It’s just a keyboard – or is it not?

The phrase I’m hearing even more often than I would really like. Not so long time ago someone told me: – I do not understand those who use mechanical keyboards – they are not good‚ they just make too much noise. A good keyboard should be as silent as possible‚ and “just work” -. Unfortunately‚ he is not the only one who thinks so. In the era‚ when a Macbook Air is suggested as a “poor writer’s machine”‚ while Macbook Pro – a machine for a writer with deeper pockets, nothing could be further from the truth. Today’s tendency of laptops and even computer keyboards becoming more and more slim has a very negative impact of typing quality. In fact‚ many may not even notice this as a problem‚ before they sit and try to work with a “real” keyboard. With “real” I mean mechanical. There is a huge difference between food‚ that’s “just edible” and an assortment from the finest restaurant‚ but this is exactly the case here. Most keyboards‚ made today are just a junk food you eat and just forget about it. You can type‚ they work‚ but there is no feeling of satisfaction‚ no tactile feedback‚ no will to type on it for prolonged time. Sounds familiar? If so‚ maybe not all hope is lost…Yet.

A leap back in history – somewhere around 1970 computers started to take over the place of once dominant typewriters‚ slowly‚ but with increasing pace. This was a moment‚ when computer manufacturers tried to make their computers and keyboards feel more like working on a typewriter‚ and typewriters do have a perfect tactile feedback and satisfaction with each keypress. I’m not talking about the ancient software‚ monitors and hardware – everything is better today‚ except the keyboards. Most computer keyboards‚ made up to the beginning of 90-ties were mechanical keyboards‚ best of them made up to the middle of 80-ties. The machines were very expensive at this time‚ even a keyboard would cost a few thousand dollars‚ adjusting to inflated prices of today. This was not only price issue – that was the time‚ when all components were made of highest quality possible. Only 90-ties started to ruin it all‚ with mass produced‚ cheap‚ horrible‚ rubberdome keyboards‚ which we now know more or less as a standard today. However‚ things are still going downhill. Like it would not be enough with a rubberdome keyboard’s mushy tactile feedback‚ the key travel is decreasing along with laptops and keyboards getting slimmer in size . One of the last good non-mechanical keyboards were still made by Lenovo‚ after taking over laptop production from IBM. Many IBM Thinkpad’s have legendary good keyboards‚ with a deep key travel (over 2 mm)‚ and very comfortable ergonomics‚ such as a Thinkpad R52‚ A31P to name a few. One of the best keyboards from Lenovo’s Thinkpad line can be found on a Thinkpad T470. Still‚ the position of touchpad makes them less usable for writing than IBM’s thinkpads‚ which featured Trackpoint only – actually very usable after a little adjustment. However‚ mechanical keyboards are even better‚ than on any Thinkpad ever made. Many of them can be upgraded to work with any modern PC‚ with more or less effort. For some it means just adding a suitable‚ available adapter‚ f or others – some soldering job. The result – a keyboard you will never want to part with‚ and start regretting the time you have spent with a “mainstream” keyboard.

Before we go back in history‚ it is worth noting‚ that there are mechanical keyboards available brand new from different manufacturers, either stand alone or a part of the computer, such as laptops. Currently there are two manufacturers‚ which do make laptops with mechanical keyboards – Lenovo and MSI‚ such as Lenovo Ideapad y900 and MSI Titan GT 80. Expect them to be large‚ bulky and heavy‚ with screen size from 17 inches and up‚ with battery lasting from 2-3 hours only‚ and extremely expensive. The reason – those are so called “gaming” laptops‚ with very powerful hardware for 3D intensive applications. Should they be made for writing only‚ with less beefy specifications‚ they should have been cheaper. No one really seems to think‚ that writers would like to use mechanical keyboards for writing nowadays.

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Even stand alone keyboards‚ such as Logitech G613, seen above, are usually labelled as “gaming” keyboards. There are some exceptions‚ such as beautiful‚ but expensive keyboard‚ namedQWERKYWRITER“‚ with keys and design parts resembling those found on pre-WW2 era typewriters‚ the Penna keyboard‚ and some other manufacturers‚ who do acknowledge‚ that gamers are not the only people‚ who would like to use a good keyboard. Then there are some failed examples as a FreeWrite – good idea‚ but ruined by hardware/software quality issues‚ short battery life and total lack of understanding‚ what a writer really needs from a writing device. Sorry I do not want to continue about this – it is just that I hit a sore spot now.

