Monday 18 March 2024

Pomera DM30

I've discussed my appreciation of 'distraction free' word processing in a few of my previous posts here on the RGCD blog, as it not only highlights a real problem that we have in this always-online world, but also (in terms of hardware word processors) they’re an odd technological dead-end that are seemingly going through a resurgence.

If you are in your mid-forties (like me) then you may remember having typing lessons at secondary school; a class during which the students tapped away on electronic or mechanical typewriters in a often vein attempt to learn the art of touch typing. In my school, before these classes were eventually axed and replaced with computing or IT classes, they actually introduced hardware word processors. These were essentially the same as the electronic typewriters but had a small screen on which you could type and edit your text before eventually printing it out. At the time I had my Atari ST at home with a copy of 1st Word Plus and I remember thinking how odd it was that we were using these weird, single-purpose devices instead of computers. But now, 30-or-so years later, I think it finally makes sense.

Jumping forward to the present day, distraction is everywhere. I find typing anything on my main PC a nightmare - even from within the zen-like confinement of tools like Calmly Writer - because regardless of my good, productive intentions, fun and excitement are always just an Alt-Tab and a double-click away. My Chromebook is even worse, almost constantly pinging with notifications from various social media platforms. The whole way the internet is designed now is to keep you scrolling; just open up a web browser tab and immediately you are presented with algorithmically curated websites to visit. A five-minute break or a pause to look up something soon becomes a 20 minute procrastination session, and before you know it you've completely lost your train of thought or even forgotten what fact you were looking to verify in the first place.

It's no surprise then that a company like Astrohaus has found recent success with their range of (admittedly hipster looking) distraction free typing devices. Over the past few years I have often fought the temptation to reach out for my credit card and buy the Freewrite Traveller, but ultimately I have been dissuaded from doing so because as a dedicated writing machine they are comparatively overpriced and the screen just looked too small to be really usable. However, with my interested piqued in finding a portable typing device for jotting down my thoughts or bashing out a blog post whilst on my daily commute, I ended up going down a rabbit hole that ultimately led me to the Pomera DM30 that I'm typing this on today.

Released in Japan back in 2018 (or so), King Jim's Pomera DM30 was clearly designed as an ultra portable memo or note-taking device for business use, but it works equally well as a neat little distraction free word processor. With its fold out keyboard, reasonably sized e-ink screen, fantastic battery life and ability to save to standard SD cards, the DM30 actually has some serious competitive advantage over the Freewrite Traveller et al - especially so when you consider the difference in sale price. Although it is no longer in production, you can still pick up second hand units on Japanese eBay for around £200-250 including shipping - a fraction of the cost of Astrohaus' competing machines.

The first thing to talk about of course is the design, or to be precise, the way the thing unfolds. The notebook PC size keyboard is hinged on both sides so that it folds in upon itself a quarter and three quarters along its width. This folding mechanism even activates two stabilising legs on each side, and despite having a somewhat utilitarian design this aspect of the device is certainly a head turner when demonstrated. To complement this, the second unique feature is the decent sized e-ink screen, comfortably fitting 20 lines of 75 character-long text when used in full-screen mode without the menu or status bar. There's no backlight or anything, but it's still totally usable even with ambient indoor lighting, and positively vivid when used in daylight (unlike a typical laptop screen).

Every time I have used the DM30 in public, people have come over to ask about it - the retro-futuristic aesthetic gives it a cyberpunk vibe unlike anything else commercially available. It's a real shame that King Jim moved away from this design and later revisions of the Pomera feature a more standard clamshell format with an LCD display. But that's enough about looks - what is it like to actually type on?

To be honest, the keyboard is just ‘average’. Nifty fold up features aside, it feels cheap, like what you would expect from a £20 Bluetooth keyboard on Amazon. Unlike the Astrohaus products, the keyboard is certainly not a selling feature; it's completely usable, but does not offer the user an ‘enjoyable’ typing experience. In addition, the layout is slightly off (neither standard US or Japanese) and the spacebar is not quite as responsive as what I'm used to on my mechanical keyboard at home. Oh, and there's no pound sign, even in the character palette, which is disappointing.

