In a world of technological Swiss Army knives, the Freewrite is a high-end oyster fork. It’s a well-designed, lovable, woefully expensive tool made for one thing: Writing as you would before the web existed.
The machine is a throwback to the days of the word processor, but with two major differences. One, it has rudimentary Wi-Fi features that save your documents to the cloud. Two, there are no arrow keys.
Astrohaus, which makes the Freewrite, calls it a “smart typewriter.” Once you use it, you’ll understand why. The experience of writing on it is more akin to a typewriter than a word processor, even if the device looks and feels like the latter.
It doesn’t so much have a list of specs as a list of bare essentials. Top billing goes to the wonderfully clacky mechanical keyboard. Built atop Cherry MX brown switches, it sounds as great as it feels. The ten-line E-Ink screen is front-lit, and it pulls triple pragmatic duty: It stretches battery life to a month, it makes words appear like they’re on real paper, and it’s easy on your eyes.
Instead of navigating through menus, there are physical switches to turn on the machine’s Wi-Fi and select target folders. You can carry it like a lunchbox, because there’s a perfectly sturdy flip-up handle. It weighs four pounds, but it feels much lighter–a perk of carrying it like a Speak & Spell instead of inside a shoulder-carving laptop bag.
I am a bonafide Freewrite fanboy. It doesn’t make the words coming out of my brain any better, but it makes them far more pleasurable to write. That said, I was not a fan of one thing. At $500, it is too expensive. Like, way too expensive. Even if you aren’t getting short-changed on build quality or keyboard excellence, a “smart typewriter” shouldn’t cost as much as decent budget laptop.
In some ways, the Freewriter is less feature-laden than word processors from 25 years ago. The lack of directional buttons means it’s impossible to navigate text or reorder paragraphs once you’ve written them. There are no copy-and-paste options. To do anything other than write in a linear progression, you have to delete and rewrite.
Those limitations are part of a larger point. Like a rangefinder film camera, it forces you to slow down and think before you commit to anything. Just like a typewriter, it’s not a machine built for editing–especially editing as you go. Just write. Worry about all the other shit later.
There are some useful semi-modern features. You can bring up a running word-counter, a clock, or a timer, which display on a smaller screen underneath the bigger text window. You toggle between those using the dedicated “special” button. There’s plenty of built-in storage, too. Astrohaus doesn’t offer hard specs, but it reckons the Freewrite saves “more than a million pages.” I couldn’t type fast enough to test that claim.
The Wi-Fi features are what bridge the gap between past and present. Flip the rigid aluminum Wi-Fi switch to “new,” and the screen shows available access points. Type the number next to one of them to form a connection. Hitting the “send” button to the right of the space bar saves your latest update online, and it also delivers a PDF copy of your work to your email inbox.
To set up your cloud preferences, you’ll need to use a machine that can run a browser. Freewrite uses their own syncing service, dubbed Postbox, as a liaison. You can use any email address as a repository for all your writing.1
Anything saved with the Wi-Fi enabled goes to your email address, and you can have those files copied as .docx or plain text documents to Google Drive, Dropbox, and Evernote. One minor frustration is that the syncing is a one-way street: You can save updates from the Freewrite to the cloud, but you can’t pull docs from the cloud to the Freewrite.
Freewrite also saves everything locally and automatically. Each time you fire up the machine, you can pick up right where you left off. If you want to write away from a reliable router–in a park, on a plane, in a Faraday cage–just use the local storage and hit the “send” key when you’re connected.
That’s also the only way to bypass the browser-based login pages you find in public hotspots. The Freewrite can’t handle those. It’s something to think about before heading to a coffee shop with it, but only if you absolutely need immediate online backups.
Less Is More (Annoying Sometimes)
There’s another reason to avoid public places with this thing. While the Freewrite eliminates browser-based distractions, it attracts attention in and of itself. It mutes the siren song of Twitter, Slack, and Facebook, but a stream of curious, mustachioed admirers may interrupt you to ask “oooh, what is that thing?” If you don’t want to be distracted by anything, use it in private. If you want to spark a hipster romance, use it in public.
I ended up doing a full day’s work on the Freewrite, and the writing experience was exceptional: Without any blinking tabs or social streams to contend with, writing felt a lot less like work. It was relaxing, quiet, meditative. The keyboard is phenomenal, and the cursor doesn’t even blink. I didn’t miss what wasn’t there. It made me resent the new normal.
But there are a lot of different kinds of writers, and the Freewrite serves only some of them. Writing a novel or a screenplay or a memoir? It is perfect. For jobs where Slack, email, and doing web research are crucial, you’ll obviously need to juggle devices. That’s frustrating.
As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t completely cut myself off from the web while using it. I kept my phone next to the Freewrite like a disembodied browser window, toggling between Slack updates and my email inbox. They soon became gateway drugs. I found myself spiraling right back into the mobile-web rabbit hole. That’s not the Freewrite’s fault–It does exactly what it sets out to do. Alas, it doesn’t have pause or rewind buttons for the rest of the world.
1 UPDATE 7/18/2016: This story was updated to eliminate confusion regarding Freewrite’s “Postbox” syncing system and an email service called Postbox. Any email address can be used with Freewrite, and a Postbox account isn’t required.