Astrohaus Freewrite – Hipsters’ Bait or Worthy Device?

As readers of this blog will know, I’m an enthusiastic user of any form of technology that might help me work, whether by saving time or making me more efficient. In recent years I have tried returning to a slower, happier age by writing my books by hand. I have attempted to use typewriters, I have written with Windows machines, experimented with various software packages, tried out a new keyboard every two years, attempted working with ergonomic keyboards, worn out the keycaps on seven or eight keyboards in the last fifteen years … and haven’t really managed to improve on the old standby: a good Apple iMac and a keyboard with independently sprung keys.

But there are issues with this set up. I like to be able to move away from my desk on occasion: in the winter, it’s good to work in my sitting room. It has a log-burner, and I can heat that room while not spending money on the rest of the house during the day while it’s empty. More to the point, occasionally I have to go to London to meetings with agents and editors. Portability can be useful. In the past I have bought laptops, but I’ve never been able to use them much. At home, yes, they work. On a train – well, they don’t, really. For me a laptop is only a means of inputting words. It’s a typewriter. And laptops aren’t good for that.

An issue that has become more clear to me in recent weeks is that my brain (and potentially many others) is pretty binary in operation. Yes, I’m a bloke. I don’t multi-task all that well. If I am concentrating on writing a new story, and someone breaks my train of thought, it will take a significant time to return to the creative state. According to some research, it can take some 20 minutes to get the brain back into creative mode.

I know that when I started writing, I would always work through weekends, because I found that, if I were to stop typing on a Friday night, it would take much of the following week to read myself back into my story. I would have forgotten so many of my plot twists and linking characters.

But it’s worse than that. I have noticed that as I type, I will often spot a typo earlier on the page, and it gets to me. I can’t continue typing until I have corrected it. But to edit or amend my work requires that I stop typing and switch my brain into editing mode. Then I have to reset my brain to return to creating. It may sound a trivial example, but for me, as I try to type 5,000 words a day, it can be a significant disruption to my work.

This is why I was intrigued when first saw reports about the Freewrite from Astrohaus.

There have been many reviews of the Freewrite. Some positive, several scathingly negative. Few, it has to be said, complain about the general design, no, the complaints tend to be purely on the money.

The Freewrite is a logical design, very much like a typewriter. It has a robust-feeling casing of some kind of metal alloy, mostly aluminium, I think. There is a pair of screens, a red power button, and two selection switches, one which selects folders, the other which turns on wifi.

The upper screen is the main typing area. It is e-ink, which means no reflections, no headaches and the ability to read the screen from almost any angle. The lower screen gives administrative information – you can see how much battery there is remaining, or how many words you have typed, a timer, or confirmation that the machine is synching to your website of choice (I use Dropbox, but you can use Evernote and other connections). Below the two screens is the keyboard. This is just lovely. It is a lovely, old-fashioned keyboard using Cherry MX Brown keys that give a wonderful feel. If you are a touch typist, and have only ever used cheaper laptop-type keyboards, this will be a revelation.

The only other things to mention are that there is a USB connector at the rear, and a carrying handle. This USB is the newer style USB C – that is the same type that my Sony Xperia XZ phone uses. With that you can charge the Freewrite, or, if you don’t like to work on the wifi connection, you can use it to copy your work to your main computer.

So, those are the basics. How has it worked for me?

I got in contact with Astrohaus some weeks before, and they agreed to let me have a machine for review purposes. I was to be allowed to use if for two weeks, but I asked for double that, so I could give it a good hammering. They were good enough to agree.

It arrived in four days, which was a bit of a surprise. Usually post from the US takes a bit longer. It arrived in a well packaged box. The Freewrite was wrapped in plastic, with two strong plastic supports to keep it safe. That all sat inside a nice box with all the branding, which sat inside a brown box for posting. It was well protected, and the packaging was not excessive.

Pulling it out, I switched it on and began typing. There was a short learning curve which was not helped by the total lack of an instruction manual. Bearing in mind the cost of the device, a decent manual should be expected. Still, it was very intuitive, and I was soon typing merrily. I did have a slight problem with the wifi set up, but soon that was fixed and all was well.

I have found the machine to be the ideal size for me. In other posts I have mentioned that I have a MacBook Air, which was my primary travelling machine. I bought so that I could work on the train while going to meetings.