I can't touch type, so my eyes are mostly watching my fingers whilst working, but even at an average speed it takes the screen a second to catch up. That is typically the trade off with e-ink screens though; their low refresh rate. Again, it's not brilliant, but it works and feels adequate enough. I have found that I can compensate for this when editing by counting my keypresses to keep track of where the cursor should be.

Despite these shortfalls, the Pomera DM30 still arguably trumps the Astrohaus devices with its software, particularly in terms of file management and actual 'word processing' ability. I totally understand that these devices are supposed to be used for drafting and flow-of-consciousness style writing, but personally that's just not how I roll. I like to continuously edit as I type, and although it's not easy to do that on a slow e-ink display, it's still totally possible on the DM30 thanks to its dedicated cursor keys, the large body of text displayed on screen at a time and its standard Ctrl-C/V/X/Z shortcut functionality.

By default, the DM30 runs in Japanese, but after switching it on for the first time and hitting the Menu key, you can change the whole user interface over to English - the 'language' option to do so is literally the only thing written in English. Then under the ESC key is a button that switches the key entry from Kanji to Roman text input (but again, there's an option in the menus for this too). After that, aside from perhaps setting the date and time you're ready to go. Unfortunately the backup battery door on my unit doesn't open (there's no battery in there, and the screw mechanism to open it is damaged), but these settings take less than a minute to update after changing the bog standard 2x AA batteries that the device runs on.

File management and importing/exporting your work is an absolute breeze; you have the option of saving files to either the internal memory (a staggering 6GB, which is complete overkill for text) or an SD card. You can easily copy to and from each location, manage folders and delete files as well. It's all very comprehensive. There's even a QR export function that sadly I've not been able to use; it requires a companion Pomera Link app on your phone which doesn't seem to be available for iPhone or Android in the UK. Without this, the QR code just seems to default to adding your typed text to a search string in the web browser (at least that's what it does on my phone).

Whilst editing there are a number of viewing options; you can turn on lines (which seem totally unnecessary) via the 'grid' option, and you can even invert the screen to work dark mode style. The 'outline' option is a really neat feature; it opens up a narrow window with tiny text on the left hand side for titles/headings, and you can split your text with embedded headings and sub-headings by starting a new line of text with one or more hashes (#,##,###). These strings of text are then treated like headings in the outline window and you can then jump from one section of text to another by Alt-Tabbing into the adjacent window and selecting the appropriate heading from the list. It's almost like working in a code editor with markdown text, and really useful when working on larger documents.

The only obvious omissions from the editor are the lack of a word count (although there is a character count instead) or an English spell checker. There's also only one fixed-width font (in a variety of different point sizes), but to be fair I actually find the system text pleasing to work with so I have no complaints on that front. One odd hangover from its Japanese heritage is the DM30's apparent confusion when it comes to apostrophes - it treats them like a space or punctuation mark, so the editor happily splits words like it's or don't across two lines (which can affect readability on the device).

In conclusion, it's really hard not to recommend the DM30 as a portable writing device. It is a one-of-a-kind machine and I feel like I'm an extra in Blade Runner or something when I fold it out for use in on my morning train commute. The keyboard might be a little lack-lustre, but it is usable and after a little practice I am able to hit a pretty high words-per-minute rate (albeit with some bogus keypresses and typos). The real benefits of the DM30 are its portability, small size, easy daylight readability and insane battery life using bog-standard AA batteries; I can imagine someone travelling with this and working in the field for weeks on end, picking up extra batteries as and when required.

The DM30 fits into my workflow perfectly and I think that anyone will know if it is or isn't for them upon first glance. Like many of you reading this, I have a passion for odd bits of hardware and they don't get much quirkier than this!

