Time For An Old-Fashioned Computer – The Freewrite from Astrohaus

Today I am writing on a new device.

It is a machine that has polarised opinions. I have read that it is “the Ultimate” word processor, that it is a waste of money, that it is “impractical and overpriced”, an example of how “not to do software”, that it is the best writing environment for professional writers, and “pretentious hipster nonsense. It is the Freewrite.

I am fortunate enough to have been loaned one to test for a month, for which many thanks to Astrohaus and Adam Leeb. In that time I’ll use it extensively, and I’ll report on how it works, how I use it, what the software is like, how long the battery lasts, and all the other little quibbles. I hope you enjoy it – and if you have any questions, do please let me know. I’m not a genius when it comes to technology. At the end of the day I am a professional user, not a professional reviewer, so if you think there’s something I should have a look at, I’ll be delighted to hear from you.

So, before I tell you what it is like, what exactly is it?

From talking to one of the driving forces behind it, Adam Leeb, I think I’ve got the main story pretty much straight.

The Freewrite is a device for writers, pure and simple. It was thought up because the guys  behind the idea had the feeling that writers were too often being distracted. They would settle down to write, but before they could type a word on their computers, they would have to respond to emails, Tweets, Facebook messages, or any number of other social media notes. Then, when they finally managed to sit down to type, they would be bombarded by interruptions. Computers generate interruptions like nothing else. People send emails in case other would like to know something, or, more often, because someone is keen to in share their problems, otherwise known as CYA: “covering your arse.”

While looking at the history of other authors, the guys behind the machine discovered the age-old dictum that an author should write fast, and edit at leisure. It’s not a new concept. It’s the way that writing has been conducted for centuries – but somehow in the age of computers it’s been forgotten. Now we’re all multi-taskers and need to write, edit and proof as we type. Computers are designed to allow us to do everything. If I want to type using Word, I even have to buy a blasted spreadsheet, presentation package and other applications too. I don’t want them. I want only WP. I refuse to pay a small fortune for the packages I won’t use, so OFFICE with all its clever stuff remains in the shop. I bought the excellent Nisus Writer Pro instead.

However, the clever folks at Astrohaus decided that their concept should be how to separate the functions of writing. If they could only create a good drafting machine, they thought, they would have a winning product. Write Fast; Edit Later: breaking down the author’s job into two functions is the main issue that the Freewrite was designed to address.

The inventors got a Kickstarter project underway, called the project the “Hemingwrite” – in honour of Ernest Hemingway – and suddenly they found that they were inundated with investors keen to possess one of their retro-looking machines.

So, what is the Freewrite/Hemingwrite?

In essence it is a computer that is designed to operate like a typewriter. That means the device takes minimalism to a new height.

There is a delicious metal casing in black (as they say, you can have any colour you want, so long as it’s black, just like Henry Ford). At the top there is a keyboard, two selector switches, a power button and two screens. At the front, and on either side there is precisely … nothing. At the rear there is a USB 3 connector for charging and connecting to your computer, as well as a handy carrying handle. Since you pick up the machine regularly, the handle and cut-out is surprisingly useful. The handle is slightly sprung, so as you put it down, the handle slowly rises and hides itself. Neat!

Underneath there is a white plastic plate with four soft, anti-slip rubber feet that work surprisingly well. Being made of metal it does have a bit of weight behind it – I think it’s about 1.9 kilogrammes – but it doesn’t feel too heavy in the hand or on the lap – and it does not move at all when you put it on a desk or table.

The plate of white on the bottom has had a lot of comments from people. They say that it is unpleasant, cheap-looking, and tacky. I have to disagree. I think it acts like a coachwork-painted line on a high quality car. It adds a little detail to a beautifully proportioned device.

So, to describe it, let’s look at it from above first.

There is a metal button top left. This is the power switch. Looking at it in photos, I have assumed that this was an “icky” plastic button. It isn’t. It’s a metal, slightly glittery button. A nice detail.

On either side are two retro-looking three-way switches. On the left there is one labelled “Folder”, with A, B, C underneath it. On the right the switch is labelled “wifi”, and has “Off”, “On”, and “New”.

