Sunday, November 19, 2017

Freewrite—A Review

"The Freewrite is not a typewriter." So states Adam Paul Leeb, one of the founders of Astrohaus, the makers of the Freewrite.

OK, that still doesn't stop me from referring to mine as my "21st Century typewriter." Opinions, you know how they are, though Adam's may carry a little more weight than mine.

This review is also an opinion. One based on my experience, my usage. Different usages may lead to different opinions, and different conclusions.

I backed this project in Kickstarter, because the concept looked really interesting. I learned to type, a long time ago, on a manual typewriter, and it's left me with the ability to type reasonably well. The keyboard on the Freewrite is a major help. It caused me to order a gaming keyboard for my laptop (I am *not* a computer gamer because few, if any, games hold my interest) because it had a similar kind of mechanical keyboard.

The product was late, by something like nine months, if memory serves. No Kickstarter, or similar crowd-funded project I've backed, has delivered on time. It's the nature of the beast. At least they delivered. Two projects I backed did not.

But, what joy when it arrived! Setup was straightforward. It connected to my home Wi-Fi without issue, and the keyboard was all I'd hoped it would be. Other than the fact that the keys were white, which caused them to stand out dramatically against the black of the rest of the device. The effect, for me, was slightly jarring.

I am using the US format keyboard, so I freely admit life has been easier for me that for others using French, French-Canadian, etc. keyboard layouts. There have been problems with those layouts, some addressed swiftly, some perhaps yet outstanding.

I configured the cloud connection to drop all my files into DropBox. I have Evernote and Google Drive locales also, but keeping my Freewrite documents in one place seemed saner for me.

I was surprised when the files delivered to DropBox turned out to be Microsoft Word .docx files. Nothing against MS Word (apart form the usual) but .txt had been promised given its ease of loading into *everything* and because its longevity as a document format. .txt isn't going out of style any time soon.

An update to the firmware, 1.2, delivered over the air, and to the backend Postbox cloud service, allowed for the delivery of .txt files to DropBox (and the other endpoints.) The Astrohaus people (Patrick) were very responsive and provided an interim fix and, subsequently, a fix to the Postbox configuration.

I've written poetry (and not just free verse) with my Freewrite. And short stories, and longer format documents, and technical documentation. For this last I experimented with Markdown formatting, and was pleasantly surprised with the result. Using pandoc to generate Word .docx files from the .txt gave me a good start on a formatted Word document.

Editing...this has caused much debate on the Freewrite community forum. You can't. Not on the Freewrite. Well, you can delete the previous character, or the previous word. Possibly the previous paragraph, but I haven't gone there.

And it can be annoying to see, four or six lines up from where you're typing, "teh" rather than "the" or worse. Sometimes it's bothered me enough that I delete whole sets of words, but that's generally because what I wanted to say (write) isn't exactly what made it to the screen, and I fix it.

Typos, I don't care enough to worry. That can be taken care of in Scrivener, Word, or whatever else I dump the text into.

Once or twice my text remained in the Freewrite and did not sync to Postbox (and thence to DropBox.) I can only attribute this to work being done on the Postbox site itself. I've worked enough with web development tools to know that hiccups can arise from time to time. The interruptions were never long-lived and synching began again without issue. But an indication that this was going to happen, or was happening, might ease troubled minds.

Battery life is not what was promised, but Astrohaus is working on it. I've learned to keep Wi-Fi off on my Freewrite until I'm ready to use it, unless I'm at home and in easy range of power outlets. I have experienced the "Critically Low Battery" situation, and the Freewrite takes some time to recover from that. But I've learned to adjust how I use it (not the perfect solution, our tools should adjust to us, but reality is what it is.)

The other disappointment I've had is screen refresh. Much of the time this is not an issue. Words appear soon enough after key presses that I don't notice. But I'm using my Freewrite for NaNoWriMo right now, and I wanted to keep it all in one document—because the Freewrite keeps track of my word count.

This was ok-ish to about 20,000 words. Then word appearance began to lag badly. By 25,000 words I had to start a new document. Now refreshes are great, but for my word count I have to do math. This is not ideal.

As I understand it, there is hope that the third firmware update (V 1.4) might do something to address this. I am hopeful. In the meantime I have to adjust what I do to overcome the lack in the tool. Not tragic, but it would be good to have this addressed by Astrohaus.

(By the way, don't those black keys, purchased from Astrohaus and very easy to install, look gorgeous!)

My final thoughts on the Freewrite is that it is very close to a distraction-free writing device, optimized for getting text out of my head and into a format that can be edited...later.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review. I had a Freewrite but released it back to the wild on eBay. I loved the concept. The deal breaker for me was the battery life. The unit is a veritable tank, but I never got more than 4 - 6 hours out of it. And I kept getting strange 'battery critically low' messages and the thing would freeze. I live in NYC and there are plenty of hipsters around these parts, but being older (and I hope wiser), I never thought to take in the Freewrite to the local Starbucks – it's just too loud. Anyway, I built my own unit – a Filco mechanical keyboard, a base made from a MacBook Air case, a tablet stand and some Velcro, and voila – a mechanical keyboard that connects to any phone or tablet. (I might publish this DIY solution with my old pub or at a place like Lifehacker.) And I also collect AlphaSmart Neos – wish the design team at Astrohaus had looked at their designs for a minimal set of features (for instance working with 8+ files, not just 3). I suspect that the Astrohaus team doesn't have many resources. As a software developer, it's just plain trivial to give us cursor / arrow keys, so when they say it's a matter of philosophy, I think the truth is they are in over their heads with fulfilling orders, etc. And they have a new product – something about clapping[!] to control your smart home. So I doubt we'll be hearing much more about 'improvements' to the Freewrite.

    I had a thought that if the Freewrite team really were enterprising, they'd charge $10 - 15 dollars for an add-on WASD / cursor key kit – like on mechanical keyboards and offer the option for arrow keys with a software update. It's a no brainer.

    By the way, since the unit has no warranty to speak of, and it's sort of a black box, how does one replace the battery (after 500 or 1,000 charge cycles)? It's not something that's well thought out, and there's a built in lifecycle here – it's not a heirloom device that might be passed along, well, like a vintage typewriter.