Small PC for Creating Word Files

A friend recently asked for advice on a “REALLY small laptop/word processor thingy that would pretty much fit into a (big) pocket, and that only needs to write/word process“.

The first problem here is that most people associate “word processing” with desktop publishing and document management. Programs such as MS-Word are considered as having the features required of a word-processor (which includes spelling and grammer checking/correcting, annotations, colours, etc). Programs that have all those features take a lot of CPU power. A Pentium-4 system might be considered the minimum requirement for running a recent version of MS-Word. But a hand-held device can’t have such a powerful CPU (it’s too small to be able to dissipate the heat from such a CPU or contain batteries that can produce enough power to tun it).

The next problem is the issue of screen space. A VGA resolution screen (640×480) is regarded as high resolution in the PDA market. Such a resolution does not work with a word-processor that has three toolbars at the top of it’s screen and a paperclip taking up space at the bottom right! I’m sure that everyone who was using computers in the early 1990’s can recall the minimal word-processing programs. One thing to consider is that 640×480 in a 15 inch CRT screen is much more useful than 640×480 in a hand-held device as the larger screen can have fewer pixels per character and therefore display more text on the screen.

An added complication is that there are two methods of input for PDAs. One is to have a hardware keyboard (which may be a separate device or may be part of the PDA) and the other is to have a keyboard displayed on the screen. A hardware keyboard makes the device larger and a software keyboard takes up precious screen space (you just can’t win).

My PDA is an iPaQ model h3900. It has 64M of RAM, 32M of flash, no hardware keyboard, and a screen resolution of 320×240. I have done some serious writing on my iPaQ (including writing an entire article for Linux Journal) and it works reasonably well. For serious writing you can produce plain text on a PDA and then easily paste it into your program of choice on a PC later (PDAs generally support connection to a PC via serial port and/or USB).

The challenge is editing files that originate on a PC using a PDA. Generally I try and use HTML and TeX for my formatted documents so the text versions of those formats are easy to edit once you have learned them. Taking data from a MD-Word file, editing it on a PDA, and then taking it back to the PC would cause many problems and probably wouldn’t be worth attempting.

Recently I have been using my iPaQ for writing notes about email and blog posts that I will write. If I get an idea then I immediately write some notes about it on my iPaQ and then usually type it again instead of downloading it. For example the notes for this post were “write about RAM, storage, and screen resolution”. Often getting the initial ideas to start writing is the hard part. Writing a 500 to 1000 word blog post or message is easy once I have the ideas.

If I was going to buy a new PDA now I would prefer one with a hardware keyboard, the loss of screen space for a keyboard on the touch-screen is a serious impediment to writing. The maximum amount of text that can be displayed on the screen at any one time limits the complexity of what I work on (see my post about monitors for developers). Another factor is the fact that for small notes the amount of time taken to remove the stylus from it’s bay is greater than the amount of time saved by using it. So I end up writing small notes using my finger-nail on the touch-screen which is significantly slower than using a keyboard (even the crummy ones that PDAs have). Of course the keyboard would still have to be QWERTY and have raised keys so that I can touch-type.

I haven’t investigated this seriously as my iPaQ is good enough to last me for another year or two at least and I’ve got an unused spare iPaQ to replace it when it fails. But if anyone has any recommendations of Linux based PDAs with keyboards then I would appreciate some comments.

5 comments to Small PC for Creating Word Files

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  • Roger

    Have you considered an external bluetooth keyboard? I have a dell Axim X50V (640×480) with an external bt keyboard, and it is much better for typing than the built in keyboard on pda’s.

    It is let down a bit by the often bizarre windows mobile OS, but is usable in spite of that.

  • Shu


    I use a Zaurus SL-C1000, with Angstrom.
    Abiword in OpenEmbedded/Angstrom is optimized for the small screen estate, leaving only essential tools in the toolbar.

    As Zaurus are out of production now (but you can still find them on you could try with a Qtek 9000 (aka HTC Universal).

    I use RTF for document exchange, or ABW, as I use Abiword on the desktops too.

  • etbe

    Roger: I haven’t tried such a keyboard. I am concerned about the security issues for such a device. I also want to keep the weight and space to a minimum. I carry a Thinkpad if I can, so a PDA will either be in addition to a Thinkpad, mobile phone, digital camera, an iRiver, and some other electronic stuff when travelling. Otherwise I only take what can fit in my pockets. In either case an external keyboard wouldn’t work well.

    But it’s good that you mentioned it, some people’s use patterns would really fit with an external keyboard and it would be a good option for a device that doesn’t have a built-in keyboard.

    Shu: Interesting to learn about Abiword.

  • It’s not linux, but I’ve got a Nokia 9300 (qwerty, 640×200 pixels).

    I’m going to upgrade to an E90 soon (800×400 pixels, camera, GPS).

    The E90’s a bit of a pig weightwise (200g) but will mean I don’t have to carry a load of other junk.