Monday, June 24, 2024
Gadgets

Freewrite Alpha review: Distraction-free writing


Getting tasks completed is unarguably a great feeling, and getting them done easily is an even better one. While there are more tools than ever to make tasks more efficient, from managing our health or finding information, there are some problems that even good gadget can’t “quick fix.”



Our ability to focus, whether it’s on work or something we enjoy, is constantly being challenged by the world around us. There’s a whole cottage industry of products and strategies trying to address this, like apps for blocking specific websites while you’re working, built-in features in smartphones for tracking how long you spend looking at your screen, even a growing trend of people turning to older tech that inherently does less. These devices can all help regain some focus, but how much they actually work depends on the person.


Astrohaus’ Freewrite Alpha applies that same “give less to get more” logic to writing. Like a note-taking tablet with an E Ink screen, it threads the needle of being a deliberately limited tool for typing out text, while still being smart enough to do some things on the internet, like automatically syncing your files over Wi-Fi. It does all of that, while giving you fewer apps, websites, and notifications, and more time getting your thoughts out.


The Alpha is a dedicated writing machine that, like Astrohaus’ other Freewrites models, harkens back directly to devices like the AlphaSmart, the original portable word processor. It’s got its fair share of quirks, but if you can learn to love them, I think it could do a lot to change your relationship with writing.

A white speckled Freewrite Alpha with a grey keyboard and LCD display at the top.

Freewrite Alpha

The Freewrite Alpha is a portable, distraction-free, digital typewriter with a great keyboard and easy syncing between local storage and your cloud storage service of choice.

Pros

  • Keyboard is a joy to type on
  • LCD display is a surprising improvement on E Ink
  • Write now, edit later strategy really works
Cons

  • Expensive, all things considered
  • Plastic doesn’t feel durable

Price, specs, and availability

The Freewrite Alpha started as an Indiegogo project in 2022 and only just recently started shipping out to backers. You don’t have to have been an early bird to get one — Astrohaus is selling the Freewrite Alpha directly on its website, and as of the time of writing, they’re available to ship immediately.


At $349, the Alpha feels more than a little pricey for what it does. If you want to do the math, you can get a far more capable tablet for the same price and theoretically pull off similarly focused writing sprints with the right app. In this case, you’re paying for the specifics of the Alpha’s design, the keyboard, the battery life, the glare-free display, and lovely Raven Black or Speckled White finishes.

Freewrite Alpha

Brand
Astrohaus

Battery
Approximately 10 hours of running time

Ports
USB Type-C for charging and data transfer

Display type
164mm x 25mm anti-glare FSTN LCD

Size
Full-sized keyboard with Kailh Choc V2 low profile tactile switches

Measurements
12.6 x 8.5 x 0.8 inches

Weight
1.6 pounds

The white and gray Freewrite Alpha on a black coffee table.

A toy-like and friendly design

The Freewrite Alpha looks like a wedge of plastic with a mechanical keyboard and a tiny display built-in. Its polycarbonate body is so simple and lightweight at 1.6 lbs that it practically feels like a toy, a sensation that works for and against the Freewrite Alpha.


Compared to Astrohaus’ sturdy metal Freewrite Smart Typewriter and clamshell Freewrite Traveler, the Alpha sits somewhere in the middle in terms of size and portability. It also has two nice additions: a built-in palm rest and a kickstand. Overall, you’re getting most of Astrohaus’ ideas about what makes a good tool for writing in a cheaper package.


The Freewrite Alpha viewed from the side.

Questionable build quality

Unfortunately, the same thing that makes the Freewrite Alpha more portable and approachable also makes it feel less premium. Plastic naturally has more give than aluminum, and I found that depending on where I propped the Alpha up to write, and what parts of its body I applied pressure to, the top and bottom halves of the device would ever so slightly separate along the seams.


This didn’t impact my ability to keep writing, and applying a little bit of pressure got them to stick back together, but it was concerning to say the least. My Freewrite Alpha was from an early batch, so there’s every possibility this is a one-off issue or something that’s already been fixed with later Alphas that have been made, but it seemed worth mentioning.


I really enjoyed the Alpha’s built-in kickstand — the angle is particularly good if you’re sitting at a table or desk — but I did frequently wish I had more angles and heights I could elevate the Freewrite to. The Alpha is so easy to move around, you could easily prop it up on a leg or some books, but more options would make it even more comfortable to type on.


A refreshingly different display

Up until this point, Astrohaus had been a devoted follower of E Ink. Both the Freewrite Smart Typewriter and Traveler feature readable, backlit E Ink screens. The Alpha is the first of the company’s writing machines to use something completely different, and fittingly, older.


