Teardown: The Writer Word Processor

For modern students, the spiral notebook has given way to the laptop and the pocket calculator has been supplanted by the smart phone. We’re not just talking about high school and college, either. Today, the education of even grade school children is intrinsically linked with technology. While some might question the wisdom of moving away from the pencil and pad at such a young age, there’s little question that all the kids stuck at home right now due to COVID-19 would have had a much harder time transitioning to remote learning otherwise.

But that certainly wasn’t the case when Advanced Keyboard Technologies released the Writer in 2003. Back then, five years before the first netbooks hit the market, you’d be hard pressed to find a laptop cheap enough to give to a grade school student. In comparison, these small electronic word processors could be purchased for as little as $150. Not only was the initial price low, but the maintenance costs were almost negligible. They ran for hundreds of hours on a standard AA batteries, and didn’t require schools to have any IT staff to manage them. Sure they couldn’t get on the Internet or even run any software, but they would give students a chance to hone their keyboarding skills.

The 1988 precursor to the Writer

In many ways, the Writer could be thought of as the successor to educational toys like the VTech preComputer 1000. A device that was simple enough for a child to use, but had enough similarities with a real computer that it has value as a training tool. To that end, the Writer took the concept even farther. It offered ways to check and improve the student’s typing speed, and even featured a simplistic file management system that allowed students to organize their assignments in custom directories.

When computers became cheap enough, devices like this naturally fell to the wayside. But interestingly, the story didn’t end there. It turns out many writers, professional or otherwise, have come to swear by this style of word processor. Easily obtainable on the second hand market, devices like the Alphasmart Neo are prized as a reliable way to capture thoughts on the go. With a battery life measured in weeks and no chance that your writing session will get interrupted by an ill-timed system update, it’s not hard to see why.

So what’s inside one of these educational word processors, and just as importantly, is it worth carrying one around to bang out the Great American Novel? Let’s take one apart and find out.

The Bare Necessities

At the most basic level, the Writer is nothing more than a keyboard, an LCD, and some simple electronics to glue them together. There’s no removable storage, no rechargeable battery, there isn’t even a backlight for the display. You put three AA batteries into the back of it, hit the power button, and within a few seconds you’re writing. All of your work is saved to battery-backed memory, and when it comes time to upload your literary masterpieces to something a bit more capable, the Writer is designed to send the text out over infrared.

So it’s not much of a surprise to see how empty the gadget’s plastic case is. Beyond the aforementioned LCD and keyboard, all of the electronic components fit on a single 75 by 180 millimeter PCB. Incidentally, it should be said that the Writer’s overall dimensions are somewhat smaller than what the adult novelist might expect; designed primarily for use by pre-teens, the keyboard is approximately 90% scale. It’s by no means unusable for fully grown fingers, but it does feel a bit cramped.

Seeing a Familiar Face

When taking apart mass produced hardware, you will more often than not run into bespoke components that were built specifically for that application. When building tens or hundreds of thousands of units, it makes sense to spin up custom sub-assemblies that will save time and money in the long run. But occasionally you run into components that lowly tinkerers and hackers like us would not only recognize, but know how to interface with.

Case in point, the display used on the Writer. From the looks of it, this is a common 40×4 character LCD. The dimensions, mounting hole positions, and even pinout match eBay listings for contemporary modules. It would seem for an easy upgrade you could drop in a new LCD with a backlight, though you’d need to wire up the power for the LEDs separately since the pins aren’t connected on the Writer’s PCB.

Alternately, if you come across a stack of Writers and don’t know what to do with them, you could just salvage the LCDs. Considering how cheap Writers are going for on eBay, the screen itself is likely more valuable than the unit as a whole. Interestingly, we’ve since found out the same could be said for older radar detectors.

A Computer By Any Other Name

Up to this point we’ve been talking about the Writer and its ilk as alternatives to traditional computers. But that’s not technically accurate, as the Writer of course does have a microprocessor under the hood. Specifically a ZiLOG Z180, which is a low-power chip that maintains full backwards compatibility with the Z80. According to the datasheet, this chip draws just 10 µA in standby mode.

The Z180 is paired with a CY62138FV30 providing 2 Mbit of SRAM that has a maximum standby current of 5 µA. Between these two power-sipping chips, it’s not hard to see how the Writer manages to squeeze hundreds of hours out of standard alkaline batteries. In fact, it would appear that the 8 Mbit M27C801 EPROM that holds the Writer’s firmware actually consumes more energy than the rest of the diminutive computer combined.