There are various mechanical keyboards on sale‚ but expect to pay at least something about 150 EUR or more for a good one. There are even Bluetooth mechanical keyboards‚ such as Logitech G613‚ which allows to transform your tablet into a good writer’s tool. They are good‚ but still – not good enough‚ compared to the real vintage keyboards‚ although I see some light at the end of the tunnel‚ since new projects emerge‚ such as the IBM model F project‚ where keyboards made by the same technology and hopefully quality as back then will be produced in limited production run. Given the keyboard‚ 300 dollars would be a very good price for a new IBM model F – one of the best‚ if not entirely the best keyboard I have ever used‚ hands down.

Now‚ it is time to look at the best vintage keyboards and vintage computers with the best keyboards ever made. If I miss something‚ it is because I do not own that particular device/keyboard‚ but here I would like to speak from my personal experience only – I can not recommend something that “someone told me must be good”.

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An IBM Model F – the buckling spring keyboard I’m currently typing on‚ and I would not really want to change anything in it. It is heavy‚ extremely heavy‚ with a metal bottom plate. No‚ I have not converted it to work with a modern PC‚ although X-Whatsit controller is available‚ so I could convert it to a “modern” keyboard if needed.

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However‚ I see no need here‚ since I think it fits perfectly with an IBM 6580 – IBM’s first word processor‚ using eye soothing green‚ slow refresh phosphorous CRT screen‚ and a separate‚ giant 8 inch disk drive‚ which can hold two 8 inch floppy disks‚ each holding around 1 MB of data. Let’s return to the keyboard – this is an early model F‚ non-PC compatible‚ since first PC was made a few years later. The keyboard is built like a tank‚ the keys have perfectly good‚ balanced tactile feedback‚ and they even have different pitch sounds‚ depending which keys are pressed‚ so it does sounds more like a music when I start to type. The white‚ shiny keys have not lost any of their charm‚ although the keyboard is almost 40 years old‚ and it feels like it can work for 40 years more without a problem. Due to a serious weight‚ it always stays on a table in place‚ and has no tendency to slide or move around when typing. Can be used as a blunt weapon if needed for an emergency I guess.

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IBM model M – more plastic‚ lighter‚ more muted sound than model F‚ but also a buckling spring keyboard‚ very good tactile feedback‚ and I can perfectly understand those who swear by it – they have not used a model F! Jokes aside‚ IBM model M has a PS/2 connector‚ so it is much‚ much easier to connect it to a modern machine – just plug it in a PS2/USB adapter‚ and there you go. A very good keyboard for anyone who enjoys prolonged writing or likes rhythmic sound of the keys when typing some documents. Time from time this keyboard is available for sale as NOS‚ but it is not very cheap (not overly expensive either). Anyway‚ if you can not hook up a model F‚ go for a model M‚ and you will not be disappointed. If needed ‚ it is possible to go fully vintage – hook up this keyboard to an old 286/386 PC‚ and you will have a perfect distraction free writing PC‚ maybe something similar to George R. Martin uses to write “The Game of Thrones”.

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There is also semi-portable route. IBM did make some models of PS/2 portables with IBM model M keyboard‚ and red plasma screen‚ such as an IBM PS2 P70. Just do not expect the floppy drive to work – they will not work on most of them‚ so you will need to use either Iomega Zip drive or a Laplink cable for a data transfer‚ but it can be done‚ and is really not a big problem after all is set.

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Now‚ let’s look at some of the portables with mechanical keyboards. As a first one‚ the list would not be complete without a Tandy Model 100/102. They do have a nice mechanical keyboard‚ a very good contrast LCD screen (Sorry Alphasmart does not even comes close)‚ and they are very good for the task they were once most often used – for writing. There are only two problems. First – a limited memory – 32K‚ part of which are already taken by the operating system. It can be solved by adding a memory cards (80K)‚ but they are a rarity by themselves‚ and are protruding from the back of the device‚ making it more cumbersome to use. Second – a data transfer. Best to do with a Tandy floppy drive – there is a program on a PC‚ which allows to copy all documents to a hard drive. A pity‚ that these floppy drives are a rarity‚ and drive belts often will need to be replaced.  If connectivity and memory problems are sorted out‚ Tandy portable becomes a great tool for writing short stories on the go‚ and uploading them on a PC at the end of the day. 4AA batteries last a long time in this unit‚ and are always readily available‚ should the need arise.

