Driven from distraction: Products that won't steal your focus

While smartphone and PC vendors respond to the backlash against excessive notifications, a range of products have been designed to keep you in the flow, whether you're striving for productivity or relaxation.
By Ross Rubin, Contributor
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Palm strives for calm

If there's one person who knows about focus, it's Steph Curry, the master of three-point baskets in the NBA and one of the investors behind the rebirh of Palm. The storied smartphone brand recently resurfaced on a small Android phone that syncs to another Android phone or iPhone. In addition to the pocket-friendly size, the device has a Life Mode that is designed to silence notifications that may disturb you.

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Runcible may not be shippable

The Runcible phone may be one of the few devices that focuses far more attention on its exterior (a choice of attractive woods) versus its interior, although it was proud to lay claim as the first round touchscreen in a phone. The open source Indiegogo "anti-smartphone" could nonetheless provide many smartphone-like features, including making calls, taking pictures and video, exploring the web and getting directions. Despite being certified by electronics giant Arrow as a project feasible for construction, the project still isn't close to shipping following its July 2016 campaign. The creators, however, recently updated backers regarding their progress.

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Jelly Pro: things in small packages

The output of another crowdfunding campaign, the Jelly Pro by Unihertz is a phone with a display as small as that of the new Palm device. While that creates practical constraints on what you can do with the phone, the company still provides access to the full array of Google Play apps in a traditional user interface. The Jelly Pro's small size, though, can enable it to more easily slip into smaller pockets and command even less of one's consciousness.

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Punkt in the features list

The original Punkt feature phone was a throwback to the days of small monochrome screens and keypads, albeit a very well-designed one. It even lacked a camera. Its successor looks almost identical. However, the Swiss company has added a few features. Among them: 4G capability, as the original was tied to 2G networks that are now being retired; hotspot features, so you can tether a large tablet to it when you need a more immersive digital canvas; and security courtesy BlackBerry, which once might have manufactured a competitive offering before handing over that business to Chinese electronics company TCL.

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From a Kindle to a roaring fire

As Amazon continues to churn out and support third parties producing all kinds of Alexa-compatible hardware, it has so far kept Alexa from the device that started Amazon in hardware, the Kindle e-reader. Introduced at a time when Sony had created momentum with e-paper displays, Amazon's customer base of voracious readers quickly made it a near-monopoly in devices optimized for reading digital books indoors or out over the course of weeks without having to be charged. Amazon's big-screen e-reader, the Kindle DX, faded quickly, but the original smaller version has spawned a family of devices that has developed across generations at multiple price points.

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Seeing the Light again

It may seem against the ethos for a minimalist product to add more but the original Light phone was just a bit too light for some. The Light Phone 2, however, lit up Indiegogo, raising nearly $2 million for a credit card-sized e-ink device that can exchange calls and messages (including autoreplies) and set alarms. There's still more that's in a gray area for the "phone that actually respects you," including ride hailing, music playlists, weather and a calculator. The big win, though, could be voice commands, which would allow the Light Phone 2 to tap into a wealth of functionality without it always having to tap you for attention.

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Siempo moves to software

"The phone for humans" burst onto Kickstarter in April 2017 taking a two-pronged approach to minimizing distractions and enhancing focus. It included "interruption controls" and was "built from the ground up with utmost respect for your attention." Meanwhile, an "Intention Field" was designed to keep people on task, screening out popups and reminders. Alas, Siempo wasn't able to attract enough attention to its campaign, which fell far short of its ambitious $500,000 goal. The company then sought to embody these ideals in an Android launcher that has remained in beta as the company seeks to transition its work to open source.

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What phone's in your wallet?

Like the Light Phone 2, the Kyocera KY - 01L is a minimalist e-ink phone that's about the size of a credit card. In fact, the dimensions of the two phones are almost identical, with the Kyocera device boasting a millimeter or two advantage in thinness. The device also has a more traditional feature phone-like grid of icons, although it too seems to stick to the basics like calling, messaging, setting alarms, and a calculator. Americans who want in on some e-ink, wallet-sized goodness, though, will have to wait for the Light Phone 2 for now.The KY - 01L is a Japan-exclusive phone.

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Have keyboard, will travel

Most mechanical keyboards are favored by gamers who demand the most precision they can find when striking keys. But they are also a favorite of discerning writers. Alas, mechanical keyboards rarely find their way to portable products. To address this and other concerns of writers, the team at Astrohaus developed the FreeWrite, a modern-day writing appliance that featured long battery life, excellent outdoor battery life with its e-ink display, syncing to cloud services and, yes, the mechanical keyboard.

The team recently followed up with the FreeWrite Traveler, a more portable, two-pound clamshell version of the device that has had to forfeit the best in keyboards, but which still has an excellent typing experience and an e-ink display and four weeks of battery life, along with some software improvements. With 10 days left to go in its Indiegogo campaign, it has raised more than $400,000 and is expected to be available next June.

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The Pomera Method

Perhaps the most minimalist writing product on the market, the Pomera DM30 is the latest in a series of what are essentially e-ink-based portable word processors. Some of these, like the DM30, have folding keyboards that allow the device to squeeze into a pocket while offering a touch-typing experience (albeit one generally catering to smaller hands). The DM30 can be powered by AA batteries and can exchange files via memory cards or QR codes. King Jim, the company that produces the devices, hosted a flawed Kickstarter campaign to bring the DM30 to the US. The funding petered out, but the company says it still has designs on capturing American minimalist writers.

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Lots of thinking, little padding

One way some writers avoid the distractions of modern multitasking is to use an old PC that doesn't offer much in the way of browser choice. The ThinkPad 600, the forerunner to what is today Lenovo's T series, was a corporate computing staple praised for its keyboard. It's still capable of running many programs that can lead you astray from maximum word count. However, that can be addressed with a little help from Ubuntu that can turn it into a functionally dedicated word processor.

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Not just for kids (or anyone) anymore

Alphasmart was a company that designed inexpensive writing appliances primarily aimed at teaching kids to type. Befitting the era of its prime, some models took cues from the iMac and used translucent colored shells. It had some fairly contemporary competition from the NTS Dreamwriter and other devices. They were the spiritual successors to the very early WP-2 variant of the famous TRS-80 Model 100 used by many journalists as one of the earliest portable computers.

The AlphaSmart devices could last weeks on a set of four AA batteries. While limited to storing eight documents, transferring files to a PC or Mac was as easy as opening up a word processor, connecting the Alphasmart via USB, and hitting Send as the characters filled up the screen as if they were being typed. Many AlphaSmarts that remain of the herd can be adopted for a small sum via eBay.

The pictured Neo 2 was the last classic AlphaSmart produced by the company. A higher-end product sister device called Dana had a larger screen and was one of the few licensees of Palm OS that used it for something other than a competitive PDA or phone.

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