Speaking of which, the keen eyed reader might have spied a suspiciously recent date on the EPROM’s label. Despite the Writer displaying a copyright date of 2003 when booting up, this chip was flashed with version 4.13 of the firmware in May of 2010. While officially a decade into the past at this point, it’s still somewhat surprising to see they were manufacturing these devices for so long.

Looking through the Internet Archive, it seems that Advanced Keyboard Technologies (which alternately called themselves Writer Learning) was still selling the Writer as of November 2013; though at that point they were on clearance and selling for $99. The Writer was replaced with the considerably more capable Forte, but by 2016 the website appears to have gone dark and the company presumably folded.

Breaking the Language Barrier

I ended up with a Writer because I was looking for something cheap to give my daughter. It’s usually a safe bet that whatever device is put into her nine year old hands will end up being utterly destroyed, but since these were actually designed for younger operators, I thought they might stand a chance. Plus the price was certainly right; an eBay seller offered me four of them for just $8.

Of course, I soon realized why. To get the documents off of the Writer, the manual says you need to have a proprietary infrared receiver that mimics a USB Human Interface Device: just open up a text editor, hit the “Send to Computer” button the Writer, and watch as it “types” out the file character by character. Certainly sounds easy enough.

Unfortunately, the IR receivers are comparatively very rare. It seems that the Writer was almost always sold as part of a classroom kit that included four IR receivers and 30 word processors. That’s not to say they are completely unavailable, but unless you’re willing to buy the entire classroom pack from an eBay seller, you probably won’t be able to get one. So how do we get the data off of them without the special receiver?

Das blinkenlights coprozessor

Well to start with, it appears that IR transmission is handled by a dedicated PIC16C54C microcontroller instead of the Z180. Tapping into the communications between these two chips could conceivably allow for the data to be siphoned off by something like an ESP8266. Being able to pull documents from the Writer over WiFi would certainly be a compelling upgrade, especially if the device’s normal operation (and battery life) could remain intact.

Now logically you might assume that the Writer is mimicking a IR keyboard, but my experiments so far don’t seem to bear that out. Transmitting a file with a single character in it takes 15 seconds, while a file with 100 characters is blinked out in 16 seconds. Clearly a large amount of header and formatting data must be getting sent in addition to the text, it’s just not clear yet what it is. My next step will be to see if a standard IR receiver can demodulate the signal, and then run that through a logic analyzer to see if anything intelligible comes out the other end.

If somebody can figure out how to put together a receiver, all these cheap Writers on the second hand market would have a new lease on life instead of languishing around in storage. Sounds like a perfect challenge for the Hackaday community.

48 thoughts on “Teardown: The Writer Word Processor

  1. I’d try a Palm, a WinCE handheld or a PIII laptop with IrDA on it. They could use it for HID as there were some devices like the “Palm Universal Keyboard” available.

    I’ve also seen the header on some quite late motherboards, but then you need to cobble your ‘duino sensor kit emitters and receivers to it and hope it works.

    1. Maybe need a bit more than that to hook up to a header …
      http://www.dpeddi.com/hardware:irda_module

      Now you might find linux supported communication with various devices, back in 2005, it’s probably one of those babies that got thrown out with the bathwater in the intervening years, meaning it’s broken now unless a kernel dev relied on it for his ancient untrackable dumbphone. So you might have to use a relatively ancient distro to play with it.

      1. I played with IRDA on Gentoo, with thinkpad T40, it at least was able to detect Palm Tungsten and ping it over IRDA. That was kernel 4.something, so reasonably recent.
        So – things still work, at least kernel side. But I didn’t do much testing

      1. My wife’s AlphaSmart Pro had a keyboard connector on it. It came with a cable to adapt to the various PC keyboard connectors in use at the time. You’d plug the thing in, tell it to send the document, and it would type it into the computer.

        1. Back in 1994 or so, I did a contract programming job for a small 1-man company that was designing one of these devices. I wrote the code for transferring a text file to a computer by simulating a keyboard and “typing” it over the keyboard port. I designed a cable such that the software could tell if it was plugged into a standard keyboard port or a PS/2 port. He ended up being sued by a bigger competitor. The suit was about other stuff, but they wanted to know how he was able to send the data that way.

    2. So youngest intel chipsets I’m seeing with confirmed IrDA support (That might not have been implemented by motherboard maker) are Intel 9xx, 945 etc supporting early C2D, atom, merom etc.

