The only truly essential components for writing a novel are imagination, determination, paper and a pen or pencil. Nothing else is required and indeed many writers use just those components and nothing else. However, technology offers a number of truly useful benefits to the writing process that aids in efficiency, security and research. I would wager that most writers these days would not consider starting a novel without their trusty desktop or laptop. And coffee, of course; lots of coffee. And perhaps Scotch. Definitely Scotch.
As for myself, I have been doing most of my writing on my desktop. I use Scrivener as my writing app of choice, so I usually need a fair bit of real estate onscreen to make the most of its myriad features and desktop layout. Having a second monitor is also nice, as I can have my main writing window free of distractions, yet have the smaller of the two screens available for notes, Google/Wikipedia searches or just have iTunes running and accessible. It has worked well for me on the majority of my novel, but frequently, I cannot be at home when the drive to write hits me, such as at work during breaks or when I’m otherwise away form home but have a surfeit of free time I’d like to use to write.
I have/had a 11″ HP laptop, but it wasn’t incredibly well-suited for the task. It was small, so it was best used for a single open doc, so it did not work well for Scrivener. It also did not have any ambient keyboard lighting, so working in low-light or dim environments was difficult -at best- and maddening, at worst. Additionally, it had a very slow processor and an unreliable wireless modem. Thus, I decided it was necessary to look for a replacement, especially with the approach of NaNoWriMo, which I participate in every year. While it was not absolutely necessary, any impediment to writing can be detrimental to actually writing, so I wanted something that felt right to use when I was writing.
I researched quite a bit and narrowed my choices down to three options: the Lenovo Yoga 3, Microsoft Surface Pro 3, and the Toshiba Satellite Radius. I had a number of criteria, but it all boiled down to three major things: Features, which included the basic statistics of the device such as processor, hard drive space, and other types of technical consideration; Portability, which encompassed how well the device could adapt to different locales or modes of use; and Functionality, which would include how easy or pleasurable the laptop was to use. I felt this would give me a clear indication of which was best for myself. For the purpose of this review, I’m not going to detail each and every tiny detail and difference between the three, but rather explain the important reasons I chose the laptop I eventually purchased, the Toshiba Satellite Radius
I’ve decided to share this review in my blog because I found the task of researching ‘which laptop is best’ to be very difficult, especially when put into the framework of ‘which is best for a writer’. Beyond the fact that writers themselves are like unique little snowflakes when it comes to our passions and peccadillos and so nary a consensus would ever be found, most reviews boiled down to numbers, benchmarks and stress tests. I did not find a single review that said ‘I found myself sitting in the cafe and writing for hours without break on my laptop’. All I found was quantitative measures, but very little qualitative evaluations. Thus, I’m sharing my thoughts on my blog.
Features is perhaps the most boring of criteria and the one I considered least important except for a few areas which were conversely incredibly important. Ah, savor the paradox. For the purposes of writing, you only need a smallish amount of storage and a moderately powerful processor. We’re putting pixels on page, not playing the latest greatest video game on these things. Sure, you might like a laptop to relax and play a game or two on, but that’s not what we’re buying a laptop for, are we?
One of the primary requirements I had in terms of features was that the machine have the ability to convert to a tablet, hence my three primary choices. All three can convert to a tablet machine; both the Lenovo and Toshiba using butterfly hinges whereas the Surface Pro has a detachable keyboard / cover. For a number of reasons, the Surface Pro did not meet my requirements, chiefly because I wanted a true keyboard and laptop and the Surface Pro seemed more like a glorified tablet masquerading as a laptop. I suppose this is also where I eliminated the Lenovo, since -while both the Yoga’s and Satellite Radius’ conversions function the same- the Yoga’s keyboard is reported to be both difficult to open and somewhat overly flexible.