As a final note, if you are interested in getting one yourself then your options are pretty much limited to Japanese sellers on eBay or checking in on the r/writerDeck group on Reddit (where you will occasionally find one for sale in the Western market). With regard to using the DM30, most functionality is pretty straight forward, but someone has taken the time to translate the the full Japanese manual to English (available here) if you'd like a better understanding of some of the more advanced features.

JASWORD (Commodore 64)

When I purchased my first C64 back in 2006, I had no idea of the adventure that lay ahead. I fell in love with the machine almost immediately and the daily release of new homebrew games and demoscene releases kept me thoroughly entertained. However, as the Commodore 64 is a computer (in contrast to a games console), I also wanted to find some way of putting it to productive use, as perhaps it may have been during the machine’s heyday.

At the time I was still actively writing game reviews for the RGCD blog, so the obvious choice was to use the computer as a distraction-free word processor. Without the immediately accessible temptations of the internet and social media, I have always found it easier to maintain my focus when typing on vintage hardware, and the C64 certainly has a much nicer keyboard than the mushy one on the Atari ST. Seriously, the keyboard on the ST is so terrible that Atari's GEM operating system actually includes a short chirp sound that is played upon every key press to provide some sort of tactile feedback to the user!

On the downside however, unlike the Atari ST, the C64 provided me with a couple of hurdles to overcome with regard to typing text; namely the PETSCII format and the 40 character wide display.

After trying a few recommendations, I initially settled for a while on GEOS and it's integrated WYSIWYG Word Processor GeoWrite. I even typed a blog post about it, using GeoWrite itself. However, loading up the OS and application took a fair bit of time, and actually getting the text out of GEOS and onto my PC for publishing was a nightmare involving multiple steps and additional conversion software. Although an admittedly impressive piece of software, the novelty of GeoWrite soon wore off and I sought a simpler solution.

Standard text, when printed, tends to be around 80 characters to a line, so quite obviously typing on a 40 character screen means that text is either truncated or scrolls horizontally as you type. This is far from ideal, so I knew that I wanted an editor with 80 character support. I immediately found that my options on this front were extremely limited, and the few that I did find used some really archaic interfaces and non standard key functions. To add to the problem, very few could save or load modern PC readable text files. Others, like Interword, hogged so much memory that there was barely anything left for typing text! So, for years, I relied on the Final Cartridge III's Notepad and the 'print to file' function of the Ultimate1541-II, which although totally usable, felt like a bit of a cheat. Oh, and although Notepad is arguably impressive with its non-fixed width characters and mouse support, the fact that you couldn't overwrite a file when you saved your work drove me absolutely nuts. My longer documents ended up with many revisions saved to disk as separate yet similarly named files, causing a great deal of confusion upon trying to continue my work at a later date.

Jumping forward to 2021, by complete chance I came across Dr. Franz Kottira's JASWORD - and following extensive use I can happily say that it is far from being 'Just Another Stupid Word-processor' for the C64. In fact, JASWORD is a modern, lightweight and impressively FAST 80 character text editor with some amazing functionality. It ticked every box, but one; there was no English version.

After struggling with Google translate and manually typing in the German text from the many menus and help screens, I managed to teach myself how to use JASWORD and knew that it was the word processor that I'd been searching for. To save others from having to take the same steps, I figured that I'd try my luck in contacting Dr. Kottira and enquire if there was any chance of an English version - I even offered my limited help in translating the menu screens now that I had taken the time to work out what everything did. To my surprise, Dr. Kottira replied and explained that I wasn't the first to ask about an English version, and that a C64 user by the name of d3bug was already assisting him with a translation.

So here I am, in 2024, typing this review in an English version of what I consider to be the perfect text editor for the C64. Well, to be more accurate, today I'm actually using the C64 core on my MEGA65, with its beautiful mechanical keyboard and crystal clear HDMI output, but I digress; of course JASWORD works just as well on my everyday, workhorse C64.