The MacBook is hugely portable. It is thin and beautiful, a real work of art. Aluminium case, glass screen, it attracts envy. But as a “Laptop”, it is dreadful. The screen, being glass, is heavy, and as soon as it is positioned on my lap at an angle where I can view it, I feel it will overbalance. Yes, full marks for being thin and beautiful, but zero marks for actual usability. The Freewrite is the right width to sit on my lap, and never wishes to overbalance. The screen is easy to read at any angle, so I can position the device almost anywhere.

I like the feel, weight and balance of the machine. It is an oddly delightful, tactile shape, and I often find my hands wandering over its curves as I think of the next sentences to type.

My experience with the Freewrite was not entirely faultless. As I mentioned, my first attempt to log into my wifi took a lot more effort than it should, but that is more due to my own incompetence with technology than anything to do with the Freewrite itself. However, a friend, who saw my earlier comments about the Freewrite and decided to buy one herself, had enormous troubles. This was finally resolved when she acquired a new wifi base station: the Freewrite works at a level of security that was considerably higher than her eight year old wifi box. Be aware that you may have a similar issue if your broadband provider hasn’t upgraded your wifi setup for a few years.

Another problem I had was with the way that the machine backed up.

To use a Freewrite, the user must have an account with Astrohaus’s proprietary cloud system, Postbox. As you type, your documents are synched with this, one way only, and sent to be stored on your Dropbox, Evernote or similar account. Sounds a bit of a malarky? Perhaps.

On the keyboard there is a “Send” key. This will not only sync the documents on the Freewrite with Postbox, it’ll also email the current document to you, with a PDF and text version of your document. Personally I found it was easier to just stick to using Dropbox for my own updates.

However, after a week I found that the backup was not synching properly. Although the wifi in my house was working fine, there was a glitch somewhere. I considered stopping using it for a while, since I couldn’t tell where the issue was, and didn’t want to lose thousands of words, but then I saw that all the documents were on the Freewrite still. They weren’t lost. I found I could use the USB to copy the files to my iMac too, so I decided to continue with my review, and I’m glad I did, because it showed how easy the transfer is.

Now, for writing, I will always draft in Scrivener, and then output to Docx or Word format to send files to my editors. For tracking corrections when they send back comments or copy edits, I use Nisus Writer Pro, which is fully compatible with Word. It keeps all the tracked comments and amendments.

With the Freewrite I have experienced no problems in importing documents into Scrivener or Nisus, apart from an occasional alteration in format. I just import the file I want, and then select my formats of choice (I have one, for example, which I call “Novel”, which sets up the character set, size, line-spacing etc).

The synching was a minor technical glitch. As soon as I could, I spoke to Freewrite. Their advice was to reset the machine by holding down the power button for 15 seconds. That did not lose a line of text, but reset the wifi, and since then it has operated faultlessly.

The operation of the machine is simple: beautifully simple. There are three folders, each selected by the left hand switch. Within each folder you can have many documents. I don’t know how many – just take my word that there are lots. You press the two red keys on the near, outside edges of the keyboard to create a new document, and then type. And quite literally, that is it.

There is no clever software to allow editing. There are not even any cursor keys. If you want to go back and edit, you have to use the “backspace” key. That means you delete everything up to the piece you wish to edit. Not ideal, you might think. Certainly it is one of the most common complaints raised about the machine. People say that the device is no good, because it’s a word processor that won’t even allow you to process words: all you can do is type them.

For me, as a full-time novelist and author, that is a big benefit. I can sit with this on my lap or on my desk, and type. There are no interruptions. I don’t look up and see a typo to fix. In fact, I rarely look further up the screen than the line I’m typing on. I want to have a space where I can be creative. All I want, really, is a typewriter – an electronic typewriter. I do not want all the bells and whistles that my MacBook Air contains. I have no need for a blasted spreadsheet or “GarageBand” app. I only want a glorified typewriter. Something that will allow me to type, but which I know I will find on my iMac to edit later.

What do I like about this machine?

I love the size, the design, the screen and the keyboard. In fact, I love the entire philosophy behind it. But let’s be realistic, what really sings for me is the keyboard. It is smooth, slightly rattly, and just a joy to type on. When I compare it with my two Apple keyboards with their beautiful appearance and bluetooth connectivity … well, the Apples are both going on ebay shortly. If I have a niggle, it is that the keys are Cherry MX Brown keys, not my favourite, which are the MX Blue models. The difference? The Blues give a little sensory “click” as I press down on them. They are much like the early 1980s IBM keyboards for the DisplayWrite word processor and the early PCs. The keys travel some 2mm, click as the depression is registered, and then can move another 2mm. Unlike keys on cheap keyboards, each key has its own spring. Usually nowadays keyboards are designed with a sheet of rubber under the whole keyboard. That is fine for occasional users, but if you type a lot, it is not good.

