Review of the Astrohaus Freewrite

pieterhpieterh wrote on 17 May 2016 12:02


At the end of February I put down $449.00 (plus VAT and shipping to a total of $578) on a Freewrite. It was a stupid impulse buy on Kickstarter of all places. Yet I've been searching for a portable daylight readable writing tool for years. Decades, even. Yes, laptops are great. Yet it takes extra effort to zone out of all the possibles (ooh, let me check Twitter!), and into the writing. And today a package arrived. So, obviously, a review. Written on my steampunkwriter and unedited from here on.

I suspect a lot of people are going to open their Freewrite, switch it on, and then write a review. Time to join the crowd. The first feeling is one of "wow, I love the feel of this". It has the size and shape and weight of a small typewriter. One port - USB 3 = connects it to the world. Hardware controls for WiFi and folder choices. This is like going back to 1992, except that dreary LCD screen has been switched out with e-ink with back lighting. Latency is a bit slow yet it totally works, for me. I wonder what the real battery life will be like, with WiFi off and backlighting off, in the sun.

"Firmware update" say the brand new community message boards. That means it's possible. Will the developers listen to the reviews that bemoan the lack of editing options, of two-way synchronization, of document titles, etc.? Or will some group do a Rockbox-style assault on this platform? I suspect the latter.

Apart from the Caps Lock key, which I already pressed by mistake once and which I HATE when you can't disable it, the hardware is sexy. I like it. Don't look for a lightweight toy you can chuck into your backpack. This is almost steampunkish in its dimensions and finish. It just needs a little paint and decoration to look like something from an alternate reality.

Let's talk keyboards. I usually work on a Happy Hacker Light, that I've had for years It is far more satisfying than even the best notebook keyboards. Yes, I'm looking at you, my dearest X220. Don't take it personally that you're the third one. Like cats, you are essential and unique and yet totally replaceable.

The keyboard I'm now using is quiet and welcoming. I've large hands and like to type like I mean it. I'm making errors every 20th word or so. There is only one way to fix these, using the Freewrite: backspace to delete everything up to the error, and start typing again.

Hmm. I wonder how this will change my touch typing. It is certainly brutal. Yet not painful.

The case is metal, and it must weigh over two kilos. Not the most portable of things. People will make the inevitable comparisons with the AlphaSmarts, the 3000, the Neo, and the Dana. These were the last machines of similar function: elegant keyboards with minimal screens and dreamy battery life. Yet there was something I always missed in my Dana, apart from a way to reprogram the Caps Lock key to something else.

I think it was the clumsiness of sending text to my real work machines. It worked, technically, and yet it was always a chore.

So the Freewrite (the name is poor, it should be called the Steampunkwriter or somesuch) has WiFi as a first class feature. The main switch on the right side shouts "wifi… off… on… new". Well, shouts in that understated hipster lowercase that the lettering uses on this steampunkwriter.

See, I got "hipster" into the review without being jaded.

I found a few quirks. The WiFi/new function did not work until I'd started a first document. Now and then I could confuse the e-ink screen by backspacing too rapidly.

Apart from that, this has been quite a pleasant and focussed writing experience. I rate it 9/10. The only thing that could be better is the response time for the screen, especially when I'mn backing up to fix my errors. Yet even there, I'm finding myself typing faster and more accurately than when I started.

I guess this machine works better for good typists. Certainly for writers who can do that "stream of consciousness" thing and have it come out semi-accurate. If you need a lot of editing, forget it. Buy a cheap Chromebook and get a distraction free editor app, it's going to be much easier.

OK, time to save or sync or whatever this beast does. There is a button marked "send". Right beside the one marked "special", which is kind of a silly name. Anyhow. Let's try this teleportation…

… which works silently and almost accurately. The text arrives in your Freewrite "postbox", and an email with a PDF (why a PDF?) pops up in your email. The PDF missed the last word of the text. Hmm.

Now, with WiFi on and watching my computer, I see that the steampunkwriter is synching every 30 seconds or so to its postbox.

Which gives me an idea for a simple and good hack. Synch every key, instantly, and suddenly you get a nice way to see your work on the big screen. I mean, I'm plugged in, power isn't a concern, right?

I rate the software 9/10 as well. What I really like, and which many people seem to hate, is the absolute minimalism of this thing. There is not an extra sliver of functionality or UI. This is quite an achievement.

Yet what will tell, over time, is how well the folks at Astrohaus deal with two things. One is firmware updates with helpful fixes. Two is the community and code it will produce using the promised SDK.

I assume, hope, the computer that runs this steampunkwriter is capable of dealing with change. That is can be hacked, extended, reprogrammed.

Conclusion: I love it. Yet time will tell whether this curious beast turns out to be a real workhorse, or an expensive toy.



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