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A little bit on the heavy side‚ but still a portable – IBM 5140‚ first portable PC made by the blue giant IBM. It has an excellent keyboard with brown ALPS switches‚ the tactile feedback is somewhat on par with an IBM model M‚ although model M will be a bit more “clicky”. There are some who managed to convert this keyboard to work on a modern computer‚ but no kits are readily available‚ maybe this is even better‚ especially because the machine itself is a pleasure to work on – believe me‚ 2x720K is perfectly enough for writing‚ the first diskette contains operating system and word processing software‚ and 720K on the second floppy is free for your data. This machine has a non-volatile RAM – RAM contents are not erased when powering down the machine‚ so you can continue to work as soon as you turn it on‚ just where you left. Plain text format allows you to fit an entire novel into a single floppy. Best Word processor for this one – PC-Write‚ which is available in abandonware downloads. Just make note – floppies can fail‚ so back up your data either to another PC‚ or an external zip drive (there is a driver available from Klaus Pelch website). There were two versions of this PC – first – an LCD display without brightness control – only one slider on the right side of the screen‚ and with improved “Supertwist” backlit LCD screen. If serious about writing on this vintage PC‚ you should look for this particular model‚ although do note‚ the screens are easily interchangeable – you can always replace the non-backlit screen with a backlit one in a couple of minutes or even less.

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Toshiba T3100e – What can I say – it is just a marvel. Yes‚ it does not have a battery‚ it is old‚ heavy‚ but it has great red plasma screen with great contrast‚ and a very good‚ snappy mechanical keyboard. Typing on it does not require any significant effort. The plasma screen does not gives a significant eye strain‚ it is just that the world will look different for a while after a longer typing session. It has a huge 20MB hard drive‚ which will allow you to store many novels‚ along with an operating system of choice – it can even run Windows 3.1‚ should you need a graphical interface‚ and can run Microsoft Word 1.1. Saving in RTF format allows you to transfer the document on a modern machine along with a formatting. Otherwise‚ you can run Word 5.5. for DOS‚ which is Freeware now‚ and is really a very good word processor with many features‚ although they are not really needed for drafting.

There are other good machines with a mechanical keyboards‚ such as Zenith laptops‚ with dual floppy drives‚ and Sharp MZ-100‚ a dual floppy beast with a mechanical keyboard‚ but all of the machines mentioned above do have better keyboards and are more often available in good working condition‚ if you do not loose your patience‚ and buy the first machine you see.e

It really does not matter if you agree with me or not in this – at least now you know there might be another opinion you can think about‚ and even if you will never buy a mechanical keyboard‚ or a computer with it – do not miss the chance to type on one‚ if there is an opportunity – it might open your eyes.

P.S. In any case, even if you do not agree with me, stay away from this particular keyboard – it simply must not exist at all!

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Loosing faith…

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     This is not about religion. This is not about some psychological issues, not about broken dreams or illusions. It’s about FreeWrite, the device I bought, eager to type in a distraction free environment, to serve as a tool, as a device to escape the temptations of connected environment, social sites and the big, evil Internet. It was supposed to be a perfect device for those, who do need to type. It has been more than a year since I have it. And no, it is not perfect. It is not good. And most of all, it is not distraction free, it is a distraction by itself. Countless time I tried to use it, countless times it has failed me in a way I really did not expect from it.

Did it make me a better writer – no.

Do I regret buying this device – yes.

Do I reccomend buying it – no, and once more – no!

Let me explaing. About a year ago, I understood it is more like a “beta” version of the device, with flaws, that will be fixed in future updates. Now, a year later, it still feels like a “beta”, despite several updates, last of them finally allows to get rid of those spooky “screensavers” when the device is turned off. Other than that, the changes have been really minor – some new keyboard shortcuts, ability to turn off the screen frontlight, some usability issues suggested by community, but that’s about all. It still feels much like the device I bought a year ago, and has not become an updated, usable writing tool, it has become an unusable piece of curiosity, a subject of discussion, and the device I start to hate the moment I open the laptop case I store it in. Should you ask why, here are some issues I can and will not tolerate in this device, or any other I use for writing.

Screen lag… I know, this has to be a problem with an e-ink screen being unable to redraw the text as fast as I type, but there is even more. If the document does not reach size over 3,000 words, the lag is there, but tolerable. After that it gets progressively worse, as more you type. Forget about drafting entire novel in a single file. Actually, you have a problem with drafting a chapter, if you want more or less normal screen redraw. I suspect this has to do with processing power of the device.

Syncing… No, it is not syncing, but rather data transfer from a Freewrite to online services, such as Google drive, Evernote, or DropBox. This would have been a good idea, but it is not. Syncing is still done via Astrohaus service, called PostBox. FreeWrite can not sync directly to any of these services. Even more, it sometimes does not sync at all. There can be several documents synced, but one just remains on the FreeWrite. Don’t ask me why, I do not know, and I don’t have to. I need a device, which fullfills it’s promises, not fails them.

