adapter, the cradle connection works first time, every time.

It's great to be able to take a capable writing device with me without having to lug a laptop bag around. I carry the Palm in one pocket, the keyboard in another. I get some strange looks when using the two together in public, but that's all part of the fun.

As with the AlphaSmart Neo, I own several Palm IIIxe devices and keyboards, plus some handy Palm accessories. Nobody's making them any more and they won't last forever. Nothing - not even a near-perfect writing tool - ever does.

Alex Cruickshank is CEO and Chief Wordsmith at Ministry of Prose and likes well-designed writing technology, no matter how old.

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