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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One thought on “Astrohaus Freewrite review

  1. Everything looks pretty awful situated beside it (the actual typewriter does look somewhat okay, I guess). It’s almost unbelievable to me how no one has really thought of—or created—similar machinery to the Freewrite before right now. I only hope that the makers of this unique device expound upon their future ideas/plans and try to improve the small issues within the mainframe over time.

    Like

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