The Alpha uses a simple FSTN LCD. It looks like one you might find on a calculator or a thermometer with black text on a gray background. Like E Ink it’s highly legible indoors and out, with wide viewing angles, but unlike those black and white screens, it refreshes instantaneously, without the ghosting that’s an unavoidable feature of E Ink.


This makes typing feel faster, letting you see your words as soon as you type them, and saving power, extending the battery life for days and days (I haven’t charged the Alpha since I got it, and it’s been nearly two weeks) in much the same way E Ink does. More specifically, in those two weeks, I wrote for 14 hours and only saw the battery go from 100% to 90%.


The only real downside is that Astrohaus gave the Alpha a small, rectangular display that only lets you see a few lines of text at once, and it’s not backlit, which means you’ll need a separate light source if you’re going to use it in the dark. These are manageable trade-offs, and in some part deliberate because of Astrohaus’ “write now, edit later” philosophy that wants you to not worry about mistakes, but they’re another place where the price of the Alpha chafes against its features.

A spring-y keyboard

I have no issue with my MacBook Pro’s keyboard, but the firmness of the keyboard on the Alpha, and the springy-ness of its keys, make it hard to give up. The experience of burning through a few hundred words is very pleasant when you’ve got a keyboard this good.


The Kailh Choc V2 switches might not be for everyone, but I think they were a great middle-ground to pick for the Alpha and will especially stand out if you’ve only ever used a membrane keyboard. My only real complaint with the Alpha is the keyboard feels a little bit cramped. I found the distance between the keys and the Alpha’s built-in palm rest to be a little close. Not in a way that prevented me from typing at a steady clip, but it could have been more comfortable.

Multi-functionality at its finest

The Alpha’s simplicity also means that the keys have to serve multiple functions. Hold down the spacebar for a few seconds and you can pull up the Alpha’s heads-up display that shows your current word count, how long you’ve been writing, your Wi-Fi network, and the last time your document was saved. The Alpha has a key labeled “New” that both creates a new document and acts as a function key that turns WASD into arrow keys. There are a few of the shortcuts, like those I just mentioned, you’ll have to memorize if you really want to fly on the Alpha.


The top left corner of the Freewrite Alpha with power button and keys visible.

Simple software

The Freewrite Alpha runs a very simple operating system, so simple most of the time it’s just a text field you type into. There are menus for connecting to Wi-Fi, adjusting the font size, and updating the firmware, but most of the Alpha is about your text and what you do with it. You can delete drafts off of local storage with an option called “Shred”, “Archive” a draft to Astrohaus’ Postbox cloud storage service, or send it to the email address attached to your account. That’s basically it.


On Postbox, you can set up syncing to third-party cloud services like Google Drive or Dropbox, print drafts, or edit them in Astrohaus’ Sprinter web editor. There isn’t much more to it, and you get all of that functionality without having to pay for an extra subscription.

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Using the Freewrite Alpha

If you’re used to writing with dozens of browser tabs and multiple windows open, shifting to the solitary focus of the Alpha can be quite an adjustment. Where the limitations and playfulness of the device works in your favor — at least in my experience — is making the act of sitting down and writing feel low-commitment. With a keyboard so light, why shouldn’t I take it with me to knock out a few hundred words in my spare time? If I can only see the last sentence and a half of what I’ve written, why would I worry about typos or repeating myself?

If you can wrap your head around it, you truly do get more done writing first and worrying about whether it all makes sense later.

A unique style

That style isn’t suited to every type of writing or writer, however. For a research-heavy article, or a piece of writing that’s meant to be short, it really isn’t practical to pull out the Freewrite Alpha. You’ll almost always end up adding extra steps, copying a draft from Postbox into another word processor, editing it, and then pasting it somewhere else to publish it. I wrote this review on the Freewrite Alpha, but not without outlining the whole thing first on a Supernote A6X 2 Nomad. It’s a much better fit for purely creative writing, where you really can vomit out a bunch of ideas and go back in a few days and delete the stuff that doesn’t make sense. The Freewrite Alpha is a first-draft device more than a complete writing device.


A hand holding the Freewrite alpha over a black coffee table.

Freewrite Alpha: Final verdict

The Freewrite Alpha’s $349 price tag turns heads, but when you take into account the excellent keyboard, charming design, dozens of days of battery life, and overall ease of use, I think it starts to make more sense.

A white speckled Freewrite Alpha with a grey keyboard and LCD display at the top.

Freewrite Alpha

Recommended

The Alpha is the most approachable dedicated writing tool Astrohaus has made. That doesn’t mean it’s for everyone, but it’s for way more people than it’s ever been, and if you’ve ever fantasized about writing a novel or screenplay, this tool (paired with actual time to sit and write) could be a big help in getting the words out.



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