I (or, rather, my hubby) was one of the early backers of the Freewrite, back when it was known as the Hemingwrite. It’s been a bumpy year and a half, but my machine (a belated birthday present) finally arrived late last week.
It’s a nice bit of kit and the keyboard is a joy to type on. But, as a past IT Project Manager who has a husband who was also an IT Project Manager, if there’s a case study of how not to do software, the Freewrite is it.
Firstly, there is an SDK (Software Development Kit) with the Freewrite, so that means that the creators are opening up the architecture for future tweaks. This is good. But I can’t help feeling that the creators are using the SDK as a way of dodging their own responsibilities.
From the beginning, the Hemingwrite (as it was known) was designed to emulate Ernest Hemingway’s way of writing; i.e. one draft, with no editing allowed beyond the use of a Backspace key. The assumption here is that if it was good enough for Hemingway, it’s good enough for us. Yet, what if Hemingway were around today? Would he still be content with such a limited feature? It’s like saying a company is selling a replica 1932 Chevrolet but, as the original didn’t come with air-conditioning, the modern replica won’t come with climate control either. To be honest, with the current state of technology, such statements are little more than a dodge.
Delay. I’m lucky in that I hardly look at the screen while I’m typing. By now, after decades of touch typing, my fingers know when they’ve misspelt a word better than I do. However, I understand that this isn’t the case for many other writers. And, for them, the time lag between when they press a key and when it turns up on the screen must be very frustrating. Considering that the Freewrite (as it’s now called) was ostensibly made with writers in mind, this borders on unforgivable.
The nagging. The Freewrite was created to be a distraction-free environment. It has wifi capability so that you can sync to the cloud but, obviously, having the wifi feature on all the time drains the battery. Prudent writers would turn it off while typing their draft. Prudent writers would also get incessantly nagged via a status message about the wifi being turned off. Not so distraction-free now, is it?
Security. There are lots of reasons to use wifi. There are also legitimate reasons not to. And, for those writers who tend to be a bit on the paranoid side, they would say that not using wifi is mandatory. So, is there any other way to get your documents off the machine not using wifi? Not yet. The Freewrite didn’t even come with that most basic of functionalities…the ability to plug your machine into your computer and have it appear as a mass storage device, even though this was listed as an initial feature. (I hear it’s coming in a future update which, again, when it was touted as initial functionality is unforgivable.)
Moving on with security, one contributor at the Freewrite support site has set up his network with very fine granularity, enabling router throughput only for devices with specific MAC addresses. Considering that the Freewrite touts wifi as one of its premier features (would Ernest have approved, I wonder), he would like to add the Freewrite’s MAC address to his router configuration. Can he find it without using third-party apps? Three guesses.
Cloud. Another thing I dislike is the Postbox cloud service. It’s here that you can see all the documents you’ve typed (and synced) with your Freewrite. You can send documents from your Postbox to Evernote, Google or Dropbox. Yet, who has access to your Postbox? What is the size limit? What about encryption?
A PDF of your document can also be emailed to your designated email address if you press the “Send” button on the machine. Do you know what this means? You type one document in your Freewrite, and it can appear in several different places. Unless you’re a very organised writer, this can easily translate into Versioning Hell as, a month down the track, you try to remember where the latest version of your document resides. There’s an old software adage that goes: KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid). This does not mean having several versions of the same document (with no title!) hanging around in Dropbox, Google Docs, your machine and on Postbox. Pick one strategy and stick to it!
Syncing. Let’s say you’re in love with your Freewrite. You can listen to its clickety-clacks all day. But there’s just one teensy thing you need to check, so you use Postbox to send your document to Google Docs so you can check something in the library. Aha! Found it. You correct the word/concept/sentence in Google Docs and now want to send it back to your Freewrite so you can click and clack away again. Not so fast. The synchronisation is only one-way. That’s right, the Freewrite is dumber than the cheapest phone you can buy anywhere.
No way of getting out of Versioning Hell. No, no, you’re saying. A quick way of getting out of Versioning Hell is to number your documents in some way, idiot Kaz! Maybe put a date at the top. Duh! At the risk of repeating myself, not so fast. Not only do you not have the ability to give your documents titles, the Freewrite only allows the chemical method of changing what’s at the beginning. (The chemical (attack) method is slower than the nuclear method, but just as deadly.) To put it another way, you use Backspace/New+Backspace key to erase every letter/word you’ve written.
That’s right, the Freewrite does not allow you to even modify the first line of your document to identify it. The only way you can get to the first line of your text is by backspacing over every line that came after it. They tell me that’s the way Ernest wrote but, by now, you can see that they only pull ole Ernie out of the hat when it suits them.