Settings… Imagine you are gone away from all distractions, your cell phone is left at home, and all you have is a FreeWrite. You switch it on, and notice, that the required keyboard layout is missing. What would you expect? There must be a way to add it on the FreeWrite? Yes, correct. But there is none. You need another device – a cell phone, computer, tablet, which can access internet, log in to Postbox website, and add a layout from there. Need larger or smaller font size? The same. The irony of the fact is that currently, while I’m writing this, I can not acces device settings at all – must be an Astrohaus server problem, but there is an irony in this fact – you need another device with internet connection to configure so called “Distraction free writing device”, and even then the success is not granted.

Editing… There is none. Yes, it was written in specifications. Yes, there are people who like to go forward, and never look back, but there are also those, who like to correct obvious typos when noticing them. Does lack of simple editing really improve productivity? This may be true for some writers, but not for all, and I think this feature should be available as an option.

Battery life… It is dissapointing. Nowhere near as advertised, you can be happy if it survives a working day. Many laptops now have at least twice the juice. Did I mention, that it still does not have a battery indicator, so you can happily type until you see a “battery critically low” mesage on a FreeWrite? Now, let’s make things even more interesting. How about a random time, ranging from 30 minutes to several hours until FreeWrite turns on after that, even connected to a charger? This is exactly what happens, if a battery goes low. You can play a waiting game – If I’m lucky, I will be able to type in a 30 minutes. If unlucky, there will be no typing today. Ah, almost forgot one more detail. FreeWrite battery drain is so significant even when switched off, so it is flat in less than a week. This can be countered by fully turning off the FreeWrite, but then it takes about a minute to load, and really does not add to the user experience there.

Astrohaus has done some improvements in this area – FreeWrite 2.0 has larger battery and keyboard with less power consumption, resulting in about twice autonomy than FreeWrite 1.0. First FreeWrite users can send the device, and the battery will be upgraded for 50 USD plus return shipping, which seems to be fine idea, unless we look at the fact, that battery life was promised much better, and those, who ordered the device, expected this to be true. Should anyone ask my opinion, this service should be free of charge, with free return shipping, however, the way it is done now makes me feel bad I ordered FreeWrite 1.0.

Yellowing plastic… You did not expect that one, right? So did I, however, the bottom plastic is turning from white to browny/yellow color, suggestion there might be a quality issues in the process, especially given the fact that I never use my FreeWrite in a sunlight, and always store it inside a dark laptop bag, so sunlight is not the cause of the damage here.

Data loss… Last, but not least. Have lost some documents on the FreeWrite. Sometimes they just dissapear, sometimes everything seems to be normal, until the moment, when I realise, that it has saved only the last visible screen, going up results in a blank screen with incorrect, usually large page numbers. And that was the document I wrote on the FreeWrite while on a ship, writing down notes and inspirations for a disaster novel. I did not sync it to a ship’s wifi, and I came home only to realise, that all I wrote on it, was gone. Would you trust the device after that? I could not, and it was a moment I decided to stop trying. It simply should not be that way. A dedicated device, made for writing, is loosing data written on it. This should not happen at all, not even once. It is an expensive device, with zero value to me now. 

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Conclusion

If you ever think, that FreeWrite is a device you need, think again. It is not. You can use your laptop, old DOS machine, Alphasmart Neo/Dana, vintage word processors with bright green phosphorous screen, longhand after all – whatever you choose, it will be wiser than buying this overpriced, underengineered, and generally failed product. If you have deeper pockets, a Pomera DM-100 would suit you fine, it is a dedicated word processor, and it really is distraction free.

As for me, I wander if FreeWrite destruction video on YouTube will generate enough money for me to recover it’s buying costs? No, I do not want to sell it. This thing deserves to be destroyed, never to be looked again. They should not have changed the name from HemingWrite to FreeWrite. DistractionWrite would be more appropriate.

P.S. This review was not written on an old IBM Thinkpad A31P, bought for 35EUR. While it does not have a mechanical keyboard, it is a much better writing tool.

Sharp PC-7000 – a distraction free writing review

Sharp PC-7000 – a distraction free writing review

Our computers/tablets are becoming more and more an entertainment
rather a productivity device. It is getting worse with each operating system
released – it even seems that it is done on purpose. How does affect writing
productivity? For most – not good, for some it does not really matter, when
they are focused on what to write. Still, even those rare moments when I am
really focused on writing on a modern computer, there are unnecessary
distractions. First – I switch on my computer, and what it does – it goes to a
long list of updates to be configured, which lasts from 10 to 30 minutes –
stealing my writing time in front of my eyes, not even being ashamed of the
process. When it is finally loaded, I open my word processing software, to be
nagged by status messages of an Antivirus, some operating system problems I
really do not want to attend now, the sounds of social network messages – all
this creates a distraction at it’s best. At the end I have to solve the problems
my computer has, and instead of a productive writing I have typed a couple of
paragraphs at best, not even talking about the quality. 30 minutes lost to updates,
10 minutes solving the problems for the PC, and only 5 left for a productive
writing.A great writing session, indeed…

