My new modular micro-mini notebook

My new modular micro-mini notebook

Summary: 10+ hour battery life. Fits in pants pockets. Full size keys + touchscreen. Weighs under half a kilo. Thousands of apps. I like this!


10+ hour battery life. Fits in pants pockets. Full size keys + touchscreen. Weighs under half a kilo. Thousands of apps.

Will phones and tablets replace PCs? For many they will but not for me. They certainly augment my desktop by giving me a flexibility that even a MacBook Air can't offer.

Here's how - with pictures.

An iPad Mini and an iPhone 4s are the screens. I have a Nexus 7 too that would work, but the battery life isn't what I'd like, so it stays home near a charger.

Capturing keystrokes
I'm primarily a writer and researcher. I need web access, browser, decent keyboard and the flexibility to use these tools just about anywhere.

That means long battery life, light weight, fast no-hassle document syncing and flexible hardware configurations that work whether I'm biking a couple of miles to a coffee shop or driving 800 miles to San Francisco.

Home base
My office set up is conventional: Intel i7 ultrabook; 27" 2560x1440 monitor, and 14TB of block and file storage split among eSATA, USB 3.0, GigE and Thunderbolt interfaces. But sometimes I need to pick up and move: script tweaks at my editors; catching new ideas on the run; or just a change of scene.

The portable ultrabook - a MacBook Air - works well, but the docking process is more of a hassle than expected for a high-end system. Even a light backpack is too sweaty on a hot Arizona day.

Thus it is nice to put a keyboard and screen in pants pockets for a bike ride. Hand carry in case inspiration strikes.

The free iOS Simplenote app auto-syncs to their site. For OS X I use Notational Velocity which also auto-syncs to Simplenote. I can type or dictate into the iPhone and see the updates a minute later on the Mac.

iPhone 4S and iPad Mini. Both have screens big enough for writing and light editing. The iPhone updates wherever there's cell coverage, while the iPad is Wi-fi only.

Here's the two configurations folded up for travel:

DVD case for scale


Ready for travel



A Dell-branded iGo Stowaway Ultra-Slim Bluetooth Keyboard. Bought used. The layout isn't perfect, but the full size keys make touch typing easy and the size is unbeatable.





With the keyboard in one pocket and the iPhone in another, take a 5 mile ride - with 500 feet of vertical - and then stop at at a coffeeshop. Inspiration strikes: modular notebook!

Dictate first few paragraphs. Set up keyboard to edit and add. Fold up, ride home, shower, sit at MacBook Air and big screen to finish up.

iPad Mini requires cargo pockets. That's it.

The Storage Bits take
While many people who are light users and/or poor will make do with a single device, those who can afford a choice will want multiple devices for different uses. I thought my MacBook Air was perfect until I realized I could write without a backpack.

The failure of the Ubuntu Edge to reach its crowd funding goal reflects the fact that most people will be using either Android or iOS phones. Yes, you can do real work on a phone today, but not all day, and you probably never will.

Add on screens and keyboards will make phones, phablets and tablets suitable for much office work. But the key negative to multiple devices isn't cost but synchronization - and nobody has a great answer to that for multiple apps.

But it will get figured out (why Apple with their money and end-to-end control hasn't is a mystery), and when it does the main reason for a single device will go away. For now though, as a writer, I'm happy.

Comments welcome. How tiny can a writer's workstation get? 

Topics: Storage, Android, Apple, Hardware, iOS, Mobility, Software

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  • Surface RT

    Why would you go thru all this trouble?

    I am yet to see a proper fitting pant with a 1 pound 7x5 inch slab sticking out??

    Get a surface RT or any Windows RT device and get some proper work done.
    • What RT device is available at ipad mini size?

      There aren't any. Yet.

      I like the Surface RT (I have one, fantastic device, so much better than the big ipad in every single way) but I've been swayed by the smaller tablet form factor. While I would never again buy a tablet without an active digitizer (making all ipads epic fails as a platform) the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 looks to be a fantastic option.
    • mobile

      Because he wanted the ultimate in portability. Else he would have use his Macbook Air which is a full blown laptop !
    • Re: I am yet to see a proper fitting pant with a 1 pound 7x5 inch slab stic

      An Asus Nexus 7 will fit in a regular pants pocket. Along with a wallet and phone.

      All that in one pocket.
  • Windows RT (ARM) is the future for the masses.

    For the masses, Windows RT (ARM) is much better then Intel based tablets.

