The Freewrite Traveler is a retro word processor that’s fatally ahead of its time
Gadget crowdfunding is great for fulfilling niche demands. Most people, for instance, would never buy a $599 Wi-Fi-enabled typewriter. But in 2016, a Detroit-based startup called Astrohaus proved that not only could such a thing exist, but it could be a 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 can’t back that promise up.
Astrohaus is the creator of the Freewrite, a chunky word processor with a modern mechanical keyboard, wireless syncing options, and an E Ink screen. Today, the company starts shipping the Freewrite Traveler, a lighter laptop-like alternative. The Traveler is temporarily discounted to $429, but it will ultimately retail for $599, the same price as the Freewrite. For that price, you get a 1.6-pound notebook with a single purpose: letting you type words and send them to a Dropbox, Google Drive, Evernote, or dedicated Freewrite cloud storage account.
If the original Freewrite is a high-tech typewriter, the Traveler is an updated AlphaSmart or Psion Series 5. It’s just big enough to accommodate its full-sized scissor-switch keyboard and low-power screen, about half the width and weight of a 13-inch MacBook Pro — small enough to fit in a moderately sized purse.
The hardware feels light but not fragile, with a black plastic top that’s a magnet for fingerprints but closes firmly over the bright white interior. Its unobtrusive design feels more like a late-’00s netbook than a modern laptop, and that’s actually a welcome change from the delicate glass and metal slabs I’m used to carrying.
I got an original Freewrite for Christmas a few years ago. While it’s billed as a distraction-free experience for all kinds of writing, I mostly enjoy using it to write fiction without the temptation of self-editing. (Full disclosure: I didn’t write this review on a Freewrite or a Traveler.) Most of all, I keep coming back to Astrohaus’ solid and unique design. It’s far from necessary, but it’s a clever and well-made splurge for people who are just really, really into words.
The Traveler has two key advantages over the Freewrite: it’s easier to carry, and you can use it in public without feeling criminally pretentious. Otherwise, its writing workflow is pretty similar. Documents are organized into three folders, so you can swap between three drafts at a time. If you’ve turned on the device’s Wi-Fi, it will periodically sync these to a cloud storage inbox that you can access from an ordinary computer. You can also hit a “Send” key to email your currently active draft to yourself as a rich text file. It’s nearly seamless and infinitely easier than transferring an actual vintage word processor file to a modern computer.
The Traveler adds a couple of new software features — primarily the option to move your cursor around a document, rather than forcing users to either erase mistakes with the backspace key or forge straight ahead like they’d do on a traditional typewriter. It’s still inconvenient enough to discourage heavy editing, and you can’t copy and paste text, only insert or delete words. But it’s helpful for going back to fix typos or add a thought to an earlier paragraph.
The interface doesn’t feel quite as elegantly simple as before. The cursor is controlled by hitting W, A, S, or D in conjunction with one of the “New” keys, which is a slightly strange combination when the keyboard includes more intuitively labeled “special” and “alt” keys. (I read the correct combination in the manual and it still feels wrong.) The original Freewrite used a satisfying physical toggle to swap between folders, but the Traveler uses three tiny buttons that don’t indicate which draft is currently active.
The Traveler doesn’t have the luxurious heft of the original Freewrite, either. Its scissor-switch keys feel perfectly fine for a laptop — especially if you’re used to Apple’s shallow butterfly keyboard. But they’re not as much fun to hit as the Freewrite’s Cherry mechanical switches. Meanwhile, its lightweight design is great for carrying, but it doesn’t sit as firmly in your lap.
The overall Traveler experience feels, well, like 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 for one thing: the screen.
The Freewrite’s E Ink display has always been a trade-off. It’s lower contrast and has a much slower refresh rate than an LCD panel. (To get a sense of the delay, imagine typing on a desktop computer with its memory overloaded.) But it lets the device last for weeks on a single charge, and if you’re a proficient touch-typist — basically Astrohaus’ precise target demographic — you may not need to watch the screen while you’re typing anyway.
Even by that standard, though, the Traveler feels especially compromised. Astrohaus removed a backlight that was built into the original Freewrite screen, and in low light, you’re stuck peering at a dim gray-on-gray window. Meanwhile, the original matte finish has been replaced with a pane of highly reflective plastic, so using it in bright directional light is almost as bad.
Astrohaus says it cut the backlight to keep the screen thin and the price down, which makes sense, since $599 is already pushing the upper limits of reasonability. But the limited screen undercuts the take-anywhere promise of its new design. The Traveler gets its particular job done, but it often doesn’t feel good — and for such an expensive, specialized device, that removes a major part of its appeal.
With a better screen and a permanently lower price, the Freewrite Traveler would be a great little experiment in single-purpose electronics. As it stands, it’s an interesting experiment, but one that Astrohaus just can’t pull off with its current technical limitations. The Freewrite Traveler may have retro appeal, but paradoxically, it feels fatally ahead of its time.