Working in sections. Let’s say you’re a writer of non-fiction. You don’t want to go through Versioning Hell, so you do the right thing and divide your book into chapters and work on each chapter independently. I’m doing that with a non-fiction I’m writing at the moment. The Freewrite gives you three folders. Using the New+PgUp and New+PageDn keys, you can scroll through all the documents within a given folder, but how tedious! And you need to know the last sentence you wrote in order to identify which chapter you’re working on. If you want to see the beginning of a given document, you can use the PgUp and PgDn keys, but all these problems could have gone away if there was the ability to list the documents in a folder. And the ability to give each document a title.
The name. But all of the above pales into insignificance next to the name. The “Free”write.
I’m a Linux user. I use Linux because I passionately believe in freedom. Freedom to use my computer how I want to. Freedom to take whatever stand I wish against whichever corporate interests I despise (and I despise quite a few). The Freewrite takes this definition of “free” and throws it into the bin.
- You are “free” to write…as long as you sync your documents to a cloud you know nothing about.
- You are “free” to write…as long as you don’t want to do anything pesky, like changing a word three lines back or creating footnotes.
- You are “free” to write…as long as you don’t want to copy your documents to your PC via a USB cable.
- And you are free to delete a document (kinda)…as long as you do it via the chemical method. Yes, the Freewrite doesn’t even give you the facility to delete your own draft. Not on your machine and not in the cloud. The best you can do is change a mistake into a completely blank document by hammering that Backspace key like there’s no tomorrow. Imagine having a few zombie documents cluttering up your Postbox account. Lovely.
Putting hardware together is relatively easy. Oh yes it is. It’s how you run the thing that sets you apart from the competition. What was happening while one of the creators was in China, overseeing production? Were the team members who were left in the United States doing anything for one-and-a-half years? And in case anyone wonders how to develop software on a shoestring, I would add that Google has Summer of Code; KDE has Sprints. There are many other examples. Would it have been too much trouble to open up a “Summer of Freewrite” or “Freewrite Sprint” for local and international Comp Sci students to participate in?
The Freewrite isn’t cheap. For almost US$500, I would have expected something with decent functionality. Instead, I feel as if I’ve been inserted into a straitjacket.
For a writer, as a writer, I would have expected, at the very least:
- The ability to play/mute sound effects to accompany the typing. I’m writing this post on FocusWriter, for example, and it has dandy manual typewriter sound effects for every time I press a key or hit Return. (I can turn them off if I like, but I don’t like.) It, too, is a distraction-free writing environment, but Jenn Gott hasn’t taken all of the fun out of things. Hold on, I’m about to hit Enter…Ah, there we go! I love the sound of manual carriage returns. It makes me very happy to type on this application, which is donationware. And you get a whole lot of functionality for a minimum tip of US$5. The Freewrite looks gorgeous, but it’s not fun.
- A directory listing of a given folder to appear the moment two documents have been created in it.
- The ability to delete documents, both from the machine and from the cloud.
- A PDF that actually contains line breaks as written on the Freewrite. (At the moment, anything you send to yourself is just one, continuous screed. As this was a named feature, didn’t anybody test this?)
- Functionality to cater for non-fiction, as well as fiction.
- Basic formatting/markdown. I thought the Freewrite included this, but I can’t seem to find the page. Maybe it does, I’ll need to investigate.
- Better documentation. Besides the self-congratulatory note (example: “Welcome to the best writing experience”), a few more technical details wouldn’t go astray. From the tone of the guides available, the Freewrite creators absolutely refuse to acknowledge that there’s anything missing from their product:
“The Freewrite marries the best mechanical keyboard, the best epaper screen from E Ink, ultra long battery life, and seamless syncing to the cloud to provide the best possible drafting environment.”
“There is no way to delete documents from the Freewrite or from Postbox at the moment. The idea being that everything about the Freewrite is designed to make you move forward, not back.”
“Q: I don’t trust my documents in the cloud. Can I still use the Freewrite?
A: Yes, of course! You will have to go through a clumsy process that requires you to directly connect the Freewrite to your computer, but yes, it is possible to use the Freewrite completely cloud-free. However, there is a better way! Using the cloud is one of the things that makes the Freewrite (and this age of computing) really awesome.”
tl;dr For $50, I’m prepared to be an early adopter of very much reduced functionality of a given device. For $500, not so much.
For a product that was advertised for writers, the Freewrite does a meh-to-bad job on everything outside the mechanicals. Almost congratulations to the Chinese manufacturers (I say “almost” because my machine also wobbles (along the upper-left diagonal on a flat surface)); yar boo sucks to everyone else involved. Personally, I think the Freewrite will turn into a Zaurus dinosaur, kept alive only by a small group of enthusiasts. I’ll show it off the same way I show off my old Zaurus and Palm IIIx. That reminds me, I should request access to the SDK myself. Might as well have it on hand when the inevitable happens.
