The Review Vault

Distraction Free Writing on the Go with the Laser PC6

- 2008.10.27 (updated)

Ah, the days of old, back when things were simple.

That's the era of computing I grew up in and remember fondly. It was back when you bought a computer mainly for word processing and other simple needs.

Around the mid 90s, this all began to change - and change rapidly. Suddenly, we were introduced to multimedia, online services, and eventually the Internet. In short, we were introduced to things that were useful and compelling, but could also be distracting.

Something I've heard a lot about in the presidential campaign is change. In this era of computing with all the bloat and complexity, which hinders the writer who just wants to write without the distractions, it's time for change.

Laser PC6

Enter the Laser PC6 from Perfect Solutions.

Is the Laser PC6 change we can believe in? I found myself intrigued by what can best be described as a portable typewriter without the paper.

The Laser PC6 is in a small class of "portable keyboards". These devices have one main function, word processing. The PC6, like most portable keyboards, is aimed at the education market, but it's not only for schools. The PC6 has a full-sized keyboard and a wide LCD screen, making it a boon for writers.

The first thing you will notice when taking it out of the box is the quality of its construction. It's made of extremely durable plastic and has a certain "heft" to it in terms of weight. It's not too heavy nor too light; it's just right.

If the PC6 is dropped, the top part of the casing is designed to break away from the LCD. That's smart thinking.

On the left of the PC6, you'll find the on/off switch and contrast wheel. On the top part of the PC6 is where you'll find the ports and plugs. There's an expansion I/O port, which allows you to connect the PC6 to a Mac or PC to transfer text from the PC6. You can also do this with infrared via the USB IR Hub, which can be purchased as an option. You'll find the Infrared sensor on the top part of the PC6. There's a Video Out port, although there is no "box" to allow use with a TV. Lastly, you'll find the plug-in for the power supply to power the PC6 as well as charge it (if you have the rechargeable NiMH battery). You can run PC6 on either 4 AA alkalines or order the rechargeable NiMH battery. The PC6 can run for 36 hours on 4 AA alkalines. On the NiMH battery, you can get 20 hours on a single charge.

Turn the PC6 over, and you'll find three things of interest. On the left you'll find a cover for the cartridge holder. The PC6 has optional cartridges that can be used to enhance the PC6. The most popular cartridge is the $100 Text-to-Speech cartridge, which speaks back text written in the word processor. You can also use a Flash memory cartridge, which can store a total of 512 KB - half a meg of text files. 512 KB may sound like a paltry amount of memory, but it's far more than enough for plain text files. On the right, you'll find the battery compartment. There's also one other thing that's kind of hidden. Right below the cartridge slot is a black cover with a slit in it. Underneath that is a thin metal plate. This leads to the backup cell batteries, which preserve the contents of the internal memory when the batteries die or are replaced.

Another thing you'll notice when looking in the box is that there's a lot of documentation. Even, perish the thought, manuals! Not some CD with a PDF manual, but an actual printed manual. It also includes a Ten Minute Guide, along with other useful tidbits. Be sure to read the instructions, especially when it comes to the batteries.

Now that we have the visual tour out of the way, let's take a look at what has to be done before you can begin typing on your PC6. The first thing you should do is charge the batteries for 12 hours using the included AC adapter.

If you have the rechargeable battery, you'll need to plug in the AC adapter before plugging in the rechargeable battery. The PC6 has documentation on why you must do this. Then you plug in the battery with the connector on the end. It can only go one way. Then fit the battery between the springs, tuck the cord off to the side, and replace the battery cover. Above all, don't unwrap the rechargeable battery!

Once you've read the do's and don'ts on the rechargeable battery, let the battery charge for 24 hours the first time. Yeah, it's a bummer, but it's necessary. After the initial charge, when it gets low, future charges will be 12 hours. This is annoying to me, but thankfully, you can use AA alkalines. Unfortunately, if you ordered the PC6 with the rechargeable battery, the backup batteries will be removed, so that if the batteries ever crap out and you didn't either send your files over to your computer or you don't have the Flash memory cartridge, you'll lose your files.

Once it's charged, you're ready to start using your PC6! Flip the switch on the left side to turn it on. You'll hear a little sound, and eventually you'll be presented with the main menu. From here you'll have numerous choices. The PC6 includes a word processor, spreadsheet, database, and telephone directory, as well as a typing tutor. The PC6 reminds me of the days of DOS - nothing elegant or fancy here, but enough to get the job done.

