Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Writer's Computer

Note: I am working on a longer piece that's not cooked yet. Rather than rushing it through, I'm posting this admittedly off-topic item instead. I hope it entertains.

I wanted to buy the writer's computer. Unfortunately no product goes by that name, and so I had to choose something else. Like most people, I'm cheap, lazy, and picky. What I bought was the Samsung Chromebook.

The best computer for you depends on what you're going to use it for. In my younger days I earned a living as a Fortran programmer. I used to love DEC VAX computers--does anybody else remember those machines?

Today, however, instead of programming I use a computer for writing. As a science professor coming up through the ranks, MSWord was the software of choice. In it's heyday it was really good. The equation editor (which I needed a lot) was excellent. I had to write assignments for my students, and also scientific papers for publication. MSWord did both tasks wonderfully.

Today, however, MSWord is no longer optimal. First, the program has just gotten too big. The menus are too complicated, and no longer very intuitive. Second, it no longer works very well. We had to put together a book-length document for an accreditation visit, and the pagination, table of contents, and indexing features are buggy and, frankly, almost unusable.

Finally, MSWord was designed for an era when words were intended to be printed out on a physical page. The great virtue of the program is you can design the page appearance precisely and easily. Things like margins, font type and size, indentation, etc., can be tweaked to perfection. For the hard copy MSWord can't be beat, even today. I still use it for exams and printed homework assignments.

But mostly I don't write for the printed page anymore. My current writing consists of two projects. First, I'm writing this blog. Second, I am writing a freshman level science text book. The latter is not the heavy tome you remember from college--instead it is intended exclusively as an e-book. It is full of hyperlinks, and I am purposely omitting pagination from the draft. The TOC has to be the hyperlink variety--page numbers do not exist.

I quickly found that MSWord was not the appropriate tool for the job. So I started using Google Docs (gDocs). This has pros and cons. The big pro was that the software is web-native. It is easy to put in internal and external links, and the program will let you completely banish page numbers if that's what you want to do. Unlike MSWord, the TOC generates hyperlinks just fine. Further, with the push of a button you can turn the whole thing into a web page. That format (while it still looks like crap) has all the functionality that I want the end product to have. It's the way I proofread the book. And finally, gDocs is free.

There are three disadvantages. First, the equation editor is hard to use and not very flexible. Similarly, Google's drawing program is primitive, and I greatly prefer Microsoft's Excel to any of its competitors.

The second issue is that gDocs is not made for big documents. My textbook is already 150,000 words long, and contains many equations, drawings, and pictures. It takes gDocs five minutes or more to load it all. Obviously, I'm using it outside its design specs. I experimented using MSWord, but that simply doesn't work. It doesn't give me output that looks anything like what I want to see. So I've put up with gDocs' shortcomings.

The third issue is related to the second. That is, even after loading it was extremely slow. I couldn't type faster than about 10 wpm--the software wasn't able to handle the data speed. Especially when I was away from home--e.g., at Starbucks--the whole thing became unusably slow. So I was stuck--going back to MSWord or equivalent seemed wrong, and using gDocs was impossible.

The computer I'd been using when on the road was a little ASUS netbook that I bought back in 2010 or so, running Windows 7. As a longtime XT user, I loved Windows 7--it was fast, intuitive and flexible. It's the operating system I have on my home laptop and at work. Using gDocs on my laptop (which never travels) didn't have the throughput problem, but I assumed that was simply because I've got fast internet at home.

Anyway, in a last ditch effort to rescue my book in its current format, I splurged on a Samsung Chromebook. It cost me $249 plus tax--shipping was free. I figured if gDocs can't work properly on a "native" computer, then the software is totally flawed and I'd need to start over anyway.

I love the device, and over the past couple of weeks it's become my main machine.

The Chromebook is about a pound lighter than the ASUS--a difference that I think must be mostly battery weight. The ASUS has a longer battery life (at least 8 hours), while I have to recharge the Chromebook every night. But the battery is good enough to last me for three hours at Starbucks, and I don't want to sit there any longer than that, anyway.

The Chromebook has a much nicer keyboard than the ASUS. With the latter I always had the problem that the cursor would instantly move to some arbitrary place, sometimes highlighting paragraphs of text that would then be deleted. Thank God for the crtl-Z key. That still happens sometimes with the Chromebook--I think it's a feature of the trackpad--but much less frequently. The Chromebook is larger, which means the keys are more widely spaced and it's easier to type.

The Chromebook starts up instantly. It goes to sleep just by shutting the lid. If I didn't have it password protected, it would wake up in about a second. Even from a shutdown start it's running in under 15 seconds. By comparison, Windows 7 now seems excruciatingly slow--that seems to take close to a minute to wake up. My computer at work requires up to five minutes to boot because The Man loads in a lot of network connections.

The main advantage is that my gDocs problems have mostly disappeared. I can type full speed at Starbucks, or anyplace else, and it works just fine. It still takes three or four minutes for my book to load into memory--I guess there's no solving that problem. I can live with that.

I do have some issues. It doesn't yet support Dropbox--I really need that. I miss not being able to use Excel. Google's photo viewer is unacceptably inferior to the Windows version. So I am not able to use the Chromebook exclusively. If I could only take one computer with me to a (wifi-equipped) desert island, it would have to be the Windows 7 laptop. But I find that the Chromebook is the instrument of choice for the vast majority of my computing.

Further Reading About Writers:

No comments:

Post a Comment