Luckily, not everything is that bad, and there are other ways to write
– longhand, typewriter or a vintage computer. Yes, a FreeWrite as well,
however, it still does not live up to my expectations, so it is mostly
gathering dust now. This time I will look at something really old (1986) – how
about a Sharp PC-7000? It’s a portable machine you really would not be wanting
to haul around for prolonged time, unless you need a workout for arm muscles.
It is heavy, it has only 384KB of RAM, and runs ancient version of DOS (2.11).
It has no hard drive, it uses two 360K 5.25 inch floppies, so now there is a
total of 720K storage. The processor is chugging along with 7 Mhz frequency.
Even entry level computer now has about 300,000 more storage space, about
10,000 more RAM, not to mention the processor speed. The keyboard, is completely
OK, better than most of the keyboards we are used to writing today, but sure, not
even close to the best available. Judging by the specifications, it seems, that the
Sharp PC-7000 should belong either to a vintage computer museum or a junk yard. However, let’s do some tests with a timer first:

Operating system startup: 15 seconds
Text processor (PC-Write 2.4) startup:  6 seconds

Total: 21 seconds, and you are ready to write. No unnecessary messages, no
questions, it’s just you and the text on the screen.

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Maybe we have too little storage space? Let’s do some math. First floppy is
used by an operating system, text processor, some tools, so we are left with a
360K in the second floppy disk. Sounds very little left, doesn’t it? However,
this time it is more than is actually needed. PC-Write, just as many DOS text
editors, stores the file information as plain text file, which does takes
considerably less space than documents, which are created by a modern Word
processing software. It is more than enough for a NaNoWriMo – you can fit in
about 70,000 words in that space. In case you need more – just replace the
floppy disk, and continue writing.
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While floppy disks are not the most reliable storage format, 5.25 inch
floppies, which can be bought new, work pretty well. Sure, you need to backup
your data, and there are several ways to do it properly:

First– if you have an old PC with a 5.25 inch floppy drive, just copy
the floppies there, it is the most easiest way, but not an option for everyone.

Second – you need at least a vintage laptop, old enough to run MS-DOS,
which means any machine with Windows 9x(95, 98, ME) is good enough. You will
need this to run Laplink software for a data transfer between Sharp PC-7000 and
another machine. Plenty of options to choose from, you can even buy a nice
vintage Toshiba Libretto 50CT, which takes very little space, and will do just
fine, remember, you will need a small docking station with it. You will need a
Laplink cable – a cross linked cable to connect the serial ports of the
machines. With Laplink program, everything is simple – you can copy files
between two computers like working on the same drive:

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Third – a highly recommended option for backup – buy an IOMEGA 100 zip
drive, you can connect it to the parallel port of the SHARP PC-7000. While it
does not work with it’s original driver, there is a custom driver palmzip.sys,
created by Klaus Pelch, which works with older hardware. The only limitation –
you can use the partition size up to 32MB, so for a single zip disk you will
have three extra drives – C, D and E, which is not bad at all. The software
costs a fair 8 EUR, and a free trial version is available. Basically, you can
even use the IOMEGA Zip as the primary storage for your documents, and backup
to the PC from time to time, when you need to edit them on a modern machine.

The question, which might arise for most, who had never seen a DOS
machine or it’s operating system – does it have a hard learning curve? In fact,
the answer is reassuring – No, everything is pretty simple, once you know the
basics. Everything is command line, however, you can use a simple file manager,
such as Norton Commander 1.0 on this machine.

When DOS is loaded, you will see a command prompt, getting ready for
your command. You can either type a command or a program name.

For example you need to copy file from drive A: to B:.
Just type: “copy A:test.txt B:“.

Need to launch file manager, Norton Commander – type NC. You will have an
access to more user friendly file management.

Ready for text editing – (PC-Write) – type ED.

If you need to open a particular file, you can type: “ED B:test.txt“.
IF you are lost and do not know the floppy contents, type “DIR” –
you will see the floppy contents listed on the screen.

Deleting a file – use a command DEL, for example, DEL B:test.txt

That’s about all for the basic things you will need to know in order to get
some work done. Everything else is not mandatory – you can either learn more
about DOS commands, or do not care about them.

There is no multitasking in DOS – once you have launched a text editor,
you wont be nugged by some other messages, all you can do now is write. Or do
not write, but you will not be doing anything else. Period.

Final rating:

Distraction free – 7/10 – once everything is running, all you can do is type,
however, there remains a place for some old DOS games, especially text
adventures, which might serve as a distraction.