Want some fun writing, free of distractions? Go give Jenn Gott some love (at 1% what you’d pay for a Freewrite) at FocusWriter but, for now, give the Freewrite a miss. As an owner, it pains me to say that but, as a techie, it’s the truth.
* I’ve moved this post from the Challis Tower Books blog but didn’t want to lose the comments. Here they are:
As a non-fiction “how-to” writer, I do miss the days of really nice keyboards and simple displays. Also as a guy who writes for others, I value ASCII text output. I have a couple of Alphasmarts and (just for fun) a Tandy 102 with a NADSbox device that lets me save to SD cards!
But a recent purchase of a well-worn IBM Thinkpad (at the time, the ONLY laptop allowed on the International Space Station) and a second battery replacing the DVD drive, seems to satisfy my need for clicky keys. Puppy Linux or Mint work well with it and I don’t care about WiFi.
I was sorely tempted to get a Freewrite, but $500 would by a pretty good espresso machine, which I know I would use. And I don’t write as Hemingway did.
@Kaz Augustin: In reply to Jack Socha.
Jack, after our brief correspondence, I went to the website and found your comment there!
To any other commenters, if you get an error message while posting, please ignore. Your comment appears to come through anyway!
I’ve read the few reviews of Freewrite so far, and I must say I concur. I must add a few more observations.
1. Maybe it’s because I’m a very fast typist, but the latency lag on the screen is a real problem. It needs to be at the same speed as I type. I don’t see this viable for long-form writing, as in a novel. I’m hoping that the Freewrite guys will fix this, but I suspect the latency is a hardware issue.
2. I don’t mind the fact that it’s a drag to try going back up on the screen; it is really more of a first-draft machine. The latency is the biggest issue I’m starting to have with the Freewrite.
3. The Freewrite is supposed to be portable (or advertised as such), but nothing was provided to keep the keyboard covered and/or to prevent the keys from getting squashed if it was put into a backpack or a suitcase. The handle is lovely and the case feels rugged, *but* the keyboard is inexplicably left open to the elements. At least with laptops, the screen can be closed shut to protect the keys from getting stuck in one place. I’ve used both manual and electric typewriters, and stuck keys were occasionally a problem. They should’ve provided a *lid* at the very least.
4. At four pounds, the Freewrite is *not* that portable compared to the iPad Pro 12.9” (which I believe is 1.5 lbs) or even the MacBook Air. Sure, it’s for people who miss the typewriter, but I wonder if there is any way to make it lighter. I suspect that the metal case itself is where the weight is. Perhaps they should’ve used a lighter but very tough plastic case with a clasp in front of the keyboard so to attach the lid.
5. One of the reasons why I bought this was its four-week battery life, which would be great for the times I want to get away from city life and be lost in the woods with NO Internet and still do my writing and not worry about battery power.
What follows below is a portion of my letter to the Freewrite guys after my first hour of trying to use it.
“I understand you want to keep things to a minimum, but at the very least, the startup screen should have walked you through all of the steps. I had to go online and figure it out. Not even a PDF manual. NOT very intuitive. I don’t feel welcomed or “rewarded” for having purchased it.
It doesn’t say anything about file names and accessing the documents. How do you know which file has which story? That sorta thing would be most helpful to know. [Reviewers have talked about this “versioning problem.” I absolutely agree.]
Also, having to use Postbox via online to make changes to font size is NOT a good idea. What if I’m NOT on Wifi and need to make changes so I can see the screen better? [Let’s just say I might’ve forgotten to bring along my glasses and need to make the font size bigger. Or if my eyes get tired and I need to use a larger-sized font. When then?] This is another serious limitation of the Freewrite. This capability needs to be made local, not Wifi-based.
What about controlling the brightness of the screen? Does it have an ambient light sensor? Please don’t tell me that I have to use Postbox to adjust the screen’s brightness. What if I’m outside in the woods where I have no Wifi? Part of this product’s appeal for me was its long battery life compared to laptops. Perfect for camping, and researchers who need to write down their observations while in the field for weeks on end will appreciate this capability.
So, YES, as it stands right now, you do need to provide a print manual. I know you are probably trying to be like Apple with their minimalism, but as long as there is no help menu, the hassle of trying to figure it out via your online site may very well outweigh the positive vibe you’re trying to sell. I’m basically left on my own to figure it out. Not a good feeling when I’m dealing with a brand-new product that’s something of a new category. You need to make first-time users feel invited. Look at how Apple has unfortunately bungled the Apple Watch experience. You don’t know where or how you’re supposed to [use] the Watch compared to starting up your iPhone. This is very un-Apple-like (and a huge reason why you don’t hear a lot of people exclaiming how much they love their Apple Watches). At least with the iPhone (and the iPad, for that matter), you’re guided to go in a specific way and then voila! You’re using it like magic. This makes you feel good about having bought the product. If you want to sell a ton of Freewrites, this feel-good vibe is essential to creating positive word of mouth about the product.
