Jottings on science, religion, technology, pop culture and faith from the Antipodes.

Digital Technology, Writing & Research Tools

Digital Writing – Part 2

Scrivener on Linux

A while back I wrote about some analogue and digital tools for writing (Digital writing – Part 1). Today, I’m going to look at creating a platform for writing using some of those and other tools. It all starts with an oldish (2014) laptop that is no longer being used.

notebook-lenovo-b41-30The Lenovo B41-30 is a Windows 10 laptop that is possibly one of the most disappointing and painful laptops I have ever encountered. It was acquired as a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) laptop for one of our children to use for study. In the shop it seemed to work well – response seemed snappy and the keyboard was good to type on, but after unboxing it and getting it going, it all went downhill over the next few months. Previously we’d had a really good experience with a Pentium-based Lenovo Yoga 2 that still keeps on being a daily-driver machine today, as well as an Atom-based Asus X205TA that performed a really good job of being a basic but functional Windows 10 laptop for banging words out while travelling.

Lenovo Yoga 2 (11?) ASUS X205TA-DS01-BL-OFCE Portable 11.6-Inch Intel Quad ...

Even after I upgraded the B41 laptop’s RAM and replaced the slow 500GB hard drive with a faster 240GB solid-state drive things like Windows update just drove the performance into the ground. Sure you could run Google Docs in a browser or Microsoft Word (provided you weren’t doing anything else), but overall, user satisfaction was not great. Moreoever, the screen seemed to get worse in terms of brightness and contrast over time, and so, the laptop was retired to the “emergency laptop” category that you might grab if you had too. Which was a real disappointment because spec-wise it wasn’t too different from the other two aforementioned laptops which just keep on working day in and day out. My suspicion is that Windows 10 just didn’t like this particular laptop model. Whether it was Windows updates or random Windows processes suddenly taking 100% of the CPU, it just wasn’t a pleasant experience to use.

Which brings me back to what to do with the laptop. I want a clean, basic writing system without all the overhead that other demands bring. I use a Microsoft Surface Book 2 for work with the i7 CPU and dedicated graphics, but that has to do so many things from Office 365 tasks, Microsoft Teams, Skype, Zoom, video editing, as well as being used for lecturing and a number of dedicated research tasks. It has a great keyboard and trackpad, great screen, and has no problems with almost any task I set it (except it won’t sleep properly from time to time). However, it is heavy-ish and not something I’d just throw in my backpack to do some writing at a cafe or with no Internet connection. Plus it’s expensive so I’m always worried about it getting lost or stolen when I’m out and about.

Cue an article by Ryan M. Williams “Don’t Use Your Computer For Your Writing“. In the article, he takes a basic Windows 10 laptop, strips out all the cruft from it, installs Literature & Latte’s Scrivener on it (my writing tool of choice), and sets it up to boot, login and then automatically start Scrivener. Backups are to USB drives (or even a SD/Micro-SD card) and it’s fast, clean and ready to right almost instantly – esp. if running off an SDD. From his introduction:

The basic idea here is that you set up a computer that has nothing except your writing on it. No internet. No email. No games. Nothing. Back up your manuscripts on a USB drive and use that to transfer the files to your connected computer where you do everything else. Keep your writing computer strictly for writing. It will help your gray matter. When you sit down at that computer you know the only thing that you will do is write.

So far, so good – except the Lenovo and Windows sucks. So, what if it wasn’t running Windows? Could that work and what about my writing tool of choice – Scrivener?

So I took some time to run a few different non-Windows operating systems on it to see how it went. (I considered turning it into a Hackintosh (like this), but perhaps another day). Anyway, here’s what I tried:

  • Neverware’s CloudReady OS: This basically turns your computer into a Chromebook. It installed and ran blindingly fast, but wanting to be independent of an Internet connection most of the time meant that wasn’t perhaps the best choice. Still one for the Asus X205TA at some point though.
  • Ubuntu Linux from Canonical: This is what I’m running on the home server and it’s worked like a dream. It installed cleanly, with a bunch of software included, and had a relatively nice desktop. However, it felt a little like overkill for what I want to do, so I put it aside as well.
  • Lubuntu Linux: A lightweight Linux desktop distribution designed to run on lower spec hardware. Again, easy install, nice GUI, and very responsive. Number 2 on my list as I’d have to tweak it a little more than the straight install.
  • Pop!_OS Linux: Billed as a Linux desktop distribution for creatives it installed well, but the laptop started to chug a bit when trying to do things. Looks nice, but higher specced machine needed to run it well.
  • Linux Mint 20 – Like Lubuntu installed and ran smoothly on the laptop. The overall finish of the distribution worked well for me, esp. having all the settings in a single place (like MacOS) and a helpful set of apps installed (and a sort-of “App Store” too – though most distros have that now). This is what I’ve ended up going with on the laptop with the Cinnamon desktop/GUI.

In terms of software, then, what do we have easily installed and ready to go:

  • Easy connection from the file manager to Google Drive;
  • Easy connections to Windows and Mac file sharing at home;
  • Full LibreOffice suite of applications – helpful for tasks which require working on tasks that require most complete capabilities. (Not my default writing software though);
  • Some small, focused apps like GhostWriter (Markdown text editor), FocusWriter, ReText (Markdown text editor), Artha (thesaurus), and Zim (note-taking and organising);
  • Firefox as the default web-browser and for accessing EndNoteWeb as required.
  • Amazon Kindle reader installed under Wine.
  • Manuskript as an optional writing tool.

I’ll cull that list as I work on the laptop some more.

But what about Scrivener, I hear you ask? I took two different tacks here:

Firstly, I installed the most recent Windows version under Wine using PlayOnLinux. It installed like a charm, but then wouldn’t register itself as some Windows components were missing. Had a brief stab at getting that sorted but decided to go with Option 2 at the moment. Some helpful articles here about this:

Secondly, I installed the Linux beta of Scrivener and that is running really well. The best article on how to do this is here:

So, all good so far. I have a cheap, snappy system running my preferred writing software in a robust package and have breathed new life into a deficient Windows laptop. And the screen seems to have improved in clarity and brightness – go figure.

Now to write some stuff with it.


Scrivener on Linux