Before the budding retro wordsmiths out there get too excited, there is a hardware limitation that needs to be addressed; unless you have a decent display and video cable, JASWORD will be almost impossible to use. An old TV and RF cable is just not going to do; you really need a decent monitor to read 80 character mode text. I luckily sourced a 15mhz compatible LCD panel with S-Video when I first got my machine, but I appreciate that many C64 users out there still struggle with bleeding colours and wobbly pixels.

That out of the way, people with decent monitors will find a lot to love about JASWORD, starting with its small memory footprint. Unlike many other editors out there, JASWORD leaves you with a relatively massive 32KB of memory to hold your work as you type - with a super helpful 'percentage-free' reading that is displayed on the status bar. At the time of typing this, I'm currently at 85% free - meaning that each document can be somewhere in the region of 10 pages of text. In fact, the English manual that came on the disk worked out at 8 pages long when copied over to my PC and formatted for printing - and that file still had memory to spare. Quite the achievement for a 64KB 8-Bit computer from 1982!

Obviously, with this sort of limitation, JASWORD won't be suitable for writing a novel, but for bashing out a few thousand words for a article or blog entry it proves itself to be totally usable.

So, if you're not sold on it already, let's take a deeper look at some of the functionality and menus (accessible via the F-keys). First up, F1 pulls up the help screen, listing all the useful keyboard shortcuts (navigation, formatting, special characters - that sort of thing). Then F2 pulls up the colour options - although I'd argue that the default settings are already very easy on the eye. F3 is the layout settings, where you can set margins and header/footer sizes, and F4 pulls up the extras menu, with its find/replace function.

Loading and saving (F5 and F6 respectively) presents you with the option to use conversion tables (so you can save and load PC readable text, for example) and you can even load a file into the body of your existing document. Additionally, JASWORD has a directory browser for loading, so you haven't got to remember the file names - and most importantly - saving allows you to overwrite files and verify the save! The F7 print menu is again comprehensive with more options than the majority of users will require, but for me it was the final option, F8, that really got me excited - this is where you can set the text format to ISO8859-1!

JASWORD comes with a number of conversion tables and presents the user with the option to create their own. By selecting the relevant conversion table, you can then flag the load and save menus to use this table when loading and saving, the only slight workaround being that for saving this way you must highlight/select all the text in your document first (SHIFT-RUN STOP) and select 'Save marked selection'. Apart from that, it really is simple and surprisingly fast to use.

So what's left? Well, there's the ability to access Basic from within the editor and actually send up to 80 characters of text to the interpreter by ending a line with CTRL-RETURN (although only 1KB of memory is reserved for this). I'm not sure why this might be useful other than for inserting directory lists into your document, but I'm sure that someone will find that it serves a purpose. And talking of directory listing, it's also worth noting that you can not only view the disk contents from within the load menu, but you can also perform some useful functions such as renaming, copying and deleting files.

Finally, did I mention the price of this marvel of editing software? JASWORD is completely free, so you have absolutely NO reason not to download the disk image and give it a go yourself - perhaps even use it to type an email or letter to Dr. Kottira on your C64 and express your thoughts!

Download JASWORD here (from Dr. Kottira's website).
Run it using VICE (free software).

Sunday 17 March 2024

Back from the Dead

It's been almost three years since my last update on this blog, and all RGCD products have been out of stock on the website since Summer 2021. What's been going on? Whatever happened to Yoomp! on the Amiga? What about EFMB or Retaliate DX for the C64? Is James Monkman dead?!

Well, first off, the good news - I'm not dead or ill, nor have I been kidnapped or gone into exile. The truth is a lot less interesting to be honest, but as several concerned people have reached out me during my extended absence I'm going to take the time now to bore you all with the details.