  2. You would be far better off with an NC100 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amstrad_NC100

    This came out in 1992 and appears to have a far better specification in places – the 80×8 (480×64) bitmap screen and RS232 interface especially, and PCMCIA RAM expansion. And BBC BASIC.

    I have an NC200 (80×16 screen and 3.5″ floppy drive).

    In the US these were branded as DreamWriters apparently.

        1. It has it’s own task-switching OS that includes a Z80 version of BBC BASIC. It’s open enough that someone wrote a CP/M-compatible clone called ZCN for it, but it’s not actually CP/M.

    1. I wanted a TRS-80 model 100, then I wanted a Z88, then I wanted one of those. Then I was gonna build one but never got round to it. Hopefully I still have an LCD I was gonna use around somewhere.

    1. This is it, although I’d be tempted to forgo IR entirely and think WIFI is nice. I mean if you could run a simple webserver on an ESP you might have nice little notepad with a web server.

      I’d be tempted to probe the PIC as it’s going, well personally I’d just dump it if possible but proving might be the ideal first step.

      Also using a camera to spy if it really is spending 15s transmitting? the IR should flicker through the filter on a camera?

      1. That’s definitely what I’ve been thinking, switching to WiFi for pulling the data off of it. Though at that point, one could potentially make the case for replacing all of the internals with an ESP. It certainly wouldn’t take much to replicate all of the features (or lack thereof) of the original Writer firmware with new code.

    2. Bought one thinking *exactly* this. The uC datasheet (direct link to Mouser’s copy: https://www.mouser.com/datasheet/2/450/z8s180ps-28828.pdf ) describes a set of three serial interfaces within, two Siamese-twin “ASCI”s (async serial) and one “clocked serial interface”. The ASCIs both sound like they can *only* do standard TTL-level RS-232 (i.e., “TTL Serial”), and the clocked one sounds nearly identical except for the addition of, well, a clock-signal lead. In particular, it really sounds like they actually made it very difficult (presumably for some purposeful reason, although it makes no sense to me) to implement eg I2C or SPI with these interfaces.

      I have an eBay TL866C programmer, and job #1 when my Writer arrives will be to pull that PIC and see if it will sing for its supper. I bet the lock bit is set, but given the protocol.

      1. Whoops, wrong button! Go figure…

        @HaD webmaster — people here have been asking for an “Edit” button for literally *years*. Get off your *** and give us one, or I’mma come sit on you, and since I’m the personificationi of Weird Al’s “Fat” music video, I really don’t think you want that. There will be a “crunch” sound and a stain on the carpet and that’s about it.

        *ahem*

        …given the wide variety of protocols that can be used here (hyuck, hyuck, hyuck), and the fact that the Z180, even at the specified clock speeds (10MHz/20MHz/33MHz) is not exactly going to be comparable to, say, the Deep Thought computer on Magrathea ;) there’s just no way that the uC is doing any real obfuscation here (particularly since, at that particular point in the transmission scheme, there’s really no need — this isn’t exactly NSA secret-spy cr*p, after all), it’s probably sending plain-text ASCII codes to the PIC as if the chip were an old-style serial video-terminal. The PIC is therefore either doing serious obfuscation or it’s running that IR LED at a speed that a Magnavox remote control would find alarmingly sedate… or, more likely, some combination of the two. (With apologies to Emperor Kuzco and the artists who drew him — “Both is good!”)

        BTW — this particular Z180 uC is a 10MHz PLCC in the standard industrial temperature range. The datasheet breaks down the ordering code (chip number) thusly…

        Z8S18010VSC

        Z – 8S180 – 10 – V – S – C

        “Z” for ZiLOG making it (as opposed to a licensed second-source company).

        “8S180” is the ‘product number’ (which, in the era prior to out-of-control marketing wankage being allowed to run rampant, we typically called a ‘model’), i.e. the designation that there’s an “enhanced” ZiLOG 80180 (Z180) CPU core inside, and not just the lesser kind. FWIW, there are two variants; the 8S180 is the 5v part, and the 8L180 is a low-power version that runs at 3v3 and cannot quite manage 33MHz operation.

        “10” for the speed in MHz, allowable numbers here are 10, 20, and 33 for an 8S180 part and either 10 or 20 for an 8L180 part, as discussed immediately previously.