The first provides for folders, so, for example, I am typing this in folder “C”. “A” is being used for my current work in progress, which is the thirty-third novel in my Templar series (I had to put in a plug, yes). The second folder is being used for notes and synopsis for my next project, which will be my forty-second novel. Initial scenes are being typed in that too. The third folder is for everything else. Although there are three folders, this is a simple system for classifying your work: within each folder you can have multiple documents. It’s simple, but very effective. Simplicity is key when you are writing. Complexity is a pain because it means you have to learn or work out things, and that distracts from creative writing.

The wifi switch is pretty self-explanatory. Off means off, on means on, and new means you have an opportunity to connect to a new network.

So, that’s the basic stuff. Now to the meat.

First, the two screens.

Both are e-ink, like e-readers. This is good because it means you can read them from really extreme angles. I have tested this by lifting up the Freewrite and holding it so that the base is perpendicular to my line of sight. Even then I can read the slightly angled screen, which is pretty astonishing. This means that the screen needs no opening or tilting mechanism, which so often leads to failures with laptops. Being e-ink it also means that the screen can be read with ease in broad daylight. The Freewrite is a truly portable, use it in daylight, kind of device. If you like to type in the dark, the screens are lit.

The uppermost screen is the main typing screen. This is where your purple prose will appear. It gives you ten lines of text. The lower screen is a toggle screen for information. It gives a clock, either analogue or digital, a timer, a confirmation of your synching service (Evernote, Dropbox etc) and your email, a wordcount with total characters and a “Reading Time” measure. There is, I believe, other information here too, such as battery life but I haven’t found that yet.

So much for screens. Finally there is the true delight of this machine, which is the keyboard.

If you have read my previous posts, you will know that I have a new Filco keyboard, which has fabulous, wonderful and loud clattery Cherry MX keys. The Filco has the Cherry MX Blue keys, which are tactile. As the key actuates, which is after roughly two millimetres of travel, the operator can feel a little “click”. It is much like the best keyboards of the 1980s and 90s. The keyboard of the Freewrite is also made up of Cherry MX keys, but these are the “Brown” models. Each key moves beautifully, making a subtle sound as you type, and I firmly believe that these individually sprung keys will save your fingers from repetitive strain injuries. For me, the Freewrite keys are not as good as those on my Filco, because I love their tactile nature, but they are so infinitely better than the keys on a modern laptop or  a cheap keyboard where the keys are sprung on a sheet of rubber, that I don’t care. It’s a tiny, tiny detail. Mind you, if there is any possibility of having Cherry MX Blues on a future device, my cheque will be in the post.

So there you you have it. A keyboard, a screen, and some simple electronics with a battery.

When it arrived on Monday, it was a pleasure to unpack. There was a large brown box, inside which was a second box, covered with a clear plastic bag. Inside the branded box was the machine, carefully installed between two expanded polystyrene-like wedges. Underneath was the minimal instruction manual (I do mean minimal) and a package containing the charging cable. Usually, I think, it’s expected that the machine will be charged via your computer. Personally I have USB compatible sockets in the house, and this charged fine from them. Not that I needed to. It was fully charged on arrival. I took it out and it made me grin. It just felt so damn good!

What is so good about it?

Well, forget the snazzy looks, if you like. The fact is, I’ve just typed 1,132 words on it. It’s taken about half an hour. Yes, half an hour. I’m not the world’s best typist, but the fact is, this thing is a joy to use. It’s easy, the keys are brilliant, and it’s easy on the eyes. I have been typing on my lap, and that is an absolute shocker. Why? Because I cannot type on my lap normally. I adore my MacBook Air, but I cannot use it to write on. I find it is not comfortable when on a desk, because of the keyboard being so flat, and I’ve not found any laptop that works actually on my lap. The weight of the screen makes the computer badly balanced. Yes, I know other people think they’re fine. Perhaps it is just me. Whether it is or not, this Freewrite has a better balance to it. Because the whole device sits lower, and the centre of gravity is low, it is a great deal more comfortable to use. It will, I suspect, be much more useful on trains or at cafes than my Apple for that reason.

