Gadget crowdfunding is great for meeting niche requirements. Most people, for example, would never buy a $ 599 Wi-Fi typewriter. But in 2016, a Detroit-based startup called Astrohaus proved that not only can such a thing exist, but it can be delightful and strangely satisfying device. Now Astrohaus is trying to capture the same experience in a smaller and more convenient package – but unfortunately its hardware cannot support this promise.
Astrohaus is the creator of Freewrite, an alphanumeric word processor with a modern mechanical keyboard, wireless synchronization options and an E Ink screen. Today, the company begins shipping Freewrite Traveler, a lighter, laptop-like alternative. Traveler has been temporarily reduced to $ 429, but will eventually retail for $ 599, the same price as Freewrite. For this price, you get a 1
If the original Freewrite is a high-tech typewriter, Traveler has updated the AlphaSmart or Psion Series 5. This is just big enough to hold its full-size scissor keyboard and low-power screen, about half the width and weight of a 13-inch MacBook Pro – small enough to fit in a medium-sized bag.
The hardware feels light but not fragile, with a black plastic top that is a magnet for fingerprints, but closes tightly on the bright white interior. Its unobtrusive design looks more like a netbook from the late 00’s than a modern laptop, and this is actually a welcome change from the delicate glass and metal plates I’m used to wearing.
I got the original Freewrite for Christmas a few years ago. Although it is charged as a distracting experience for all types of writing, I mostly enjoy using it to write fiction without being tempted to self-edit. (Full disclosure: I did not write this review on Freewrite or traveler.) Most of all, I return to the solid and unique design of the Astrohaus. This is far from necessary, but it is a clever and well-thought-out thought for people who are really, really in words.
Traveler has two key advantages over Freewrite: it’s easier to carry and you can use it in public without feeling criminally pretentious. Otherwise, his writing process is quite similar. The documents are organized in three folders, so you can switch between three drafts at once. If you have Wi-Fi enabled on your device, it will periodically sync them with the cloud-based inbox, which you can access from a regular computer. You can also press the Send key to send your currently active draft to you as a rich text file. It’s almost seamless and infinitely easier than transferring indeed ancient word processing file on a modern computer.
The Traveler adds several new software features, most notably the option to move the cursor around a document instead of forcing users to either delete errors with the backspace key or forge directly, as they would on a traditional typewriter. It’s still awkward enough to discourage heavy editing, and you can’t copy and paste text, just insert or delete words. But it’s helpful to go back to correct typos or add a thought to an earlier paragraph.
The interface does not feel as elegantly simple as before. The cursor is controlled by pressing W, A, S or D together with one of the “New” keys, which is a bit strange combination when the keyboard includes more intuitively marked “special” and “alt” keys. (I read the right combination in the manual and it still feels wrong.) The original Freewrite uses a satisfactory physical switch to switch between folders, but Traveler uses three small buttons that do not indicate which draft is currently active.
The traveler also does not have the luxurious power of the original Freewrite. Its scissor toggle keys feel perfectly good for a laptop – especially if you’re used to Apple’s shallow keyboard. But they’re not as much fun to hit as Freewrite’s Cherry’s mechanical switches. Meanwhile, its lightweight design is great to wear, but doesn’t fit so tightly on your lap.
The overall Traveler experience feels good as a 90s word processor instead of a typewriter. It’s a little more complicated and a little less charming. But its appeal would still be clear, if not one: the screen.
Freewrite’s E Ink display has always been a trade-off. It has lower contrast and has a much lower refresh rate than the LCD panel. (To find out the delay, imagine you’re typing on a desktop computer with overloaded memory.) But this allows the device to last weeks on a single charge, and if you’re an experienced typist – exactly Astrohaus’s demographic goal – you may not need to watch screen while typing anyway.
Even by this standard, the Traveler feels particularly compromised. Astrohaus has removed the backlight, which is built into the original Freewrite screen, and in low light you have peeked into the dark gray-gray window. Meanwhile, the original frosted finish has been replaced with highly reflective plastic glass, so using it in bright directional light is almost as bad.
Astrohaus says it has reduced the backlight to keep the screen thinner and the price down, which makes sense, as $ 599 is already pushing the upper limits of sanity. But the limited screen undermines the promise of its new design. The traveler does his specific job, but often does not feel it good – and for such an expensive, specialized device that removes much of its appeal.
With a better screen and consistently lower price, Freewrite Traveler would be a great little experiment in single-purpose electronics. It is in its current form interesting an experiment, but one that Astrohaus simply cannot perform with its current technical limitations. Freewrite Traveler may have a retro appeal, but paradoxically, it feels fatally ahead of its time.
Photo by Adi Robertson