In light of the podcast episode praising the AlphaSmart, several listeners have asked about the Freewrite, a new device that seems similar but with some updates. I’ve been tracking this device since it was just a gleam in KickStarter’s eye and I wasn’t super impressed back then. Sometimes gadgets that look meh on paper turn out to be great when delivered, and sometimes the opposite is true. I wanted to test the Freewrite for myself, but the small startup that makes them doesn’t have many on hand to loan out for reviews. I have to rely on others! That means it’s time for a review roundup.
What’s up with the Freewrite?
The Freewrite is a distraction-free writing tool that borrows aesthetic cues from classic typewriters and the mechanics of some of the best old-school keyboards ever made. The result is a portable writing machine that can only connect to the Internet to sync the words you type. Otherwise, it’s just there to collect those words in three separate files and keep you moving forward. No social media, browser, or any of that.
Here are the potential problems I identified back when the Freewrite was an idea (and called the Hemmingwrite):
- Weight: It was tipped to weigh about 4 pounds. There are full-fledged laptops that weigh less. The AlphaSmart is less than 2.
- Price: With a few exceptions and sales, the base price for the Freewite is $500. There are full-fledged laptops that cost less. You can get an AlphaSmart for under $50.
- Functionality: There are only 3 slots available for files (the AlphaSmart has 8). There are no arrow keys.
There was some potential greatness:
- Keyboard: The arrow key thing aside, the focus of this gadget was always going to be a fantastic keyboard, and I’m always down with that.
- Display: It uses eInk instead of an LCD or the black on gray old school display type of the AlphaSmart, which may be easier on the eyes.
With that in mind, I hunted down some reviews from pros and Freewrite owners.
The Reviews Are In
The tech press wrote mostly positive things, no doubt charmed by the Freewrite’s looks and the company representatives. Both The Atlantic and The Guardian ran breezy pieces that were more about the state of writing today (for some people, at least) and distraction’s role in the writing process than about the Freewrite itself. Several people wrote their reviews on the unit, as Jason at Boing Boing did. The results are interesting. I don’t quite trust that the output is unedited. There aren’t enough typos.
The takeaways from these are few. The Atlantic positions the lack of arrow keys as something poetic:
“Despite its claims, Freewrite doesn’t really offer a salve to distraction. After all, anybody can turn off their laptop’s networking functions, or choose to work at the coffee house without Wi-Fi. Rather, it creates a new context for writing, one that builds upon the prior work of the typewriter and the word processor. In particular, the Freewrite enforces the forward-only vector of the traditional typewriter. The e-ink display shows ten lines of text, and you can backspace through your document to your heart’s content. But there are no cursor keys to move the insertion point, and no mouse or pointer with which to enter another part of the text, nor to select, copy, or paste. No arrow keys, just the arrow of time.”
Boing Boing says of the build:
“I have absolutely no complaints about the fit and finish. The device is pretty lovely in its gaudiness. It is supposed to resemble a typewriter, I think of the 1920s-1930s generation of my Remington Rand Deluxe Porta 5. It sort of does, the selector switches are mounted in a way to resemble the reels for ribbon, but it more closely feels like a mid to late 1990s portable wordprocessor. It weighs slightly, but not much less. It works about the same, and part of its charm is that it throws back to a mechanical keyboard like they would have used back then.
The keyboard is pretty much heaven, if you come from the days of yore, as I do. It feels like I am jamming along on a Commodore Vic20, or a WYSE terminal.”
Much of the tech press reviews and write ups were like this. Except for Mashable, where the headline read: “The $500 Freewrite word processor is pretentious hipster nonsense.”
The article is pretty much just Mashable writers snarking on this gadget based on the concept and not much direct experience (at least that’s how it seems). They point out several things on my Potential Problems list, and were not very nice about it.
I went looking for reviews by people who actually own the machine and found it was a mix of negative and positive. The best one is by author and publisher K S Augustin on The Digital Reader: Freewrite: How NOT to do Software.
Augustin identifies some key areas where the Freewrite, in its current state, falls down: Screen Delay (due to eInk — think older Kindle page turn delay), Nagging when the Internet isn’t connected, Security, the Cloud service, Syncing and Versioning issues, Non-Linear Writing is a no go. You should read the whole review. Here are a few key parts:
“There are lots of reasons to use wifi. There are also legitimate reasons not to. And, for those writers who tend to be a bit on the paranoid side, they would say that not using wifi is mandatory. So, is there any other way to get your documents off the machine not using wifi? Not yet. The Freewrite didn’t even come with that most basic of functionalities…the ability to plug your machine into your computer and have it appear as a mass storage device, even though this was listed as an initial feature.”