But this lovely box has won a vast number of enemies. Interesting.

The classic was a ridiculous review on Mashable, written as a discussion between two ladies who were shocked to learn that the Freewrite was priced at nearly $500. Yes, $500. As they so perspicaciously noted, it would be possible to buy a computer for that. Wow. A computer with word processing software. Something with Facebook on it. Something that would do lots of things pretty well, not one  thing. You could use your machine to look at Facebook or Twitter, for example.

Sheesh!

They did not understand the basic concept behind this device – nor did they bother to go and test one. Perhaps they asked and weren’t offered one, and that led to some bad feeling – I don’t know – but their review was daft. You cannot review equipment without touching and testing. And you cannot review something designed for professional writers unless you are a professional writer. Others have sneered, pointing out that there are better devices. Such as the Alphasmart Neo, for example. They aren’t being made any more, but that means you can pick one up for $25 on Amazon or ebay, apparently. They don’t have a decent keyboard, nor a particularly usable screen, but they are cheap, reviewers say.

However, the most common complaint levelled at the Freewrite is almost always the shocking discovery: there is no editing function.

You did read that right, yes. There is no editing. Whatsoever.

Okay, I lie. This thing has a typewriter keyboard, so you do have a backspace. You can delete letter by letter, or word by word, if you like. But in the main, you cannot edit. This device is not meant to be a word processor in the way that people have come to expect them. It is a true drafting tool. There are no arrow keys, no “insert” or “delete” keys. It is minimalist in the best possible way.

Why is this?

When I was tutoring students at Exeter University a little while ago, I read that for people who were working in offices, an interruption of their thought processes would mean the worker would need to take about fifteen minutes to get back into the mindset they had been in. A phone call, a colleague poking her head round the door, an email, would all have that impact.

Recent research seems to suggest that creatives suffer more. It is commonly more like twenty minutes for writers, for example.

The Freewrite is designed to free the author so that they can write. The entire, sole purpose is to give the writer a tool that will enable him or her to create a draft quickly and easily. And it does exactly that.

Why not have editing modes?

The purpose, as I say, is to allow the writer to write; to move forward with the story. Now, I know authors (I’m one) who will write, notice a typo six lines up, and go back to edit it. My commonest errors are “teh” for “the” and “adn” for “and”. I type, I notice the mistake, and I go back to correct it.

But I believe that creative writing uses one section of the brain, the imaginative, dreamy side, while editing makes use of a different section, an administrative, bureaucratic area. The two are entirely divorced from each other. Thus, every time while I am trying to create a new story and see a typo, my brain switches from one gear to another and my train of thought is derailed. I can feel it happening, and I can feel the creative urge being pushed to the background each time. It slows me down.

This is a machine designed to save the author from that mistake. It makes the author focus, and already I can feel its power. It works, it really works.

How does a writer justify a tool like this?

Well, I have a fantastic, beautiful Apple iMac. I have a MacBook Air. I have an iPad (although my daughter appears to have pinched it), but none of them is as good as this little box. I cannot write in the great outdoors. I need my office, with my books, my notes, my white board; they all act as my writerly comfort blanket. But with the Freewrite, I can sit in a different chair, and the different position leads to different thoughts. I can be free to be more creative.

No, the Freewrite is not a cheap device. But it is a damn sight cheaper than my MacBook Air. And the simple fact is, my Air is nothing more than a glorified typewriter. Yes, it will do much more, but I don’t need it to and nor, in fact, do I want it to. I do not want interruptions from someone on Facebook asking how long it takes me to write a novel, someone on Twitter telling me that they are launching a new book, or an email telling me that a very pretty young Russian lady would like to meet me. I want my computer to be a typewriter that will store my words as I type – and nothing more. The MacBook Air is not good for that. It is not as comfortable, as effective, nor as well designed for me, as a writer, as this little box.

As I said, I have not purchased this machine. I have been loaned it for four weeks by Adam Leeb and Astrohaus, the manufacturers of the Freewrite, in order to bash out as many words as I can so that I can give it a realistic review. However, after only three days of use, I can easily imagine that I will be saving up for one. It is that good.

