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Review: Freewrite Traveler

First Impressions


I am composing the draft of this blog post on a Freewrite Traveler1, which is kind of a small e-ink typewriter the size of a large pocketbook made by Astrohaus.

I was gifted the device this week by my friend vilmibm who is downsizing because they “have too many computers.” Thanks, vilm!2

I booted it up and configured it last night. The online docs are good: between the FAQ, the Quickstart guide, and the In Depth guide, I was able to figure everything out, including changing the keyboard layout to Colemak, which was a relief because I wouldn’t have been able to use the thing if it was qwerty only. It seems to support quite a different few layouts in fact.

This morning I used it to compose a newsy email to my family, which is something we used to do a lot before falling prey to the siren’s call of more shortform communication like texting and instant video calling via marco polo3. Mostly for the benefit of my grandparents, who didn’t text or social media, and who barely could manage email.

Anyway, typing on the traveler is merely okay. The keys are kind of squishy. The non-traveler version has mechanical keys, but these ones are some kind of scissor-switch membrane. The display lags behind my typing speed quite a lot, which is usually okay because I can touch type, and can usually feel when I’ve made a typo and need to back up to make a correction.

Which brings me to what is probably my greatest difficulty with the thing: editing. First of all, I feel hindered without vimkeys and simple movements like ‘beginning of line’ and ‘end of line’. What I get is forward/backward by character or by word. And I think that’s it!4

This is kind of painful, but I think it will eventually lead to an acceptable workflow of 1) draft on the traveler, 2) edit later in vim, where I can revise and refine, efficiently edit text, use a spellchecker, etc.

I can already feel myself adjusting to this draft + edit flow while typing this, choosing to ignore small typos in favor of just fixing them later, and using this time instead to just get the words out.

The space bar seems a little sticky at times. Sometimes I don’t quite nail it and omit a space between words. Other times it seems to randomly insert two spaces between words or at the end of a sentence.

The screen is smallish but adequate. It seems to be about 60 characters wide and 12 lines long. I haven’t measured it, but it seems to be about as wide as, and about half as tall as, the screen on my old Kindle.

There’s a much smaller info screen below the main screen on which you can toggle through a few different displays like a clock, a word count, and a timer. I actually toggle through these quite a bit.

There is a very simple but surprisingly effective system for organizing drafts: there are three “folders”, A, B, and C. There’s a physical button for each, so you can click into different contexts. They have no meaning or semantics aside from what you give them in your head. So far, I’ve arbitrarily designated C as “Correspondence”, B for “Blogs?”, and A awkwardly as “All of everything else…”

You have the ability to quick jump between drafts in a folder with a keyboard shortcut, or enter a rudimentary file manager to do basic operations like moving docs to different folders, archiving, etc.5

Finally there’s the issue of getting your content off the thing, which I think you can do in one of three ways.

  1. For a 100% offline workflow I think you can plug it into your computer and manage it as a mass storage device. But I haven’t noticed it actually show up in Finder as a drive as of yet.

  2. It auto-syncs (when wifi is on) your docs to Postbox, an online service from Autohaus for just this purpose. And from there you can continue writing in their online editor6, or sync your content to a service like google drive, dropbox, or evernote.7

  1. There’s a “send” button right there on the keyboard! It will send your current draft to your email as a txt file and as a pdf. (This is what I did to send my email to my family this morning: send to email, copy to a new message, edit slightly, send.)

Finally, unenumerated option number four, you can just copy and paste the text from postbox into your text editor, which is what I did for this post because I didn’t want to bother with the unnecessary intermediary step of syncing to the cloud or sending to email.

In conclusion, those are my first impressions of the Freewrite Traveler. Writing on it is a little clunky. I have some vim muscle memory to overcome. (I keep trying to hit escape whenever I pause in my thoughts.) But it’s good enough. In fact, I quite like it! I think it excels at what it claims to do, which is provide focused, distraction-free writing. I’ll continue to use it for correspondence and to draft blog posts for a while and we’ll see how it goes!

  1. And now due to the magic of time travel, I am now as expected revising and editing this post back at my computer in the comfort of my trusty, tried and true vim setup. (The limitations of the Traveler as an editing device will be explained as you read on.) I kind of don’t mind this workflow to be honest. The Traveler remains a solid distraction-free way to brain dump and get your words out, making proofing and editing a separate task.↩︎

  2. This seems like the only good place to mention something important should you be considering purchasing your own Traveler: I strongly suggest you not purchase it new. It’s simply not worth the $500-$600 price tag. If you can get it used for, say, $100-$200 then sure go for it. For what it is, I don’t think it should cost much more than an e-reader.↩︎

  3. This is a review of the Traveler, not of Marco Polo, but seriously Marco Polo is great. For some reason it just clicks for my family and it allows us to all stay consistently in touch in ways we haven’t been able to probably since we all lived in the same house.↩︎

  4. I was shocked to learn that even this small amount of editing is apparently a relatively new feature! Originally there was no cursor control available whatsoever! This would have majorly soured my opinion of the device. As is, I am already dissatisfied with its edit functions.↩︎

  5. I think that a folder based workflow is really going to be the thing here. Especially since you can set up syncing on a per-folder basis.↩︎

  6. But this apparently breaks the ability to sync back to your Traveler?↩︎

  7. The sync options are deeply unsatisfying for me. I stopped using dropbox a while ago after they limited syncing to only three devices. I don’t want all my drafts showing up in Google Drive. And I don’t use Evernote. I’d love it if Autohaus provided a webhook or something so you could push to an arbitrary sync server or, ideally, a git repo somewhere. I think the least bad solution for me right now is to repurpose one of my folders (A = “All… ready for review?”) to sync to google drive, and just move docs to that folder when I’m ready to edit them. I still kind of hate that though, the idea of all these drafts syncing to google…

    Further note: in the docs, Autohaus recommends never editing your drafts on google or on dropbox. They apparently don’t have two-way sync figured out yet. Their recommendation is to copy the contents of your drafts into a separate “master document” and then edit the there.↩︎