Sorry if I’m so frustrated and deeply disappointed in the Freewrite after having looked forward for so long to getting it, but I have been considered a tech-savvy guy by many people. If I’m already having trouble trying to figure out where to go or get anything done, etc., imagine how other users must be feeling when they try to use the Freewrite for the first time. You may’ve lived with this product for so long that you may not realize how people totally unfamiliar with the Freewrite may have a tough time figuring it out. Trying to understand this thing is more of a distraction, and that’s not how it should be. The startup feels wholly haphazard (and cumbersome) for full functioning.
Either way, you guys have a major startup UI problem on your hands. (And yes, the Freewrite needs to be half as heavy for true portability. Think camping, where weight is everything. Think backpack travel in other countries where there isn’t wide-ranging Internet access and yet folks will need to write in their own journals, research studies, etc. Weight truly does matter if you’re going to advertise its portability.)
Otherwise I’d like to have the capability to move/store documents on a USB-C thumbdrive attached to the Freewrite. Not sure if they exist, but I wouldn’t be surprised if someone has come up with such a device already.
Simply put, the first time you turn it on, this is what should have happened:
1. Turn on the Freewrite.
2. Select “New to Freewrite?” (or something of that ilk); a few quick screens explain the knobs and red keys.
3. Log into the chosen Wifi Network.
4. Choose your preferred cloud provider.
5. Log into the selected cloud provider and be asked to create a special Freewrite folder.
6. Make font size and screen brightness adjustments if needed.
[I’d add the option of emailing myself the file when I’m done with it so I don’t have to deal with cloud issues.]
I realize that bringing the Freewrite to market has been very challenging, but please make the startup UI more straightforward and simple. Everyone, including reviewers, will thank you.
Just my two cents (and my hard-earned $384 spent on the Freewrite).”
@KS Augustin: In reply to Raymond Luczak.
Hi Raymond. I read through your comment several times to make sure it all sunk in. The “woods” scenario was one that didn’t occur to me, being the Urban Gal that I am, and you make solid points. Thanks for the very informative rider, as it will help others to evaluate the Freewrite from their own perspectives, and for taking the time to be so thorough. I hope anyone else who reads this post appreciates your input.
@Peter D Walker:
Honestly, the Freewrite would almost be palatable for me if it had arrow keys, a cursor, and a proper file system, ala. the AlphaSmart Neo.
It’s just too excessively restrictive for its own good, such that you end up battling the Freewrite’s eccentricities more than you benefit from a distraction-free environment.
Thanks for the excellent review. I considered backing the Freewrite in 2014 for my company, but now I’m really glad I didn’t. I’ll stick with my trusty $40 Neo.
@KS Augustin: In reply to Peter D. Walker.
Hey, just call me the Freewrite Trailblazer. LOL That’s what happens when you’re an early adopter…you occasionally get a turkey, but at least I’m happy you liked the review, Peter.
@Michael W Perry:
There’s not much this device does that the Alphasmart Neo and Neo 2 (no difference for writers) can’t do far better and for far less money. Schools are moving to tablets, so you can pick a Neo up on ebay for $25-30. It’s worth that just to be able to keep writing if your power goes out for more than a few hours. The Neo can store a short novel, its LCD screen works in bright sunlight, and it gets 700 hours (no typo) on three AA batteries. If you commute by bus or train, it’s great for writing in your lap. Designed for grade school kids, they are incredibly rugged too.
@Kaz Augustin: In reply to Michael W. Perry.
I think you’re right, Michael. I remember Alphasmarts from years ago but can’t get one here. Your thoughts echo that of Nate Hoffelder’s, so I may just start stalking Ebay for one. I’ve asked for a refund on my Freewrite…we’ll see what happens.
@Kaz Augustin: In reply to Nate Hoffelder, publisher of The Digital Reader.
(Hot damn, replied to the last comment (which is the next comment) under the wrong name. Sorry about that, Nate.) I wouldn’t really know; I’m not a huge Hemingway fan, tbh. Prefer Steinbeck…if I’m up against the wall and forced to name a N American writer.
Oh, and I’m on the opposite side of the world, so if this post gets a deluge of comments and people wonder why theirs isn’t appearing, it’s probably because I’m asleep. You’ll just have to wait till the sun reaches my patch of the world.