Early in 2021, my family and I decided that we'd use the stamp duty holiday in the UK to move a step up the property ladder. Stamp duty is a land tax that is payable every time you purchase a property here in the UK, and to stimulate the housing market during the COVID outbreak the Government put a temporary exemption against it. We had outgrown the terrace house we had in Exeter, and after a year of lockdown we all really wanted a change.

My wife is a social worker and her office arrangements had changed from personal work areas to 'hot desking', with her now spending four-fifths of her time at home or on local visits. On the other hand, my railway planning job had evolved to me only being required in the office for 2-3 days a week, meaning that I was also at home for pretty much half of my working hours. With us both in key worker jobs during the outbreak, it didn't take long with five of us all working and schooling from home for the place to start to feel very, very small.

However, even with the tax break, we couldn't find anything suitable in Exeter, so we started looking further afield - Exmouth on the coast, and Crediton further inland, both towns that are connected to our places of work by train. After a couple of months, we found a house in Crediton that suited us - but unfortunately that purchase fell through following a terrible property survey (and the seller refusing to budge on the price). So there we were, looking again with only a few months of the tax break left, when I found a house that seemed to be too good to be true (spoiler; it was).

I grew up right in the middle of Devon, in a small, medieval market town called Hatherleigh that dates back to around 1081AD, and one day on my random property searches I came across a five bedroom house in the town with an attached two bedroom cottage that was almost within our budget. I went for a viewing and couldn't believe what I was seeing - for roughly the same price as our four bed terrace house, here was a larger property with a garden and courtyard, a separate cottage, two sheds/workshops, off-road parking and loads of potential. A forever home.

We pretty much threw caution to the wind and immediately made an offer, and after a few negotiations we had an agreement and began preparing for the move. With a train station opening in nearby Okehampton we were still mostly connected to the rest of the UK, although my commute is now a total of four hours a day! Looking back, I think we were all blinded by the promise of a healthier countryside life and the extra living space for our extended family to use on visits. We had a survey done on the property that resulted in a list of problems almost as thick as a telephone directory, but we didn't care - the house had been standing for centuries, so it would surely manage a few more years without any major investment from us?

As it turns out, not so. Within the first six months we had to completely renew the central heating system and change tens of metres of dodgy wiring in the main house (all the lights stopped working upstairs a few days after moving in). We spent a fortune on repairing leaking windows, lining the chimneys and recommissioning fireplaces - and that was just to get us ready for the first winter! In the meantime, we had to also deal with getting the kids admitted into new schools, rodent and moth infestations, painting and decorating and taking about 50 car loads of junk to the dump... And then, just as things started to settle, the exterior wall of the attached cottage collapsed!

Built in 1650 (or thereabouts), our house and the adjoining cottage mostly comprise of a mix of stone and cob. Cob, for those who don't know, is a blend of straw and clay-rich red mud. Unfortunately, on a side of the cottage that we lack access to, a gutter had been blocked and water had been running down the wall and into the cob through a crack in the exterior render for almost a decade. What happens if you add water to mud? It turns to a slurry and loses what few positive attributes it has as a building material. So, there I was, on my 42nd birthday in November, digging up a mountain spoiled clay and render from all over our neighbours garden and packing it into rubble bags for removal. In the rain, natch.

Following this disaster (and the huge expense of our initial renovations on the main house), my wife and I turned our attention to the two bedroom cottage. We had a second property here, albeit in very poor state of repair (with a collapsed exterior wall, remember!) but also with potential to become a future source of income to help us climb out of our financial hole. Our neighbours had a similar, beautifully renovated property on the square just around the corner that they rented out on Airbnb, and it was pretty much booked out on a permanent basis. With a little work, surely we could do something similar, right?

The renovation took us over two years to complete. Two years of working nearly every weekend in a building site. Two years of builders and tradesmen coming and going. Two years during which our mountain of debt grew and grew and grew.

