25 April 2009

A wandering scribbler, I...

Another one for fellow peripatetic geeks.

I'm in the process of promoting the palmOne LifeDrive machine which has, for the past three years, been my "extension handheld" to "primary device" position.

That probably sounds very strange to most people: upgrading to a product released four years ago, discontinued for more than two years? But I've always rated reliability above street cred or the cutting edge, in essential equipment, and four years is long enough for the LifeDrive to have proven itself. Two years ago, after all, I readopted the even older Psion 5 as a portable writing machine.

In those two years I have lost and replaced the Psion. And there's the problem. Replacement has to be by increasingly unreliable second hand machines already well used by previous owners; the usable life of each replacement is, on average, going to be less than the last. I mourn the loss of pocketable machines with proper keyboards, but can't do anything about it. I recently heard that Clarissa Vincent, a friend who has loyally stuck to Psion machines despite a frightening replacement rate (she lives on a boat, and her computers knock around the seven seas) has also finally abandoned them and shifted to a tablet handheld (also, as it happens, a LifeDrive).

Also in those two years the connected, low cost and low power consumption "web book" has proliferated. It's no longer necessary to carry an A4 notebook to get realistic working time, and I never again expect to do so routinely; at places where I frequently work for longish periods, I now keep a spare one in a locked drawer. An A5 web book will still not last all day (nor will the A4 laptop), and is not as portable as a Psion, but it will give two or three hours between recharges and fits easily in the same space as a large paperback novel. I now carry an Asus EEE PC and its small, lightweight charger, plugging it in whenever I am near a power supply for a few minutes.

The LifeDrive is a delight to write on (with either a stylus or a folding BlueTooth keyboard), unlike the T3 which it is replacing. It also takes the same MMC/SD storage card as the Asus (and my main laptop at home), so my work in progress can reside on one of those to move back and forth between the three machines. Since the LifeDrive (especially if the MicroDrive hard disk is replaced with a 4 gigabyte Compact Flash card) does last all day on a single charge, work can continue uninterrupted as long as periodic power access is available.

Between stations on the subway, in a supermarket queue, walking across a mountainside or a field, work begun on the Asus during a journey can continue on the LifeDrive ... then shift back again when sitting down for ten minutes or so. And from either, finished work can be emailed out (or, as in this case, posted to a blog) at any time – both have built in WiFi and will connect to a cellphone too.

Prolonged field usage remains a problem. Unlike the Psion, neither machine (this is a universal trend in current devices) allow battery replacement. I still have ten year old Handspring Visors in use for that reason: slow, and unconnected, but they keep working forever as long as batteries (one pair of AAs a month) are available.