    + Thinner then intel based
    + Cheaper then intel based
    + Works without a cooler
    + Better battery life
    + Office is included
    + Safer for users. They do not install any crap on those machines which will make them slow after a year!!!

    - Cannot run Windows desktop apps (first ask yourself, if you need them on a tablet machine)

    So, if you are thinking about a tablet and you just use it for browsing, checking e-mails, working with office - RT device is perfect for you.
    Don't let yourself listning salesman crap, that you NEED full Windows 8 tablet!
    • yes

      Thanks for the useful points. You forget RT is also about half the price of windows 8 tablet

      However RT can remotely access a Windows virtual desktop from a full PC host using software such as Aikotech Thinserver
    • Many of your PROS are simply not true

      ARM tablets are NOT thinner than Atom tablets.
      ARM tablets are NOT cheaper than Atom tablets.
      Atom tablets do NOT require active cooling.
      ARM tablets do NOT have better battery life than Atom tablets.

      People should make the right decision for them based on accurate information. In 2012, Surface RT was the best full sized tablet in the world. In 2013, any of the full sized Atom based Windows 8 tablets are better than anything else in the price and size range.

      In the mini tablet range, something like the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 looks to be the best, far better than what Robin has chosen. Robin has to choose apple though, as part of his contract.
    • Re: Windows RT (ARM) is the future for the masses.

      Unfortunately the masses seem to prefer Android.
  • RT? Not likely.

    Why invest in a failed platform when I have perfectly good options already? If I think of a reason I'll let you know.

    R Harris
    • Let me fail, please

      150'000 apps in 1 year = failure.

      It's a marketing failure, yes. But the current version of RT is for my needs far superior to iOS / Android*. And because it makes no financial sense for Microsoft to abandon it for at least the next couple of years, the platform is guaranteed to grow.

      *Why is it good for me? Primarily because of better multitasking. When I open a link or attachment in an email I do not want the email application to close. When I want to compare 2 websites I don't want to have to toggle between the 2. RT got that right in the 8.1 Preview.
      • Re: is for my needs far superior to iOS / Android

        You should buy two, and do your loyal bit to try to boost Microsoft's sagging sales figures.
  • iWork

    Apple is working on unifying the document flow if you can make pages work for you. I find no problem writing on my macbook air at home, the iPad mini or iPhone on the go and if inspiration hits me while in front a PC the beta version of iCloud Pages works about as good as I could ask. All documents and changes sync and the files are kept up to date. (Hopefully Apple will find a way to extend this functionality across the platform.)

    In the off shoot I need to send someone a "Office" doc I can export the work for the most part without a lot of formatting needs.

    Kudos to you for finding a way to work without the need for "Office." I find it interesting that the first two comments about your "I do work on an i-device" post were attempts to push a failed platform who's sole argument has been that real work can't be done on anything less then Windows.
  • iA writer

    I also found iA writer an very good alternative, with nice syncing etc.
    Evernote too, of course.

    The problem I see right now, is that there are so many good applications these days that work cross platform and sync seamlessly that it is hard to settle on one. But nothing prevents you from using many.
    Devising a way around Microsoft has paid well and now we again have many developers producing exciting software products!
  • Nice setup Robin

    I had a similar setup with the keyboard and the mobile phone.

    5 years ago. Maybe longer. You know, when Microsoft did it.


    • Yeah, much longer than 5 years ago

      My my how time flies. More like 8 years ago.

      It wasn't that one specifically but same idea.
    • MS First?

      While I will admit it wasn't bluetooth my Palm III in '98 had a very nice portable keyboard and worked very well for the time. The ultra mobile office predates your 8 year old MS rig by at least 7 years in my experience.
      • Apple Newton keyboard in 93

        Completely forgot that the Newton had a keyboard back in '93, I can't really say I have much experience with the platform but I recall playing with them when I sold computers for a living and dreaming of being able to afford it.
  • Just use a laptop

    Jeez, what a waste of brain cells. use your Macbook Air, or if you want something totally portable and cheap grab an Envy x2, they are $500, full Windows, 14 hour battery with keyboard, and can be a tablet if you need one. And there is no monkey business.
    A Gray
    • Can I stick the Envy X2 in my pocket for a bike ride?

      It is the ultra-portability - combined with good functionality and reasonable ergonomics - that is the win for me.

      This has changed the way I work for the better.

      R Harris
  • Enjoy that keyboard!

    Enjoy that keyboard! I've owned two of the same model. They are awesome little gadgets while they last... which is only about 6 months, sadly.