If you marry an Amazon Kindle-sized e-ink display with a desktop keyboard, you get something like the Freewrite, a reimagined typewriter that seeks to free serious writers from an avalanche of internet-based distractions.
Now Astrohaus, the startup behind the Freewrite, is introducing a second product—a laptop of sorts—that aims to shed a few less-than-necessary accoutrements of the Freewrite and combine everything good about it into a much smaller package that you can easily carry with you in a purse or backpack.
It’s called the Traveler, and at first glance you might think it looks absurdly silly. The entire laptop shares the footprint of the keyboard, which makes it long and slender when it’s closed. Open the cover as you would any other laptop, and a slab of white plastic greets you instead of a color LCD you’d expect to find.
In the middle of the white plastic rectangle is a square e-ink display, the exact same type used by e-readers like the Kindle. It’s broken up into two parts: The larger upper section is where you type your manuscript, while the bottom section can display basic information like a word count or a timer to keep track of how long you’ve been writing.
As you type, your words are automatically uploaded via Wi-Fi to your Dropbox, Evernote, or Google Drive account. Other than typing, the functionality on the Traveler is limited to choosing a cloud folder in which to save your work, adjusting Wi-Fi settings, and viewing basic information on the bottom half of the screen. That’s it. There isn’t even an option for copy and paste, spell check, or text formatting like italics and bold type.
This intentionally limited functionality is the key appeal of the Freewrite, Astrohaus co-founder Adam Leeb told PCMag. The company estimates that people have used the Freewrite to write more than 45 million words since regular production started in 2016.
But that device is essentially a modern-day typewriter. It’s big and bulky, with almost comically giant levers for adjusting the Dropbox folder you’re currently using or turning the Wi-Fi radio on and off. Leeb saw the opportunity for a more portable folding design that keeps the essential parts of the Freewrite while jettisoning some of its bulk and gimmicks.
As a result, the Traveler weighs less than 2 pounds, far lighter than the weight of common ultraportable laptops like the 13-inch Apple MacBook Pro, which hover around the 3-pound mark. In the process of slimming down, the Astrohaus designers ditched the giant levers, replacing them with more discrete buttons for cycling through folders and adjusting the Wi-Fi.
No Mechanical Keyboard
Unfortunately, they also had to jettison one of the Freewrite’s key selling points: its mechanical keyboard, complete with Cherry MX Brown key switches. Instead, the Traveler uses a scissor-switch design modeled loosely on the iconic Lenovo ThinkPad keyboards. During a brief demo, I found the keys comfortable, with plenty of travel, though not quite as pleasing to type on as a standalone mechanical keyboard.
There’s a lithium-ion rechargeable battery, just like the ones in conventional laptops, which is rated to last for about four weeks assuming you type on the Traveler for about an hour per day. In addition to cloud syncing, you can also plug the device into an actual computer using the included USB cable to drag and drop your files.
Much of the rest of the Freewrite tech remains identical, including the e-ink display. It makes for a strange typing experience, since its pokey refresh rate means there’s a noticeable lag between when your finger strikes a key and when a character shows up on the screen. If you’ve ever turned an ebook’s page in a Kindle, you know what I mean. The screen is also rather small compared with the Traveler’s body, Leeb admitted, but making it any wider to fill the rest of the display lid would have meant “supply chain issues,” as he put it.
Put more directly, the Traveler is expensive to make, which means that like the $599 Freewrite, at face value it will be absurdly expensive for what it is. Astrohaus plans to use a crowdfunding approach to gauge interest, so pre-orders for the Traveler will start at $269, but the full price will be the same $599 as its big brother. When you consider that you can get a full-featured Windows laptop for less than $500, the Traveler starts to look like an awfully dubious proposition.
On the other hand, if you’re tempted to laugh off the device as overpriced hipster gear, you’re missing the point, according to Leeb. “We’re getting writers coming from MacBooks,” he explained. That is, people who are frustrated by the discomfort of typing on a laptop’s keys, and distracted by its excellent web browser, email client, and social media apps.
Getting rid of all of this software while dramatically boosting typing comfort (though admittedly not by as much as the original Freewrite boosts it) could be worth far more than $599, especially if your income is directly linked to your writing productivity.