        V for the 68pin PLCC package, which in this case has not been properly socketed but rather soldered-down, which is an unfortunately rather common practice against serviceability. Alternative marking options are ‘P’ for a strangely-oversized 60pin, 670-mil (0.670in) PDIP or ‘F’ for an ‘older’ rectangular-style QFP (versus the more-common-nowadays / ‘newer’ square QFPs).

        ‘S’ for standard temperature ratings, 0 C to +70 C, rather than ‘E’ for mil-spec temperature ratings of -40 C to +85 C.

        C for the package being plastic and not ceramic. Apparently the LCC option (which would dictate a ceramic-ensconced chip, because the ‘P’ in ‘PLCC’ is for Plastic — PLCC is a “plastic leaded chip carrier”, and the LCC versions that are thus not plasticized are instead ceramic — but I’m sure we all knew all of that already!) has long since become deprecated… not surprised, I’ve not seen a ceramic chip of that style since before Pentium chips started having an honorific, referring to them being first-generation such chips, retroactively applied out of necessity.

  3. I wonder if an AlphaSmart Neo (or Neo2) would make more sense? About $30 on eBay, and they use a standard USB-B to USB-A cable to interface with the computer as a USB keyboard.

    1. I’ve got an AlphaSmart Neo 2 as well, and it’s certainly a much better machine. Especially for an adult user, as I find the slightly undersized keyboard on the Writer to be a little awkward. If you’re looking for a reliable mobile word processor, the AlphaSmart is definitely the way to go.

      But they also cost a lot more than $2 a pop. If there was an easy way to dump the data from them, the Writers would certainly be good enough to use as nearly disposable digital notepads.

      1. @Tom maybe you could dump the PIC’s data? Might be easy enough to just replace it entirely.

        If you dumped the PIC you can run it through a dissembler.

        Or have an ESP pull data directly off the EEPROM?

        I bet the IR code is a mess on the PIC, but the actual EEPROM access code is simple enough.

    2. I have an AlphaSmart Dana, and it is a good machine, but I find that I expect a better quality of keyboard these days. I’d certainly be willing to hack it, but that’ll have to wait in the project queue.

    3. I picked up a mixed lot of a half-dozen AlphaSmart Pros and AlphaSmart Neos maybe six years back when the local school district dumped them on the computer recycling place. Ended up paying more than I paid for all of them for one instance of the official ADB to USB adapter.

      See, both models have Apple’s old ADB jack as well as PS/2 jacks, and will dump their buffers in as if typing over either interface, and a standard PS/2 to USB adapter works fine for that. But with the official, branded USB adapter, you can also use their old software to put text back into the machine, and I wanted to use that for things like revisions and keeping a copy of the Markdown cheat sheet. I still use the things occasionally.

        1. Right, it was the Series 4 that was really uncommon, which explains why I’m having trouble finding a USB D to serial dongle for it, to upload stuff to my 786/voodoo 6 rig.

  4. Wow that looks like a super comfortable keyboard, a far cry from even expensive laptops these days (with Lenovo as the least-bad option).

    I’d love something like that really if it were cheap and had excellent input. And a nice highres eink screen.

  5. My standard response to these stories is to say to look out for an AlphaSmart dana ‘laptop alternative’. It has that USB HID keyboard re-typing function, but uses a standard USB cable, sports local storage and runs Palm OS. It can also charge over the USB port. Handy for that ‘no distractions’ typing experience!

  6. Got about 40 of these units along with a huge custom rolling storage cabinet at an auction about 10 years ago. Sold them off at a flea market for a nice profit.

  7. I have a newer version of this “The Writer Fusion”, it has an onboard rechargeable (NiMH) battery, speech synthesis, outputs over USB by pretending to be a keyboard and typing any stored document out, and also has a better display (A DataImage 320×160 graphical display with electroluminescent backlight.)

    It’s actually a rather neat little device, and I may do a similar disassembly and documentation to the one here.

  8. viewing into rj45 jack with clip at top, left to right
    1
    2 gnd
    3 rxa0
    4 txa0
    5 gnd
    6

    Just sayin’.
    The circuit includes voltage drop and a drive transistor, apparently to operate at rs232 levels. I discovered this pinout by tracing with my meter. ;-)

    [raw notes below]
    port a0 rs232
    cka0 unmapped
    rxa0 74hc00 u20 pin6 > r27 opposite crystal > rj12 pin 3
    txa0 rj12:4 via q3
    dcd gnd
    cts gnd
    rts unmapped

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