Wandering Through Old Word Processors Yields A Beast

The world once ran on hardcopy, and when the digital age started to bring new tools and ways of doing things, documents were ripe for change. Today, word processors and digital documents are so ubiquitous that they are hardly worth a thought, but that didn’t happen all at once. [Cathode Ray Dude] has a soft spot for old word processors and the journey they took over decades, and he walks through the Olivetti ETV 2700.

In the days of character displays and no multitasking, WYSIWYG as a concept was still a long ways off.

The ETV 2700 is a monstrous machine; a fusion of old-school word processor, x86-based hardware, and electric 17 inch-wide typewriter.

With it one could boot up a word processor that is nothing like the WYSIWYG of today, write and edit a document, and upon command, the typewriter portion could electronically type out a page. A bit like a printer, but it really is an electric typewriter with a computer interface. Characters were hammered out one at a time with daisy wheel and ink ribbon on a manually-loaded page using all the usual typewriter controls.

While internally the machine has an x86 processor, expects a monitor and even boots MS-DOS, the keyboard had its own layout (and even proprietary keys and functions), did not support graphical output, and in other ways was unusual even by the standards of the oddball decades during which designers and products experimented with figuring out what worked best in terms of functionality and usability.

Nowadays, we see AI-enabled typewriter projects and porting vintage OSes to vintage word processor hardware, but such projects are in some part possible in part thanks to the durability of these devices. The entire video is embedded below, but you can jump directly to what the Olivetti ETV 2700 looked like on the inside if that’s what interests you most.

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A Typewriter For The Paperless Age

Writing is, as any of the Hackaday crew will tell you, a task which requires concentration. For your best work there’s a need to be in that elusive Zone, and for some that means making the experience as distraction free as possible. For them there’s an entire class of minimalist word-processors and text editors which reduce the UI to nothing more than the text. [Adam Blumenberg] has taken this a step beyond software with his digital typewriter, a single-purpose Raspberry Pi-based cyberdeck that serves only for distraction-free writing.

There’s not a lot in the way of descriptive text at the above link but in a way there doesn’t need to be as the photographs tell the story. A mechanical keyboard and a wide but not very tall display fit with the Pi in a fairly rudimentary wooden case, and running Focuswriter it leaves very little in the way of distraction. In that sense it’s not quite so much a cyberdeck in its application as something more like the smart digital typewriters from a few decades ago without the printer, but we can see that it makes for a very handy writing implement. Sadly the job of writing for Hackaday requires constant access to online sources on a larger screen, or we’d be tempted to try one ourselves.

The one-purpose writing computer is an idea we’ve seen before from time to time, for example in this one with an e-paper display.

Playdate Handheld Turned Typewriter

The Playdate is an interesting gaming system. It’s a handheld, has a black and white screen, and superficially reminds us a little bit of the original Game Boy, right down to the button layout. But the fact that it has a second controller that pops out of the side, that this controller is a crank, and that the whole system was made by the same people that made Untitled Goose Game, makes us quite intrigued. Apparently it has made an impact on others, too, because this project turns the gaming system into a typewriter.

The Playdate doesn’t have native support for USB accessories unless it’s plugged into this custom 3D printed dock. Inside of the dock is a Teensy 4.1 which handles some translation between the keyboard and the console. Once the dock is taken care of the text editor needs to be side-loaded to the device as well. The word processor has the ability to move the cursor around, insert and delete text, and the project’s creator, [t0mg], plans to add more features in future versions like support for multiple files, changing the font, and a few other things as well.

For anyone interested in recreating this project, all of the printable files, the text editor, and the schematics are all available in the GitHub repo. It’s an impressive project for a less well-known console that we haven’t seen many other hacks for, unless you count this one-off Arduboy project which took some major inspiration from the Playdate’s crank controller.

The NES Gets Its Own OS

Until recently, most video game systems didn’t need their own operating systems in order to play games. Especially in the cartridge era — the games themselves simply ran directly on the hardware and didn’t require the middleman of an operating system for any of the functionality of the consoles. There were exceptions for computers that doubled as home computers such as the Commodore, but systems like the NES never had their own dedicated OS. At least, until [Inkbox] designed and built the NES-OS.

