The appeal of small computers


I just read an article about the MNT Pocket Reform at the IEEE Spectrum website and the comments about it at HN. Often when I dive deep into threads about small devices, my attention is drawn to bad comments. People asking who would want such device?, or $SOME_PAST_DEVICE did it first and failed, etc. You get the gist: people projecting their dislike about someone else’s vision disguised as unquestionable facts.

The Pocket Reform is glorious.

I love small computers. I am the target market for such machines. I adapt very easily to small keyboards and screens, actually I’m beginning to understand that I might work better and be more focused with such machines than when using large multi-screen setups.

My love for small computers probably begun with my Newton MP2000.

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My Newton, probably 20 years ago or something

I used that machine a lot. I had the keyboard for it and it was my favourite device to use for writing. I’d still be using it had the screen not been broken by someone accidently sitting on top of it while it was under a magazine on the sofa. The Newton was my gateway drug into small computing.

After that I tried my hand at an iPaq but Windows Mobile sucked. I went back to the Newton OS with an eMate 300. A device much slower than my MP2000, but that had an amazing keyboard.

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Look at that gorgeous design.

I still have an eMate with me. I changed countries, but I still got a 24 years old device tagging along with me.

Fun as it they are, both Newton OS devices are two decades old and it is impossible to do most modern workflows with them. They are still wonderful for writing, taking notes, and information management, but they can’t access the Web easily or run modern apps.

I tried a ton of devices in my quest to replace them with something. I was quite happy with an HP Touchpad running WebOS. It gave me the power of a UNIX-like system and a gorgeous UI. WebOS is still one of the best operating systems I’ve ever used. Its demise as a mobile operating system is one moment from our collective computing history that still fills me with sorrow.

Firefox OS, BB10, even Android. I used them all, but they were not the small computing joy I remembered from Newton OS and WebOS. It was quite ironic that the one device that brought all that joy back for me was actually a Windows machine.

My beloved 10′’ Microsoft Surface Go is probably one of my favourite devices. I got it in an emergency, my previous device broke and didn’t had the budget to buy a Surface Pro. I got the Go as a temporary solution but in the end I loved it so much that I used it as my main device up until my work changed and I needed a Mac.

Go, Go, Go!

I spoke about it in my one year with the Microsoft Surface Go blog post. I really love that device. Even though I’m typing this on a M1-based Macbook Air, which is a marvel of modern computing, that device doesn’t bring me the same joy as using my small little slow-as-hell Surface Go.

Small computers have their place. For me they are focuses. They enable me to be a better writer. I can carry them anywhere. It is easy to place them on small coffee shop tables or balance them on my lap in parks. They’re often not the best machines to do development on, so I didn’t feel compelled to context switch when using them and procrastinate my writing by developing stuff. Small computers are useful.

I know network engineers who love their GDP Pockets full of ports. They are fantastic for troubleshooting networking problems.

A lot of people (me included) love their digital typewriters—such as those made by Freewrite, Kim Jing, AlphaSmart—and wouldn’t trade them for full laptops.

Hacker friendly devices like those made by Pine64 or unleashed by PostmarketOS are a wonderful portal into experimenting with new interfaces and workflows.

It is not because a pocket device benchmarks worse than your full-blown Snob-cooled Quad Xeon that they’re not useful to a ton of people.

And for me that is the beauty of the MNT Pocket Reform. It ticks all the boxes. It is small and will probably be as underpowered as I want it to be since I can choose a weaker CPU module to keep things slow. It is hacker friendly, so I know that I can tinker with it beyond simply changing the background on a Linux distro. IT HAS A FUCKING GREAT ORTHO KEYBOARD!!!!

Sorry, I’m too excited about that device, my bad.

Anyway. These days, I’m mostly a writer or doing development to support writers. In that space there are some software which are great (i.e. Scrivener, Vellum), some writing hardware that is great (I love my Freewrite Traveller and am curious about the new Freewrite Alpha). But there is nothing in the market that combines being open source with great hardware for writers—such as having a proper keyboard—with good software.

The MNT Pocket Reform running Linux is already a writing powerhouse, but I want to get one and moving it further. I want to craft a little writing specific distro of my own. I don’t mean forking Debian and just preinstalling software. I mean crafting some software not unlike Freewrite or Scrivener that I can set to take over the machine. A machine dedicated to writing/blogging, one that makes those tasks easier. I think that would be a fun project to do in my spare time.

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