Screen – 6/10 – the contrast on a blue back-lit screen is not the best, but the
text is readable, and you can get the work done.

Keyboard – 7/10 – an OK feeling, but nothing to rave about

Ease of use – 6/10 – you need to set up the system first, and have a ways for a
data transfer. When all is set, I can give a score 10/10 – it just works!

Price – 8/10 – not bad, but there are even cheaper devices. However, you can
get a fully working Sharp PC-7000 for about 100 EUR or even less on Ebay. It is
best to buy it with an original master floppy available, but, just in case I
have made a backup image of it:
https://www.dropbox.com/s/ca3o6j37g3388vg/SHARP%20PC-7000.zip?dl=0

Portability/autonomy – 3/10. Best left on your working desk, table, or wherever
your writing place is. As for power supply – Sharp PC-7000 has no batteries, so
it is totally grid dependent. If you are strong, you can take this machine to
write-ins, but make sure the power outlet is nearby.

Design – 8/10 – it is a well built and well designed machine, with attention to
details, such as mechanically tiltable LCD screen, which can be adjusted by
pressing a button near the screen,dark grey LCD frame with silver margins,
floppy drive access indicators in front of the device, and a convenient place
to store the keyboard cable when carrying it around.

Software – 9/10 – there are thousands of DOS programs you can run on the
device, many of them, such as different text editors or utilities are available
online as a freeware/abandonware, you can customize it for your writing needs.

Final rating: 7/10

Sure, as with all vintage electronics, they may fail after some time,
but still. given the fact that they survived that long, there is a pretty good
chance they will survive even longer. There are many under-appreciated machines
out there, which are outdated by todays standards, but are perfectly usable for
a distraction free writing, SHARP PC=7000 is just one of the many. I will cover
more of them in my other posts.

* Written on a Sharp PC-7000, with a PC-Write 2.4*

Astrohaus Freewrite review

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It has been more than a year since I made my preorder of the device, once known as Hemingwrite, often called as “The typewriter of the 21-th century“. I was intrigued by its simplicity, e-ink screen and mechanical keyboard. If possible, I always type on mechanical keyboards, they give much more tactile feedback, and makes writing much nicer than membrane keyboards of today’s era.

Finally, it was Friday the 13-th of May, when I received rather small package, and to my surprise it seemed rather light as well. However, it was the machine I was waiting for – the Freewrite. Inside the package is Freewrite itself, charging cable, and a very thin and small instructions booklet with basic information. When turning on for the first time, the device starts about the same speed as Windows 10 on my laptop – which means, under all this simplicity there is a powerful kernel hidden under. However, once its loaded, it takes 2-3seconds to resume it from standby, which is more than acceptable:

The build quality of the device is excellent, even beyond my initial expectations – it feels very sturdy and robust. Black matted case is no finger magnet as well – well thought!.

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Here you can see carrying handle and charging/possible data transfer connector on lower right. It’s a proprietary one, so my advice – do not lose charging cable which came with your FreeWrite, your mobile phone’s charger will not fit:

My only compliant would be back of the unit – white plastic somehow does not fits there, it just feels a bit cheap:

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When placed on a table, it stays solid as a rock, and is not moving anywhere, thanks to the rubber pads and overall weight of the machine – a great feature for typing.

Screen – backlit e-ink screen offers excellent readability in any lighting conditions, indoors or outdoors:

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However, it has one serious drawback, which affects all e-ink screens – redraw rate is too slow, it is especially visible when using larger fonts for better readability. I would prefer backlit LCD screen instead – it really gets in your way when typing fast:

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The screen is divided in two parts – upper part is for writing, lower – for status information, you can choose word count display, analog clock,digital clock or timer, which counts your writing time. It’s not hard to guess which one will be used for NaNoWriMo:

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Keyboard is a real pleasure to use – I have tested different mechanical keyboards as part of my obsession with vintage computers and typewriters, and this one is one of the best I have used. It’s tactile feedback and ease of use is very similar to the keyboard of IBM PC
Convertible, which I really enjoy to type with. The only keyboard, which does feels superior, and feels even more “clicky” is IBM model M, which I have with IBM PS2-70, red plasma screen luggable monster.
Keyboard is not the same we are used to see on our computers though – it’s missing several keys, such as Ctrl and arrow keys, so no way of selecting text, or editing something in the middle of the page:

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This is done on purpose, to keep the words flowing, just like you would do on a manual typewriter. It does allows to backspace though, so if you really need, you can erase and retype last sentence or paragraph. While many see this as a limitation, I would agree with developers, that in fact it is a feature. As a writer, you need to go through several drafts, so keep the work going, you will correct everything later. Keyboard has some other keys though – two red “new”, Send and Special, and some of them can be used in combinations. For example, pressing both “New” keys starts a new document in selected Folder. Pressing “Special” changes information display modes in
lower status screen, and “Send” – sends the current document to your e-mail
address, I find this feature very nice.