The Freewrite keys are smoothly progressive without the tactile sensation. Don’t get me wrong, this keyboard is infinitely better than any keyboard I have ever used on a laptop or most desktop computers, but it’s not my personal favourite, that’s all. Cherry MX Blue keys are the ones I’d get if it were possible. I did mention this to Astrohaus, but apparently the cost of a different model is a bit beyond them at present. Watch this space, I guess.

What do I dislike about it?

Well, it’s a fair amount of money. For the cost, I would like to have seen a case for it. My old manual typewriters from the 1980s have rigid cases to protect the keyboards. I really would expect something similar on this.

Um. Nope. That really is it.

You see, the thing is, it is next to impossible to explain just what exactly is so stunningly good about this device. I had that moment of blankness while I was trying to explain it to my wife.

“What is it?”

“Well, it’s a computer.”

‘You’ve got two of them.”

“Yes, but this isn’t as powerful.”

“Right.”

“I mean, it won’t do facebook or Twitter  or anything.”

“Can’t you turn them off anyway?”

“Um.”

And that is the point. Yes, this is a computer that has been specifically designed to stop you doing things that have always been the preserve of computers. It is a chunk of metal with a screen and keyboard. And it’s some four hundred pounds (by the way, it doesn’t seem to have a pound sterling sign, which I’ll have to mention to them).

Four hundred. That is a lot of money, right? Sure. It’s many, many book sales at the rate I’m paid. So it’s a stupid idea, right?

No. If you are an accountant, yup, this is not the right tool. You want a computer that will, stunningly, be able to run spreadsheets. If you are a designer, you will want something with better graphics and, perhaps, colour. If you are a keen businessman, you’ll probably want to have a machine that will allow emails.

But this machine is not designed for you! To say that a Freewrite is a poor device because it won’t do these things is like saying a chainsaw is a rubbish machine because you wanted something to make you coffee. Yes, the chainsaw is no good for you. It doesn’t mean that it’s not good for the purpose for which it was designed.

I am a writer, and have been a professional novelist for some 23 years. I have tried many devices to make my life easier, to speed up my writing, or just to make the process more enjoyable. This is the very first device I’ve ever used that ticks every box. It is a truly effective device for inputting words and helping me to type up my books. Not only does it achieve that with efficiency and elegance, it is also something that I can turn to in a few moments of peace, turn on, and be typing in seconds. It is quick and a delight to type on.

Yes, it is no good at editing. It is not a replacement for my iMac. It is not supposed to be. It is a replacement for my laptop, though. The laptop is now redundant. This is so much more effective. I need a simple, uncomplicated writing environment. I do not need spreadsheets, presentation software, email, and all the other bells and whistles that come with a MacBook Air and other computers.

In fact, I not only do not want them, they actively distract me from the job that pays my living: writing.

So, if you are not a writer, if you don’t want to write professionally, then don’t buy one of these: go and buy a different computer.

Now, I have spoken to several people who reviewed the Freewrite. I was surprised, when I first started looking into the machine, to learn that reviewers such as Jenny Judge, a Guardian journalist, have bought their own. I was sent my machine as a review model. I was very grateful to be able to borrow it for a whole month. Yes, Freewrite let me have this machine for a month. The time flew by.

A friend recently asked how I got on with it. I think you can guess that I rather enjoyed the experience. However, after the month was up the machine had to go back…

Except it hasn’t. I came to the conclusion that there was little point in Astrohaus getting this back and ordering another. So I have bought this one. It is here, and yes, it cost about four hundred pounds. And yes, it is a lot of money. It is also thoroughly good value. It does the job I need and it’s less than half the price of a MacBook Air. It may cost more than a number of cheaper computers – but this is a piece of quality equipment. The keyboard alone makes it worth more than most laptops.

So, if you want to know what I think about the Freewrite – I highly recommend it. I have to. I bought it.

But I do need to find the pound sign!

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Comments
5 Responses to “Astrohaus Freewrite – Hipsters’ Bait or Worthy Device?”
  1. DDechen says:

    I shared this on my Facebook page. It’s an intriguing device. I particularly like the more Kindle-like screen. And, of course, having learned to type in the early 1960s, the keyboard fascinates me as well. Hmmm. https://www.facebook.com/wideworldhome/

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Michael. Just for clarity: if I wanted to use the Freewrite entirely offline and side-load my content straight into my PC, that’s possible, right?

    Like

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