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Freewrite—a distraction-free typewriter for hipsters

February 25, 2016

The Freewrite in use and on the go.—Astrohaus

The Astrohaus Freewrite is billed as the world’s first smart typewriter. (it’s certainly not.) What it is, specifically, is a very high-quality mechanical keyboard in a nearly indestructible cast aluminum housing, that is connected to a tiny E paper display that reads perfectly in direct sunlight. The Freewrite will store whatever a user types in its tiny internal storage as well as syncing it, with the flick of a switch, via Wi-Fi to a cloud service.

And that, as they say, is just about all she wrote. Anything more, would be too much for the sort of “distraction-free writing tool”, which  its makers, Astrohaus, designed the Freewrite to be.

Finally, an Etch-A-Sketch for “writers”!


The chassis looks like plastic but it’s cast aluminum.—Astrohaus

Freewrite specifications

  • Build: cast aluminum chassis, all-mechanical switches and keys, with built-in handle.
  • Weight: about 1.8kg.
  • Footprint: roughly 298mm x 237mm x 70mm.
  • Colour: many promo photos show red but it’s currently only available in black.
  • Display: black and white front-lit E Ink screen measuring “roughly 5.5” diagonally”.
  • Keyboard: full-size, with mechanical switches; available as either ANSI or ISO.
  • Keycaps: standard QWERTY  that can be swapped for available key sets.
  • Language support: ten, with more on the way.
  • Battery: rechargeable Li-ion, lasts 3-4 weeks, with Wi-Fi turned off and 30 minutes daily use.
  • Charging: about 4 hours, using a standard USB Type-C port.
  • Internal storage: “for over one million pages” (which I estimate as 4GBs).
  • Saving: documents are automatically stored as raw ASCII text files (“txt”).
  • Exporting: Wi-Fi sync to cloud storage (Dropbox, Evernote, Google Drive, with iCloud soon) via Astrohaus’ Postbox account.

The Astrohaus Freewrite went on sale globally (except for North Korea) on February 23 for USD$563.87. it is the realization of a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised USD$342,471 from over 1000 backers, in order to produce a “distraction-free smart typewriter”, originally to be called a “Hemmingwrite”.

The distraction-free writing crowd would have people believe that the reason they can’t write is because their computers won’t let them — either their word processing software has too many bells and whistles or the Internet beguiles them with too many distractions.

Therefore the Freewrite has the minimum features necessary—and no direct user access to the Internet—in order to make the best writing tool that money can buy.

Taking the machine at face value, I have to say that that it’s missing a few too many features and is too dependent on Wi-Fi and Astrohaus’ servers to ever be my go-to, go-anywhere writing machine.

  • There is no spellcheck or dictionary.
  • The keys are not backlit for outdoor writing in the evening or at night.
  • There is no SD card support.
  • There is no clear way to sync files with a local computer.
  • The Freewrite is not described as being water-resistant.
  • All files must go through Astrohaus’ Postbox account on their way to your cloud storage provider, so would it brick the $500 Freewrite if the company went under?
  • With no Internet browser, how would a person sign in to the free Wi-Fi in a coffee shop or library to sync their writing to the cloud?

An object of desire to show off just what a writer you are

Astrohaus, in its press kit, describes its target audience as professional and aspiring writers—novelists, bloggers, journalists, journalers, lawyers, songwriters, playwrights, poets, business executives, and others.

I would agree with “aspiring” but I take issue with the idea that the Freewrite is designed for professionals.

The truth is that professional writers can (by definition) buckle down as needed and tune out distractions in order to get their job done. It’s amateurs who can’t and who then turn around and blame their tools.

As far as I’m concerned, this thing is aimed squarely at amateurs, dilettantes and hipsters, all with more money than, um, patience.

In its atavistic appeal to a retro solution (almost to the point of parody), Astrohaus’ Freewrite is to writing what a pricey and aggressively retro Lumography camera is to photography.

But in the larger sense—that Astrohaus is using snob appeal to charge a bundle for basic functions already widely and inexpensively available in existing devices—in that sense, the Freewrite most resembles Neil Young’s $500 Pono hi-res music player, which does nothing in the way of playing lossless audio, that a $50 Sandisk SansaClip can’t do, beyond being and looking very expensive.

There’s nothing wrong with making a high-quality computer device that does very little but does it very well and then charging an arm and leg for it. (Remember, long before the Pono, there was the iPod.)

And there’s nothing actually bad about the idea behind the Freewrite. I remember that it was quite a good idea 30 years ago, when it was new.

Just the type of thing we had back in the day


A Canon Typestar 6, 30 years ago, offered a similar experience to the Freewrite at half the price.

In the mid-ish 1980s I personally wrote millions of words on a Canon Typestar 6, which I purchased from Polson’s for about $250. This really was one of the first “smart typewriters”.

The Typestar 6 had a one- or two-line character display and stored at least eight pages of text, which could be edited in memory and printed at one’s leisure in several typefaces and styles.

Already in 1986 though, personal computers offered far better writing platforms than any kind of typewriter, even if one was looking for a distraction-free environment.

I’m not referring to the Macintosh but rather the majority of personal computer systems that were text-based rather than graphical. These had no overlapping windows or multitasking. Every program ran one at a time, and filled a screen that was often only two-colours and no larger than an open paperback novel.

If that all sounds a bit familiar, it’s because the same simplicity and scale that typified first generation PCs also describes the user interface of mobile operating systems like iOS and Android.

As it happens, it also describes the aesthetic of most distraction-free writing applications available for both desktop and mobile computers.

Distraction-free writing on the cheap

A backlit Logitech K810 Bluetooth keyboard paired to an Android tablet. --

A backlit Logitech K810 Bluetooth keyboard paired to an Android tablet.—Steve Jakob

As usual, there are three ways for a person to go about creating a focus-friendly writing environment: the rich way, the poor way and the smart way.

If you’re poor enough, you can’t afford to own a computer, so no distractions. And if you’re rich enough, you can pay for the privilege of using a Freewrite that deprives you of almost all the functionality of owning a computer.

The majority of people, however, are in the middle economically and have to use their brains.

And if you think about it, the laptops and tablets that the majority of us already own can easily be made into quiet, distraction-free workspaces at a fraction of the cost of a (not so) Freewrite.

  1. Take your pick among the so-called “distraction-free writing tools” (aka “plain text editors”) that are freely available for every desktop computer platform.
  2. Turn off your Wi-Fi (or just turn on Airplane Mode).
  3. Launch the distraction-free writing tool of your choice.
  4. And write.

Got a tablet? Drop a $100 on a good wireless keyboard, such as the backlit Logitech K810, and you’re all set. (To turn your tablet into retro typewriter with a capital R, go for a QwerkyWriter!)

There are many free distraction free editors for Android and iOS but the default text editors that come with tablets are quite free of distracting features and they all open full screen. Again, turn off Wi-Fi, or turn on Airplane mode, and write your heart out.

A Palm Tungsten C (first with Wi-Fi) with a nearly as good 2nd-generation folding keyboard.

Palm Tungsten C (first with Wi-Fi) with a nearly as good 2nd-generation folding keyboard.

By the way, the tablet/keyboard combination was one that I first used a decade ago when I paired a wonderful Wi-Fi-capable Palm Tungsten C with a first generation (and best-ever) PalmOne folding, full-size keyboard. This duo made a very effective writing machine. Click the images to enlarge them.

From → Android, Apple, Internet, Palm

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