Okay, I mentioned the Alphasmart Neo. Loads of people have said, “Why go Freewrite when the Alphasmart is so much cheaper?”

I need to explain why it isn’t in the same league.

No, it’s not the cost, although that does come into it. You see, the things are cheap now, because they are discontinued. The price is so low because the stock is old, refurbished or second-hand, I imagine. That means to me that it’s likely to be unreliable. Perhaps they will work okay for some years. Perhaps. I cannot afford for my writing to be delayed by a failing machine that won’t work.

Alphasmarts and other computers also permit editing; I don’t want that. They have Liquid Crystal screens with three or four lines of text showing; I don’t think that will work too well for me. They have a keyboard … ah, and it’s a standard modern type, I am guessing, with a layer of rubber on which the keys all sit, and which make a connection when you press down on each.

I have seen and played with the Alphasmart at events in the US while on signing tours, and I didn’t like them. It’s probably me, and my old age, but I found the base slippery on my lap, and – well, just the wrong shape and too light. It didn’t sit on my lap comfortably while I typed. It was very much a note-taking device for students at college or university, rather than a machine to be used for extended periods of typing.

That is why the Freewrite is so good. It is a computer designed for me, as a writer. It is a comfortable, elegant solution to the problems that authors suffer from. It will not allow me to edit, to access email, to send tweets or post social media comments, nor to distract myself by dipping into Quora or Wikipedia. It is a glorified typewriter, and that is all, permitting me to use that superb keyboard (although I’d prefer clickier keys) and screen to move my story onwards.

It is actually the computer I’ve been looking for all my writing life. It’s wonderful.

Now, that is the first section of my review. I’ll be posting about the different aspects of the machine over the next few weeks as I get time, and will put up an end of the review post as well. Do please let me know if there’s something you’d like me to write about. I’ll be only too happy to help.

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Comments
11 Responses to “Time For An Old-Fashioned Computer – The Freewrite from Astrohaus”
  1. Lindsey Russell says:

    For me the screen looks way too small – I like to see far more of what I’ve written than what that displays.

    Like

    • You can page up and down. So when writing you aren’t cut off from your previous work, but the smaller screen does mean the focus remains on moving forward. It’s a very good screen. As big as, say, a kindle ereader that shows a whole page at a time! You can see a lot on it!

      Like

  2. Julia Wherrell says:

    That was really interesting, thanks Michael.

    Like

  3. Jack Eason says:

    I’m curious about something Michael. Apart from the fact that someone has decided it would be a good thing to reinvent ancient technology and want’s you to try it out. What’s all this about being disturbed by the internet while writing? All anyone has to do is turn off their internet connection! ;)

    Like

    • First, the ancient technology works; second, sure you can turn off elements, but then you have to remember to turn them on again, like WiFi and Bluetooth on my phone – and I never do remember; third, and more key, this box is half the price of my Mac book and does what I want. It doesn’t have email, spreadsheets, photo software and other bloatware. It does one thing very well. If I. Need email etc, I use my phone (as I am now).
      The Freewrite is just enormously better for drafts.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Jack Eason says:

        Fair enough. I looked it up and for what it is (nothing more than a wordprocessor) it aint cheap at over £600…

        Like

      • It would be very expensive at that price – but it’s £387 currently, plus VAT that’ll make it less than £500 including postage etc. Which is more than you’d pay for some computers, but this is worth it for usability, portability and the keyboard.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Lindsey Russell says:

    I’m not on twitter so can’t correct the re-tweet – Blore Heath was 1459 not 1495

    Like

    • I don’t know what this is about! Blore Heath?

      Like

      • Lindsey Russell says:

        It’s disappeared now but there was a retweet on your twitter feed from someone called history geek (don’t know how twitter works so you may not have posted it) stating the Battle of Bore Heath took place on 23/9/1495 – it actually took place in 1459 (Wars of the Roses is one of my favourite eras so noticed the mistake straight off)

        Liked by 1 person

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