In terms of other technical comparisons, the Toshiba has a 15″ screen, compared to the 14.1″ on the Yoga and a 13″ on the Surface Pro. I don’t feel a 15″ laptop is substantially less mobile than either a 14.1′ or 13′ inch laptop, so the bigger screen size was an asset more than a deficit. Of course, the Toshiba is slightly heavier by a couple of pounds, but the difference between a 2.5 lb and a 5 lb laptop is not enough to be a negative in my estimation. Battery longevity between the three is roughly comparable, with the Surface holding a longer charge by an hour. The Toshiba was middle road in comparison and a 7-8 hour charge is more than enough for me. Both the Yoga and the Surface Pro 3 have an SSD drive, so they both boot quicker and run cooler, but I’ve had no issues with either boot speed or heat; the Toshiba fully boots within 5 seconds and I have used it on my lap for 2-3 hours at a time with no discomfort. Of course, the final technical consideration would be price. I’d like to say price was not a concern, but of course it was. It always is. While I was happy with the Radius on its merits alone, the price nonetheless played a large part in my decision as well. Both the Yoga and Surface Pro were roughly $1100, whereas the Satellite Radius was on sale for around $400 (I got a very nice, very deep discount from Best Buy).
However, how it works and whether it facilitates my writing are the most important questions. In terms of portability, my new laptop is slightly heavier than either of the alternatives. However, I wanted a larger viewable area and the increase in weight is not substantial. It is a larger laptop and there’s no getting around that, but I like the functionality of the larger screen and desktop-sized keyboard. It still fits in my old laptop bag (albient slightly more snug) and is substantially thinner than the laptop it replaces. In the past few weeks I have frequently used it in in a variety of circumstances and locales. I took it to both of my seminars and was able to use it as a tablet when space was limited as well as a traditional laptop when seating was more spread out. While the tablet mode was still quite large in relation to a smaller device, like an Android or iPad, the greater functionality and greater viewing area more than made up for the physical presence of the machine.
At home I’ve found it quite comfortable to sit on the couch with my wife and work without requiring a flat surface. While I also abhor thumbpads in general, the Satellite boasts a reasonably sized and placed thumb pad that has never caused my typing to be interrupted by window minimizing or odd cursor placements. It has worked well in almost every environment and in every circumstance I’ve used it. It is also a quiet machine and the keys have a soft touch, even though they are fully mechanical. There is a slight click, especially if you’re in a typing frenzy, but it causes only a minimal amount of noise, so it should not present an issue in a library or quiet coffee house. Additionally, the –thankfully!– backlit keyboard means that using it in dim or dark conditions is no longer an issue. An added feature for the backlighting is that the keyboard will dim if you do not type something after a few seconds. This clearly saves battery power but also makes the keyboard less intrusive to other people by always being lit up. The keys are only alight when you’re typing and not all of the time.
This brings me to how functional the Satellite was for me as a writer. If it hasn’t become apparent by now, I truly love my Toshiba laptop; it has radically changed how I look at my laptop as a component of my writing strategy. All of the technical ‘shizwaz’ aside, it is a solid laptop that is easy and pleasurable to use, encouraging me to write in places and during times I might not previously have felt comfortable doing so. From the backlit keyboard to the larger screen, it is just a truly exemplary experience. I suppose to me, that is the most important thing about this laptop.
As I said earlier, a true writer simply needs a surface to write on and something to write with. Everything else is secondary. However, since we are going to spend a lot of time writing, having something that encourages us to write often and write pleasurably is almost a necessity. “Does it feel good writing on this…” is not a criteria most tech hardware reviewers ask. However -while some writers might have a greater concern for technical specifications or making the most of their money (as we all no doubt do)- this question is the most important one for us: how does it work for me? how does it improve my writing?
In the case of this laptop, I can unequivocally say that it is a refreshing boon to what I love to do. If you are looking for a laptop for the upcoming Christmas season, for yourself or someone else, I would heartily suggest giving the Toshiba Satellite a test run. I did and I have not been disappointed.