Why This DIY Kobowriter Should Totally Be a Real Product

Single-purpose machines are way less stressful than multi-function computers.

Key Takeaways

  • The Kobowriter is a DIY hack that turns an e-reader into a typewriter.
  • Single-purpose machines don’t distract you and are better designed for their job. 
  • Unlike computers, a machine always remembers where you left off.
Kobowriter front

Sven Neuhaus

Never underestimate the ability of a writer to distract themselves from the job at hand.

This is the Kobowriter. As you can see, it’s a DIY e-ink typewriter, a USB keyboard hooked up to a modified Kobo Glo HD e-book reader to create a modern-day, single-purpose writing machine. It’s simple, offers zero built-in distractions, and will always be waiting where you left off.

In short, it’s the perfect comment on all that’s wrong with your tablet or smartphone. 

Kobowriter

You can make your own Kobowriter. Just pick up an old Kobo e-reader (or dust off and charge the one from the back of your closet) and head over to the Github project page. Right now the software part only supports the French AZERTY layout, but why let that stop you?

You’ll also need to find a way to power the USB keyboard at the same time as plugging it into the Kobo. You can use any keyboard you like, but the one used in the project seen here lends a pretty great 1980s look to the whole thing. It strongly resembles the '80s-era Sinclair QL.

Sinclair QL

Wikimedia

Setting it up is surprisingly straightforward, but there are off-the-shelf products that do the same thing. The Hemingwrite, for instance, was a Kickstarter that paired a clicky mechanical keyboard with a tiny e-ink display, and was more recently reborn as the Freewrite

Or the Alphasmart Neo, possibly the ugliest “laptop” computer ever conceived, and packing an LCD screen that would look small on a smart thermostat, but with an incredible keyboard and battery life measured in weeks. 

And they’re popular. Not Tik-Tok popular or PopSocket popular, but nerd-popular. There’s a certain kind of geek that loves these single-purpose devices, and I think I may know why. 

One Thing, Well

A computer or smartphone can do almost anything, and the nature of software means that in the future it will always be able to do more.

At the other end of the scale is a film camera or a typewriter, which do one thing only, and will never ever see a firmware update. They may be primitive by today’s standards, but they have two clear advantages over general-purpose computers. They are designed only to do one job, so the design can therefore compromise everything else in the service of that one purpose.

A film camera, for example, has knobs and dials that are perfectly suited to their task, and which always do the same thing. You can learn “muscle memory” for these controls, until you forget about them. A stick-shift car is the same. 

Kobowriter side view

Sven Neuhaus

The other advantage of a single-purpose machine is that you always come back to the same place. A typewriter doesn’t activate its screensaver, crash, and require that you restart the typewriter app. A piano’s keys always play the same notes when you hit them.

This sounds insignificant, but the mental overhead required to wake your iPad, make it into your writing app without checking Instagram, and then navigating back to your current document because the app didn’t save its state, is huge. 

Taking notes on paper is restful not only because you can doodle, but because you don’t have to worry whether the paper saved your notes, or that leaving the iPad’s screen on the whole time will run down its battery. 

And so it is with these basic e-ink and LCD typewriters.

The Enemy of Distraction

A few years ago, you couldn’t move for “distraction-free” writing apps. The idea was that by hiding all interface elements, except for the blinking cursor, you’d avoid the poor user getting sidetracked. I find this insulting. If you can’t ignore a few menus or folder icons, you’ve got bigger problems. The real source of distraction is the device. Instagram, WhatsApp, TikTok—they’re all a swipe away. 

The antidote, as many have found, is to use specialized tools like the Kobowriter, the Fujifilm X-Pro3 camera, or the Elektron Octatrack sampler and drum machine.

You can focus on the task at hand, with a device designed to do that task as well as possible. Switch it off, and switch it back on a week later, and nothing has changed. 

Finally, these devices often have a beauty in their design that isn’t possible with a slab of aluminum and glass. That counts for a lot.

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