Papa Hemingway’s Blues

I’ve been in a Monkees mood lately, so I borrowed the title of “Papa Gene’s Blues” — I’m not saying the Freewrite makes Hemingway, or me, blue.

The typewriter’s paradigm has persisted, hasn’t it?
In a day where music is consumed via streaming services charging a monthly fee and the e-reader has done something similar with books, something as anachronistic as a typewriter should be should be dwelling in a disused basement alongside Babbage’s Difference Engine. It’s old. It’s obsolete. It’s of a bygone era.

Or is it?

The typewriter was the realization of moveable type at a personal level. A printing press at your fingertips! That sort of power — the power to essentially print your own pages (albeit slowly and one at a time) was a massive cultural and societal shift when they were invented 150 years ago. Mina’s ability in Dracula to quickly transcribe all of the journal and diary entries and letters and phonograph recordings was still an amazing phenomenon in the 1890s.

If we fast forward to the late 1970s and the Apple II, we see that the personal computer (and the later advent of word processing) changed the medium but not the basic concept. Yes, the ability to edit “on the page” became a game changer (I recall pain of that last typewritten paper I ever turned in — for US History in 1989, my sophomore year of high school — and its grueling mess of White Out). It was after that (and my mother upgrading us to computer with a printer) I realized how important and expedient it was to move to a computer to write and edit.

Fast forward once again and we are in front of our tablets and phones… using the same keyboard layout typists used a century ago. The medium has changed, but not the concept. Except in specialized cases, anyone from the 1950s dropped in front of a phone/tablet/computer with a word processor open on it would likely understand how to type on it. Sure, this hypotethical 1950s typist would not know what a mouse or touchscreen are or how they work, but a keyboard in front of a blank word processing or text editor window would make sense. In the past 40 years of paradigm shifts, the keyboard and its utility in personal writing has barely been touched — the output and the ability to manipulate it has simply evolved.

While the paradigm hasn’t changed as much as some think, it has become distracting. In 1996, as I was writing my thesis on a Mac Classic borrowed from the English department (and with no Internet connection), the distractions were few. When I upgraded to a Power Mac a year or so later and had a modem, email and games were a bit distracting (oh, the hours I lost to Civilization II). As the years rolled on, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, phone calls, SMS, etc., all started vying for my limited attention. And then, in the real world, came children.

It’s no longer as easy as it was 20 or 25 years ago to sit and write without something nagging me to pay attention to it. And I dare say I’m not the only one.

There have been various distraction-free word processors on all the platforms, but they still have all those tempting apps running in the background, waiting to pull you in and drag you into a Twitter discussion or chasing topics in Wikipedia. Some (myself included) have attempted to use older tech to get around this, but that then introduces the issue of the older formats, connectivity, and the issue where you are troubleshooting more often than writing.

In comes the Freewrite (formerly the “Hemingwrite” on Kickstarter — https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/adamleeb/hemingwrite-a-distraction-free-digital-typewriter), a mashup of a typewriter, a Kindle E-Reader (the black and white one that looks like paper), and the cloud. For writers. Perhaps for others, but its initial target is writers.

The concept is simple and ostensibly borrowed from Hemingway’s writing process: Write (once it’s configured, of course). Just write. Worry about editing later (in fact, there are no cursor/arrow keys, so the only way to go back is to delete, and if you have to delete a lot… then it’s best to just move forward and go back later). Simply write and, when the piece is ready to edit, then you pick it up from the cloud and edit in your preferred word processor.

It’s a device that has been dismissed by the more elitist of both the IT and writing communities as “hipster” due to its limited functionality and somewhat steep price. I’d argue many of us need a device with this sort of limitation and it’s worth the price and the scorn of these neo-hipsters who can pound-out a piece while being distracted, publish it to their blog (typos and all), and like to lord this over others. If you don’t see the need for a device like this, good for you. I do. I know others who do. If something like the Alphasmart Neo works for you and this is too much, too expensive, etc., that’s fine. No one is telling you to buy this. If you are telling people not to buy it, or that they are stupid for buying it, however, then I would kindly ask you to leave the auditorium at this time. Thank you.

Now, for those who are still around…

Do I think it’s a “finished” product? Yes. Is it complete? Not quite. I’d consider this a 0.9 release rather than a full-fledged 1.0 and there is nothing wrong with that since it’s clear it’s under development. I’ve read some complaints stating the machine shouldn’t have shipped without it being more “finished.” I think this argument has no legs, really. To make the statement a fully functioning device that does almost 100% of what was laid-out in the Kickstarter is “unfinished” is to basically not understand the entire concept (or possibly Kickstarter itself, but that is better served in another discussion). So, in that this is an evolving device and is clearly still setlling in terms of its feature set (which, let’s be very honest, what 1.0 version of a shipping product actually ever has its full feature set? Show me a dev or PM who makes the claim that their 1.0 is finished and flawless and I’ll show you an individual who might not have a firm grasp on reality or has a project team keeping them in the dark).