“Let’s say you’re in love with your Freewrite. You can listen to its clickety-clacks all day. But there’s just one teensy thing you need to check, so you use Postbox to send your document to Google Docs so you can check something in the library. Aha! Found it. You correct the word/concept/sentence in Google Docs and now want to send it back to your Freewrite so you can click and clack away again. Not so fast. The synchronisation is only one-way. That’s right, the Freewrite is dumber than the cheapest phone you can buy anywhere.”
Both of these things stood out as serious problems as well as basic ones.
Again I say: read the whole review.
Other owner reviews seem to have been written shortly after the Freewrite arrived. Everyone agrees that the keyboard is the very best part of the machine. Pieter Hintjens says it’s “quiet and welcoming” and Gavin Cameron says the keys “make a satisfying clackety-clack,” but points out that “this also makes it too loud to use in an average library.” Derek on Medium was more than effusive:
“Key presses aren’t squishy, and there’s a little more than a simple click. It’s a sort of a *fthk*. It’s like the sound of matte black, textured yet soft. It’s much more satisfying than the keyboard on my little chromebook, or the standard-issue keyboard hooked up to my work computer. The inherent act of typing is pretty joyful.”
What the owners don’t all agree on is if the software issues are a problem or not. Some are happy with the one-way syncing, some aren’t. Some brush off the fact that if you sync to Evernote, you can’t edit the note (you have to copy/paste to a new note or file elsewhere) while others find this maddening. There’s a serious lack of documentation and support, yet some are glad to have user forums where everyone can help each other.
Gavin Cameron echoes the point K S Augustin made with her post: “…the Freewrite does, in some ways, feel like a prototype that’s not quite ready for mass-production.”
I was keen to find reviews written by people who own both an AlphaSmart and a Freewrite, and I found a couple. Melanie R. Meadors of the Once and Future Podcast owns a Dana (which she renamed Zuul, and thus I will forever adore her) and bought a Freewrite in the hope that it would address some of the AlphaSmart’s limitations.
Melanie heaps praise on the keyboard, of course, saying “I feel like I am writing when I use it. I feel like I’m accomplishing something.” She also worked out a process for dealing with the Freewrite’s annoying limitations on file creation:
“I sit down at the thing and start typing. At the beginning of the doc, I type “Chapter 3, scene 2” or whatever I’m working on. This is because that’s how the Freewrite names the file, with the date and then the first couple words of the document. Then I type, come back, type more, until I am done with the chapter or scene, however I decide to work. It works best for me to put a “return” between each paragraph to format it. Then, I go to Google Docs and look at the file there (which is already there without me having to do anything, other than have the wireless on on the device). I import it onto my preferred word processing device, and there I format the spacing and paragraphs properly with a click of the mouse so that everything is in standard manuscript format. Voila. Very, very easy. Then I clear the folder on the device and start the next chapter.”
While she loves the Freewrite, she admits that there are reasons not to buy it, and the big one is cost:
“The quality of the construction, the keyboard, the hardware they used, the keyboard, the design that went into it, the keyboard, all are expensive and were very deliberate choices on the designers’ part. If these things are important to folks — and they can be — then every penny goes to a good cause. But not everyone can afford all of these components, and I think when push comes down to shove, this is not something that people need to have. It’s a luxury.”
The other review by an AlphaSmart owner is a video unboxing by Alex Strick van Linschoten. Watch it here.
Freewrite: The Bottom Line
The team behind this gadget set out to make an excellent typing experience and they succeeded. I’ve talked on the podcast before about the importance of a good keyboard, and Astrohaus clearly feels the same way. Kudos on that.
As nice as the construction is, the fact that it’s heavy is still an issue. Unless you don’t plan to take it anywhere.
The Achilles Heel of the Freewrite is the software and functionality beyond just typing. There is a lot to be worked out there, and until it is you may find it more frustrating than freeing to write on.
One reviewer pointed out that this is just like the time the iPhone launched. Remember how it had many problems that needed working out and then were after a couple of iterations? I’ll say about this what I said about that: $500 is too much money to pay for a device that still has some kinks to work out.
The next version of the Freewrite is probably going to be worth looking at closely. If the company behind it is smart, they’ll listen to their customer base and pay very close attention to the complaints and pain points, even if the people offering them are less vocal than the cheerleaders. They could certainly learn some lessons from the development team at Literature and Latte, makers of Scrivener.
I’ll keep my eye out for Freewrite 2 and report back when (or if) it’s available.
In the meantime, if you’re Freewrite owner, please tell us about your experience in the comments.