The operating system does not have any command line, instead going directly for a graphical user interface. There are two programs that make up the operating system. The first is a settings application which allows the user to make various changes to the appearance and behavior of the OS, and the second is a word processor with support for the Japanese “Family Keyboard” accessory. The memory on the NES is limited, and since the OS loads entirely into RAM there’s only enough leftover space for eight total files. Those files themselves are limited to 832 bytes, which is one screen’s worth of text without scrolling.

While it might seem limited to those of us living in the modern era, the OS makes nearly complete use of the available processing power and memory of this 1980s system that was best known for Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt. It’s an impressive build for such a small package, and really dives into a lot of the hardware and limitations when building software for these systems. If you need more functionality than that, we’d recommend installing Linux on the NES Classic instead.

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AlphaSmart Neo Teardown: This Is The Way To Write Without Distractions

History will always have its in-between technologies — that stuff that tides us over while the Next Big and Lasting Thing is getting the kinks worked out of it. These kinds of devices often do one thing and do it pretty well. Remember zip drives? Yeah you do. Still have mine.

The halcyon days of the AlphaSmart NEO sit in between the time where people were chained to heavy typewriters and word processors and the dawn of on-the-go computing. Early laptops couldn’t be trusted not to die suddenly, but the NEO will run for 700 hours on three AAs.

The NEO stands for the freedom to get your thoughts down wherever, whenever, without the need for a desk, paper, ink, ribbons, power cords, and the other trappings that chain people indoors to flat surfaces. And that’s exactly what was so tantalizing to me about it. Inspiration can truly strike anywhere at any time, so why not be prepared? This thing goes from off to blinking cursor in about a second and a half. There’s even a two-button ‘on’ option so you don’t run the battery down or accidentally erase files while it’s in your bag.

These might be the world’s greatest scissor switches.
L-R: DC power, IR, USB-B, and USB-A for connecting to a printer.

I bought this funny little word processor a few years ago when I wanted to attempt NaNoWriMo — that’s National Novel Writing Month, where you write 50,000 words towards a novel, non-fiction book, or short story collection in any genre you want. It averages out to 1,667 words a day for 30 days. Some days it was easy, some days it was not. But every non-Hackaday word I typed that month was on this, my Mean Green Words Machine.

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Hacker Turns Thermal Clacker Into USB Keyboard

Back before there were laptops and subsequently, netbooks, there were these adorable thermal typewriter/word processors that are lovingly referred to by their fans as baby wedges or wedgies. These fascinating little machines can put words on paper two different ways: you can either use a prohibitively expensive little ribbon cartridge and regular copy paper, or you can go the easy route and get yourself a 96′ roll of thermal fax paper and type until you feel like tearing off the page.

[David] was lucky enough to pick up a Canon S-70 in working condition for next to nothing, thinking it would make an awesome USB keyboard, and we agree. The PSoC 5 that now controls it may be overkill, but it’s pretty affordable, and it was right there on the desk just waiting for a purpose. And bonus — it has enough I/O for all of those loud and lovely keyswitches.

One thing that keeps these baby wedges within the typewriter camp is the Shift Lock function, which can only be disengaged by pressing Shift and had its own discrete logic circuitry on the board before he was forced to remove it.

That little screen is pure word processor and was used to show the typing buffer — all the characters you have a chance to correct before the print head commits them to paper. In a win for word processors everywhere, the screen was repurposed to show the current word count.

He was kind enough to post his firmware as well as real-time footage of the build. Watch him demo it in the wild after the break, and then stick around for part one of the build saga.

Portable word processors were still being made ten years ago, though they were mostly aimed at the primary school market as keyboarding trainers. Our own [Tom Nardi] recently did a teardown of a model called The Writer that relies on IR to send files.

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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. Continue reading “Teardown: The Writer Word Processor”