Instead, we’re looking at a device that does work but could use some additional features. And it has a team behind it that is actually working on delivering additional features.

So, in terms of what this is, how does it stack up?

HARDWARE

It’s almost retro enough for Gilliam’s Brazil or even Max Headroom (but not as technologically stripped as, say, Mad Max), but it’s a little too neat for either.

There’s no arguing — the hardware here is fully cooked. From the mechanical keys to the retro-styled switches and power button, this is a well thought-out piece of hardware. There are little imprections that, were the device coming off a regular assembly line, I would hope wouldn’t be there (the still existing flashing on some of the keys, for example), but they also add a bit to the charm of the machine.

I do have a few complaints.

First, I think there was a missed opportunity with the labels for the switches. Those look like decals or some sort of applique and considering how nice this piece of kit is, they seem a little cheap. Something that had been part of the machine would have been nice.

Another complaint is uneven lighting (a common complaint for E Ink backlighting). The Freewrite originally shipped with the backlight permanently on. A recent firmware update has come along to turn the backlight off. There aren’t backlit keys, so having a backlight on the screen seems a bit like overkill to me. (I do wonder if the USB port will power a little reading lamp? That could be useful.). And for something as retro hip as this, I find it an oversight there is not a mechanical switch to turn the screen’s backlight off and on.

The keyboard is almost exactly what they promised — nice keycaps, very good action. I did, however, find myself needing the appropriate dampeners for the key caps on the keyboard (and, while the keys were off, I cleaned-up the flashing mentioned above). I’m fairly hard on my keyboards and I usually bottom-out with each keystroke. Because of that fact, the dampeners made sense (and the fact that it will allow me to type when the click-slam of bottoming out isn’t really acceptable). I also seem to type faster with the dampeners in place. Obviously how you handle it is up to you.

Speaking of places it can be taken, there is the mobility factor. The built-in handle is nice (and seems to have a bit of a magnet to hold it in place when it’s stowed) and comes in very useful because the Freewrite is heavy. Considering how many Apple laptops I’ve had over the years, this feels like a tank (that isn’t necessarily a bad thing — I don’t want a device I will potentially use for writing hundreds of thousands of words to be skittering across the table at a coffeehouse as I’m pounding away at the keys). That said, the concept about this being portable is called into question because of the weight and the lack of a case or even keyboard cover. I’m of the thought Astrohaus should have had someone design a case or a sleeve or something for it. Something to protect it a bit when we move it around.

The biggest hardware issue (and this is an issue with E Ink as a whole) is the screen refresh. It is slow. The user can tweak it a bit (the screen refresh is marginally better with the smallest font than the medium), but an E Ink display is designed for static reading and the occasional page “turn.” It’s not for a regularly refreshing block of text. It’s a hardware limitation, but one that can be somewhat overcome through software. I’ve seen suggestions in the support forums for a change in how the text is displayed and I can wholeheartedly agree with that. Yes, this is supposed to act like a typwriter, but the reality is we aren’t putting these words on real paper — there is no carriage turning on its return, there is no paper to advance. As such, I’d argue the typing should occur from the top and progress down. Once you read the last row of text, it refreshes and you begin to type at the top of the window again. Considering how distracting the software is, and that this is the behavior E Ink is better at handling, and this approach should at least be an option for the users to choose from.

SOFTWARE

Well… it writes well. There’s little in terms of user-facing interface to the software on the machine itself. You can navigate (by keystroke) amongst different documents in one of three folders. You interact with the software when connecting to a network. That’s about all you see in terms of software interaction on the main screen. The software should get out of your way in a case like this. In that regards, it does precisely what it should.

The secondary screen has some software-related items and really could allow some user control. The “widgets” (for lack of a better word) are useful, but feel spread across three areas you have to toggle through. I want to see word count, time, and battery charge. No toggling. That’s pretty much it. The two clocks and other widgets are a step in the right direction, but status is probably the most important thing to have in that window.

Other than that, in terms of software, there’s little to review. Which is as it should be for this device.

WEBSITE

The core of the Freewrite is the actually the Postbox website where the preferences are set and maintained. There is also a growing and involved community on the site. Understanding how the controls work on the site is key to being able to use the Freewrite correctly. Really getting to know the site is important (especially once more features come about).

