Using the Kindle as a text editor

Once upon a time I dreamed the dream of having some sort of mobile device that I could use as a portable text editor, for writing on the move. I drew up the following requirements:

  • Full, physical keyboard
  • Nice sized screen for seeing what I had written
  • Small, portable format
  • Ability to easily move content between the device and my PC

My first attempt at finding this dream device was the Oregon Scientific Osaris, one of the old school “palmtops”. It had a backlight, greyscale screen, full keyboard and could (with a few jiggly steps) transfer data to my PC. It was chunky though and made a horrible buzzing sound whenever the screen was on.

Next came the Palm Treo which so far has been the closest to success. A decent keyboard, nice screen and easily hooked up to the PC. It could even work with Word documents. I still have my Treo but it’s gradually falling to bits and getting more and more expensive to repair. I’d say at least 50% of the first draft of The Mechanician’s Apprentice was written on this bit of hardware.

I replaced my Palm Treo with an Android phone – the HTC legend. While this is wonderful for things like social networking, multimedia, games, I struggle to write much more than tweets and texts on it. Why? The same reason as with most modern phones and tablets – the virtual keyboard. I don’t like virtual keyboards. I get no tactile feedback that I’ve done anything, often hit the wrong keys, oh and don’t even get me started on autosuggest/autocorrect. I looked into getting a little Bluetooth keyboard but apparently HTC buggered up the implementation of Bluetooth on this handset so that ain’t going to happen.

Now enter the Kindle… it’s got a big, easy to read screen, hooks up to the PC as an external drive by default and – blimey it’s got a physical keyboard! And it’s super thin and light. Sounds exactly like what I’ve been looking for doesn’t it? So I decided to trial using a Kindle 3 as a text editor – just using the internal notes feature.

The results however were disappointing:

  • Every time you press a key you get a small, physical click – this quickly begins to erode at your sanity.
  • Since the keys are arranged in a grid rather than the offset layout used on traditional keyboards, I was constantly hitting the wrong letters.
  • Shift doesn’t work the way you would expect. To get an uppercase letter you need to hit the Shift button, release it, then hit your desired letter. Now this makes sense, it would be a pain for most users to hold down that Shift button on the tiny keyboard. However, if you do hold down the Shift button and the letter, no input is registered. This is annoying and results in lots of words like “Indle” getting typed. I know the Kindle can recognise multiple key inputs (it’s how you activate the easter eggs) so this one puzzles me.
  • Sometime key presses just don’t register. Simple really – sometimes you hit a button, hear the click and nothing appears on the screen so you have to press the button again and lose your flow.
  • Obviously they’ve tried to keep the keyboard minimal so there’s the only punctuation key available is “.” If you want to do commas, semi-colons or speech marks then you need to open and navigate the symbol menu. Which is a pain if you want to write dialogue.

So to summarise – the Kindle is fine for entering passwords, doing searches or taking notes but not up to scratch for any serious writing. Obviously this isn’t a criticism of the Kindle, it was never designed for that functionality. It’s just a shame. I’d thought this was the one.

Title image courtesy farrokhi

Published in: on September 4, 2011 at 4:37 PM  Comments (6)  
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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I always read over the last draft of my story on my kindle, and I use the notes feature to scribble shorthand corrections. It’s amazing how many things jump out at you when you’re looking at your work on a different screen than usual!

    • See that’s actually not a bad idea at all… noting that one down for myself!

  2. The closest I’ve come to finding a low tech device that is terrific to type on and has over 700 hours of battery life is the Alphasmart Neo (see the active Flickr group). No SD card, but files can be easily transferred with a USB cable or beamed via InfraRed (your Treo has this built-in).

    The latest and greatest tablets and touchphones suck camel balls. Appalling typing experience, as you so well pointed out. I think Palm were way before their time and were under appreciated. If they were a new company today, I think they’d shake up the hand held device market good and proper. I’m considering a Treo or the Palm Centro, second-hand from Amazon. They are cheap and do the majority of the typing business.

    The only great typing experiences available today in the 3G space is probably the Blackberry Bold 9930 touch whose keyboard is evidently terrific; I haven’t had the pleasure of trying this out yet.

    I really wanted the Kindle to be my main reading AND writing tool, too. I doubt it’s going to happen.

    • Hey – thanks for commenting!

      Yeah it really does the older devices are the best. I’m vaguely familiar with Alphasmarts – they use to give to kids at school for assistance with writing.

      The option I’ve ended up going for is using a Notepad app on my Android phone and small, folding Bluetooth keyboard for extended periods of writing. It’s still not perfect but it means I have a nice, tactile keyboard to type on and since there’s no virtual keyboard on screen I have much real-estate to see my content.

  3. external keyboard is a good idea too – anyone tried hooking up Kindle to an external keyboard? i realize probably some hacking would have to be involved…

    • I’m sure I saw someone manage that once, it did involve both firmware and hardware hacking, with a full-sized keyboard plugged in the micro-USB port of the Kindle.

      I also saw this recently – a guy using an old Kindle as the display for his Raspberry Pi!

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