Controls – simple, but very effective. Left side – red power button, which is designed not to be accidentally pressed while carrying Freewrite in a bag, below – Folder selection, you can select three folders for your documents, but each of them can have many files in it:

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Right side – the only control here is wifi switch, which can be set to on/off, or new, which allow to select your preferred network:

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Configuration is pretty straightforward – select network, enter password, and all set!

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Additionaly you need to login to Freewrite PostBox from a computer, and choose additional settings, such as services you want to synchronise with (Currently supported are Evernote, Google + and Dropbox), additional keyboard layouts, font size for display and timezone you are in.

A community support forum is waiting there as well, providing help for early adopters of these machines.

Storage options – unfortunately, Freewrite is limited to internal storage only, which is also specified in “millions” of pages. No way to use any other storage is a very overlooked feature in my opinion. In case you decide to abandon civilisation for a distraction free writing, and go somewhere without wireless connection, you can only rely on device’s internal memory. If something goes wrong, all your work will be lost.

Battery life – according to Astrohaus website, it will last 3-4 weeks if used for 30 minutes a day with wi-fi off. It translates to 10-14 hours of autonomy, which is not bad, however, with wi-fi off you will be constantly reminded to switch it on to prevent from loosing your data – a distraction in its purest way.

Charging and additional connectivity options – charging is done with supplied USB cable, you can use any source you like, however, at least for now, charging from a PC may result in unit becoming unresponsive, and you need to reboot it by holding power button. However, no information is lost, and your document is where you left.  It also has no battery status indicator, only warning when the battery is too low. I believe this and other issues will be fixed by future firmware updates. Currently you can not transfer information by using cable connection to PC, this may put off some writers, which prefer not to use online services, however, this feature will be implemented in future update as well, according to Astrohaus website.

Summary: As usual, it’s time to describe some pros and cons to see how well
the device performs.

Pros:

  • Excellent build quality
  • Great mechanical keyboard, on par with the best one’s currently
    available
  • Great quality backlit e-ink display
  • Simple, straightforward operation
  • Document syncing to the cloud is very convenient

Cons:

  • No external storage options available
  • Some early technical issues, which should be resolved in future updates
  • Significant screen lag, especially noticeable when typing fast, or using
    larger text size
  • One way syncing only – you can not edit your document on your phone or
    tablet, and then continue on a Freewrite, when you return.

There is no case or bag provided as an additional accesory, however, as I found out, a standard laptop bag correct size might fit very well, and it’s possible to use the device on a lap without taking it out for extra protection:

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Conclusion:

I know how hard it is to release a product, from start, usability testing till the real product. Astrohaus have done a great job here, to deliver the product as promised. It does have it’s flaws, but in general it works as expected, and for the most part it’s usability is excellent.

You might be surprised, why there is no price mentioned in “cons” – indeed, I wanted to mention it, however, it would not be really fair. Freewrite is not a computer, not a tablet. It’s a very specialised tool for writing. Sure, you can not do anything else on it, but it’s exactly what it was ment to be. A small example – almost any cell phone can take photos. Do we see many people complaining, that professional cameras are way too expensive, because mobile phone can take photos and do a lot more? It’s the same situation with Freewrite, so why do people complain?

Competition:

Direct competitors – none, however, it’s possible to find cheaper distraction free writing devices, and there are many to choose from – starting with vintage portables/luggables from the 80-ties, such as IBM 5140 or IBM PS/2 series, Tandy 80 model 100/102, rugged Husky Hunter series, different devices of 90-ties, such as Windows CE handheld PC’s or Alphasmart series, such as Dana or Neo. You can choose manual typewriter as well.

However, for a modern distraction free writing there is currently nothing better in the market than Freewrite itself.

Some pictures comparing Freewrite to different other writing devices:

Alphasmart Dana (and Neo) are often used today by writers, offering distraction free experience for much lower price tag, featuring dual SD card slots for storage.