It turns out that we were incredibly naïve in our aspirations to 'quickly' renovate the cottage. The first step in the process was to have an electrical safety test carried out - and unsurprisingly it turned out that the insulation score was the lowest our electrician had ever seen. This was mainly due to the shoddy 1980's installation, with wiring that ran unshielded and non-trunked through the thoroughly damp, mud walls. A complete rewire was in order if we had any hope of legally renting the place out. In addition to this, the boiler was not installed to a legal standard either, so hey, if we're rewiring we might as well redo all the plumbing, right?

We ended up borrowing and spending a small fortune on the work, but wow - that little two bedroom cottage now really puts our own home to shame. Everything was redone. All new plumbing and electrics, additional insulation in the vaulted ceilings, every wall re-plastered and decorated, oak floors put in downstairs and new carpet upstairs. We installed a new kitchen and a new bathroom. We even restored the original cottage entrance that at some point had been converted into a window. However, one thing we didn't do was to put it up on Airbnb.

Just days after the work was complete, one of our neighbours was evicted from his home (through no fault of his own). Hating to see an senior citizen and his dog thrown out on the street, we decided to help him out by offering our cottage as a rental property. It's taken some adjustment, but I feel that it was ultimately the right decision and we all get on well. Apart from our cat Bertie, who is not a fan of Lenny the dog.

It's taken me a few months to recover from all this - and we still have a lot of refurbishment left to do in our own house, so the work is far from over. In fact, we're currently in the process of fitting a new bathroom suite, with a bathtub currently residing in the dining room, waiting for installation (and raising eyebrows whenever we have visitors). Also, my day job has changed a great deal over the past four years. Since COVID my workload has almost doubled; where I used to be able to crunch my hours into four days and have a day to myself for RGCD activity, now I'm regularly working the equivalent of six days a week just to keep up.

My wife and I have also had to deal with helping our three kids to establish new friendships and integrate into the community. My eldest (Millie) has really flourished here - she's now studying art and philosophy at college and is out all the time with her new friends. However, my two younger sons have found the move a little bit more difficult and it's taken a lot more time and effort to settle them. This is probably also another consequence of COVID; they seem to be far more addicted to their screens than Millie - despite the endless opportunity for outside activities and adventure that living in the countryside offers.

From my perspective, moving to this small yet active rural community has been a really positive change. We have friends and neighbours whom just randomly call round for a cup of tea and a chat, and we are regularly out at each others houses for dinner and barbeques in the warmer months. We never had this in Exeter; despite having a great friendship group there, it was never so relaxed as to just have unexpected visits - I guess mainly because of how spread out across the city we were. In these days of smart phones and constant communication, there's something quite nostalgic about an unexpected knock at the door and a welcome, friendly face greeting you on the other side.

The unfortunate consequence of all this activity over the past three years has been that I've had zero time left in my schedule for sitting in front of a computer until very recently. In fact, I'm sat typing this on my Commodore 64 right now, and it must be the first time I've turned the poor neglected thing on in about six months.

So here I am, finally sat in front of an 8-bit machine bashing away on the keys with a grin on my face. I'm well aware that the C64 scene has evolved a great deal in my absence; I have a lot to catch up on and working relationships to rebuild. RGCD’s cashflow is currently zero, so I'll need to sort out my accounts and then promptly finish off the few outstanding tasks on projects that were already in the pipeline so as to bring funds back in to the business. Additionally, Brexit has introduced some major challenges for small businesses selling products outside the UK, so I'll have some work to do on that front, possibly resulting in me moving the RGCD shop away from Big Cartel.

In conclusion, there's a lot of work ahead of me, but rest assured, RGCD is back. While I labour away in the background, I also intend to update the blog a bit more frequently than one post every three years, so you'll probably be hearing from me again soon. Please note that the RGCD email inbox is currently backed up with thousands of messages (mostly spam), so until I catch up, if you want to drop me a line the best way is probably via a message on Facebook.