There are issues with the site. The lack of a real knowledgebase on the website or introductory documentation in the package is problematic. I’m the type who will poke at things and see what happens, then poke them another way to see if the work the same or differently. Regardless, I’m somewhat rare in that regard and even I’d like better documentation. I recently had issues with my wireless network at home (someone keeps stomping around in the 2.4GHz spectrum) and decided to segregate my 5GHz network off on its own. But could the Freewrite handle 5GHz? I couldn’t find any specifications as to what standard it uses for 802.11 (I was able to view the 5GHz network and add it, so it’s clearly using N or even AC — but where is that published?). I wanted to know what the maximum output on a USB charger should be. The port is USB-C, which is very forward thinking, but can I use one of Apple’s 29W USB-C adapters for speedy charging? Or will I kill the battery? (The power adapter question was eventually answered — 7.5W is as high as the battery will take, but you can pretty much use anything.) The Special and Send keys — what are they? Both can do cool stuff, but nothing tells me what functions it has. It’s those sorts of things that need to be better communicated.

Not being able to easily use the text you write without conversion is another issue. Currently, the Freewrite syncs to Postbox and then Postbox syncs to either Dropbox, Evernote, or Google Drive (or all three, if you want to set a provider per folder on the Freewrite’s switch). The text, when it reaches its destination, is currently saved as a DOCX file (despite the website and the Kickstarter site stating it would be saved as TXT — again, communication and documentation are a must) and that is causing quite a bit of gnashing of teeth and rending of breasts in the forums. To get the text for this blog post (roughly 1,700 words of this were written on the Freewrite itself, but I did have to eventually edit), I had to go through hoops to pull the DOCX into iA Writer on my iPad. It’s not horrible, but there are easier ways to handle this and the device should have the ability to make it as seamless as possible (a save to WordPress option, for example, which isn’t impossible due to the WordPress API, or working with Automattic to allow them to sync to Simplenote). Scrivener (on iOS, at least — I’ve yet to try on my Mac) actually helps solve this issue (as you can import the documents into a Scrivener project directly from Dropbox), but not everyone will want to use (or pay for) Scrivener.

A possible problem I foresee with this dependence on the website is Astrohaus not being able to afford keeping the servers going. This device is dependent upon their servers for syncing and settings. Yes, there is the promised ability to pull documents from the device via USB — in a future firmware update. What if it reaches the point where they don’t deliver and go belly up? Astrohaus has stated they are going to unveil that plan, but I would like to see that sooner rather than later.

FINAL VERDICT

I have to commend Astrohaus for sticking with the original vision. There were long discussions by backers on Kickstarter who wanted arrow keys and spellcheck and built-in dictionaries and bolding and italics, etc. (formatting is solved by using Markdown, though). Frankly, I’m just not sure how any of that would have happened having the final product in my hands. If the screen were a touchscreen… maybe? Maybe a stylus to allow you to strike out words and place the cursor? Even that seems a little much for this device.

The positives far outweigh the negatives, in my personal opinion. I’ve seen grumbling here and there. I’ve seen someone say it’s too expensive (it’s not cheap, no) and another (an IT project manager) make the claim the project clearly went off the rails because it was about six months late to deliver and doesn’t have all of its features baked-in. I would normally say that’s legitimate criticism, but this is a Kickstarter award (I’d love to see what projects they worked on that were 100% complete upon delivery). When I think of the big tech Kickstarters (specifically the Pebble), those were not fully baked when they went out to their backers either. We pay for the opportunity to be on the bleeding edge of someone’s possibly fantastic dream. I have an outstanding award for one Kickstarter that was supposed to deliver four years ago — but the guy is communicative and things are finally about to ship. Being the sort who knows thart life can get in the way of your other plans… I roll with it. I don’t expect a fully baked solution from a Kickstarter. Now, I also don’t expect Astrohaus to leave us hanging — I expect firmware updates for years to come (there’s a reason why companies like Blizzard have the following they do when they release upgrades to almost 20 year-old games in order to make them play on modern operating systems). If Astrohaus treats us well, we will treat them well. And I’m willing to go through these minor growning pains to get there.

Do I think there is room for improvement? Most certainly — note the observations I made above.

It works, it’s comfortable, it’s close to what they originally promised. It’s not for everyone, but as a geek with two English degrees and a perchant for writing long blog posts, I love this thing. I think the third or fourth iteration (if it makes it that far because, as is clear, this is a massive niche product and perhaps it will become solely a curiousity in the future) will be an insanely great product. For now, though, it will just have to settle for great (with caveats).