I'm just going to focus on the word processing part of the PC6, mainly because that's the main part of this type of device. To get to the word processor, press A. From there, you can create, delete, edit, or print a document. Press C to create a new document. Next, give it a name, no longer than 19 characters. Once you do that, press enter, and you're ready to type.

The beauty of the PC6 (and other devices like it) is that there's no hard drive and no having to remember to save. With every key pressed, the PC6 automatically saves. It's that simple. If you shut it off, you can go right back to it again by pressing E for edit document, then open the file you last worked on. You can select from having 4 lines of text displayed on the screen or 8. Pressing the 40/80 button toggles between both settings. Depending on your eyes, you may find that 40 is more comfortable than 80.

There are no WYSIWYG formatting options like you would find in your typical word processing program. It's just you, your thoughts, and raw text with embedded formatting commands. If you have the Text-to-Speech cartridge inserted into the PC6, you can have it speak the words back pressing Play TS. (I don't have the cartridge, so I can't comment on this feature.)

When you're ready to check your spelling, not a problem. Press Spell, and it checks your document. If it finds a word it doesn't understand, it will ask you if you want to continue. If it finds a word it thinks is incorrect, it gives you the choice of ignoring it or correcting it. Very simple!

Once spell check is completed, you'll want to send your text to your computer. There are two ways to do it: You can either hook a Mac or PC transfer cable from the Expansion I/O port to your computer or you can purchase the optional USB IR hub and send it via infrared. Whichever way you choose, it's really cool how this works. Open your favorite word processing program (or if you want to compose a new email, create a new email), make sure the PC6 is connected via cable (or plug in the IR hub and press IR send), and watch the words magically transfer to the program!

If you're using IR and the words end up somewhat garbled, you're too close or too far from your computer's IR port. You can move the PC6 closer or further away. You can adjust the speed of the IR transfer to a slower setting if it's too fast for your computer's IR port.

Say you want to bypass the computer altogether and just print what you've written - you can do that with the included PC or Mac cable. One caveat: The PC6 does not support USB printers, only the older parallel and older Apple printers. I think the PC6 should be updated to support USB printers, but you can work around this by sending the text to your computer and printing it from there. Once you connect your printer, press Esc, then press P for print, press Enter, and you're good to go. You may have to adjust the settings according to whether you're using a PC or Apple printer.

The settings for the PC6 can be adjusted fairly easily. Press Esc to return to the main menu, then press G for Utilities. Most all options can be adjusted under 2 for Configuration. You can select printers, speed up or slow down transfer rates, as well as other things.

If you have the optional flash cartridge and you want to save your work to it, all you have to do is plug in your flash cartridge with the PC6 off, turn the PC6 on, and press F for Flash. You'll be presented with two windows and options in the middle. The first thing you do is find your file on the left side using the left and right arrow keys, then press Enter. Then you go down in the middle list to Copy Files, pressing Enter, which will ask if you want to save to Flash. Press Y, and then you can give it a new filename if you wish, then press Enter, and it's now saved on your flash cartridge.

There are other things the PC6 can do such as spreadsheet, database, telephone directory and typing tutor, but I only wanted to concentrate on the word processing part of the PC6.

The PC6 has a certain charm to it, mainly because it's old school. If you cut your teeth on DOS years ago, as I did, the PC6 will be comfortable.

There's one thing that should be mentioned. The PC6's memory can get corrupted if you let the battery run too low before charging it or if you improperly insert or remove a cartridge while it's on. If that happens, the unit will not respond to input from the keyboard. It has to be reset - in which case anything you saved to the internal memory will be gone. (To reset the memory, you remove the batteries, unplug the AC adapter, turn the PC6 on, and leave it that way for 15 minutes to an hour. This can be rather frustrating, but it doesn't happen often.)

If you're looking for something simple and don't mind that the technology isn't brand spanking new, give the PC6 a trial run. Schools can request a preview unit, but this option isn't available to individual. The PC6 itself is $290, which is somewhat pricey considering that a low-end laptop computer can be had new for $400. (Then again, a laptop computer doesn't have 20 hour battery life, and this is the only portable word processor with text-to-speech capability.) Still, if getting away from modern distractions are what you're after, the PC6 is something that just might fit the bill. LEM

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