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Tandy 80 model 102 – very popular device for writer’s and journalists in the 80-ties, with mechanical keyboard as well. Can be used for writing today, however, it’s memory is limited to 32 kilobytes, so prepare for frequent data transfer, to another machine, or spend some more money on hard to find accesories, such as external floppy drive or memory cards:

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IBM PC Convertible – it’s mechanical keyboard with brown Alps switches is one of the best I have used. Keyboard on a Freewrite offers the same experience, however, the screen on IBM’s laptop has very poor contrast:

Husky Hunter 16 – rugged handheld PC, running DOS 3.3 from ROM, running from 4AA batteries. No mechanical keyboard though, Freewrite’s keyboard is undeniably better:

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Toshiba T3100E – a 286 processor based laptop, with great mechanical keyboard and red, eye burning plasma screen without brightness adjustment:

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IBM PS/2 model 70 portable – it’s model M keyboard feels even more clicky and more nice than Freewrite’s, however, the machine is so noisy, that it becomes a distraction itself:

Last photo – a mechanical typewriter. A machine Freewrite is trying to emulate in 21-th century. Roll in the paper, slide the carriage, and let your thoughts flow:

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An introduction…

Hello and welcome to vintage writing blog! A blog about distraction free
writing as well – typewriters, vintage computers, vintage PDA’s – it all fits
in there. I will include tips and reviews of vintage equipment from a writer’s
perspective.

One thing no one can deny – today is we live in a distraction full environment
– all communications, phones, tablets, computers, we sometimes forget to live
our lives. How many new likes my picture has on a Facebook today? How about
Instagram? Did I tweet something today? New update messages on our computers,
especially if you plan to use Windows – does 30 minutes long “configuring
updates” message helps when you plan to write something? It’s one more
distraction preventing you from reaching your goal.

I’ve spent many years of searching the perfect writing machine. And, before
you wait for the announcement of the best one – there isn’t. We all ar
different, we have different needs, feelings, preferences. This leaves a mark
on how we choose things, either for live, or writing as well. However, my
experience can help for those, who are starting to appreciate vintage
equipment, and find the most appropriate one.

First, the definition of vintage. Typewriters sure are, all of them, except maybe some cheap built Chinese made plastic typewriters, hiding under name of once great U.S. manufacturer – Royal.

Computers – that’s another story. While many would call their 5 years old laptops a vintage, it really isn’t – it’s just old. It’s not that powerful as today’s laptops, but is sure full of distractions as well. In my opinion, a vintage computer is a computer (either portable or desktop), which is able to run DOS, or even earlier operating systems, and can run Windows 95 at most, not more. It’s memory will be Kilobytes or some Megabytes (Not Gigabytes), and storage space will not reach one Gigabyte (when we have Terabytes today). Even then, many of them offer more capacity than you really need. Remember, it means writing, not gaming, photo viewing or anything else.

For your own sake you really do not need online services as well – with that I do not mean you do not have to back up your data – sure you do, since vintage equipment may fail (but so can the modern one as well).

Software – all you really need for writing is an editor, which can save plain text only. Sure, features as word search/replace, automatic backups and word count ar handy, but you can live without it. What about formatting? Do you care for formatting when writing longhand? So why should you care about it when you start to type? Remember, all you need is to get your thoughts written, you can do all your formatting later, on a modern machine.

Oh, so you mentioned a modern machine? Yes I did, and you will need it sooner or later! Remember, you use vintage equipment for drafts, and do your  final processing on whatever system you like or need – be it Microsoft Word, LibreOffice or anything else you prefer. However, for drafts, nothing can beat a vintage machine.

Before I end this topic, let me explain, why vintage equipment is better for writing:

*  It is unique – in good old days there were many different machines, with different design, ergonomics, weight, autonomy – not like today’s one’s, which look like they all are made in the same factory with slight design changes. You have large choice of very small, portables, ultra portables, luggables, and desktops, and all kinds of typewriters as well

* Distraction free – no updates, social networks or other things will take your writing time. When you use it, it’s for writing only, and this is where it really helps.

* It has better ergonomics. You think your computer’s keyboard is good enough? Think again. It’s most likely built on a cheap membrane, providing no or little tactical feedback. If you are old enough, you sure remember “clicky” keyboards from 80-ties? There is a reason – it’s a mechanical keyboard.  If you press a key, it’s movement presses mechanical switch, which provides great tactile and audio feedback as well. There are some mechanical keyboards made today, but they are really expensive. You can get a vintage machine with similar keyboard rather cheap today.

*  It’s not expensive – unless you are patient and do not click on first “buy it now price” you see, you can get decent machines in a great shape for a very reasonable price. It all depends on your patience and a machine chosen – a more rare machine will cost more, and then there are some, which are simply “collectables”, and it drives the prices higher.

*  You can always sell it later – unless you manage to burn or break the machine, market for vintage machines is growing, as more and more people start to appreciate the features they give.
That’s enough for the introduction, it’s time to write reviews of actual hardware. As interesting as typewriters are, it’s time to review vintage computers first. Somehow, there is very scarce information from writer’s perspective, at least much less than for typewriters. So, keep reading, and drop me a note, if you have experience with vintage writing equipment as well, and have some thoughts to share!