Finally, the time came to test and review one of the devices that made me interested in dedicated writing solutions in the first place – the Freewrite Traveler!
Disclaimer: The Traveler was sent to me by the Astrohaus company so I could try it out and write this review, but all the views in this article are mine, I was not reimbursed for writing, nor did Astrohaus alter the text.
A few years ago, the original device made by Astrohaus – the Hemmingwrite (later renamed to Freewrite, Smart Typewriter) piqued my interest. It launched as a Kickstarter project in 2014 and then was developed further into one of the few distraction-free writing modern products you can currently buy. That device looks and feels more like a bulky typewriter that you would like to place on your desk and never move, so I was more interested in their second design – the portable Traveler.
The device is on the expensive side (the Traveler costs almost twice what a Pomera DM30 did at launch) and is not widely adopted in Japan, so I was quite happy to get the review unit, to test it thoroughly and write this review.
The reason I’m doing this review now (the Traveler has been out for more than four years) is caused by Astrohaus’s announcement of a third device in their offer – the Alpha – which is a spiritual successor to the Alphasmart keyboards, one of which I already described in this series of articles. Hopefully, when the Astrohaus Alpha is out, I will be able to write about it too, but for now, I got to review the Traveler – probably the easiest Freewrite device to adopt for most writing folk.
The Traveler arrived new, in a simple box containing the unit, some simple pamphlets and stickers, and a USB C to A braided cable.
The Traveler is a laptop-style clamshell device that looks really like the keyboard portion of a laptop with an e-ink screen lid attached and comes at 725 grams. The closest device I can think of to compare it with form-factor-wise is the Pomera DM250 which comes at 620 grams.
The whole device (as far as I can tell) is made of plastic which is very shiny and “plasticky,” somehow more than I expected. Yes, the Traveler feels sturdy, does not creak or bend, and the screen hinges also work smoothly and comfortably, but I cannot shake this plasticky feel off somehow – more about this later. The outsides of the device are finished to a high gloss, which looks very nice indeed.
On the side of the Traveler, we get a single USB C port for charging and file access, and that’s basically it except for the screen and keyboard, of course:
The Traveler has an e-ink screen which (I think) is a 6-inch panel divided into two separate parts – the main writing surface and a status bar at the bottom.
The screen itself is good quality with great resolution (the fonts look nice and smooth) and can display gray elements too. What surprised me, however, was how dark it is – compared to a similar device – the Pomera DM30, also an e-ink text editor – the background grey of the screen seems a lot darker, and thus the text-to-background has less contrast. This is also visible if I compare the Traveler to my other e-ink devices, like a Kindle Oasis or a Supernote A5X, so it’s not like the Pomera has a unique super-bright screen.
As this is an e-ink screen, it comes with all the upsides – great visibility in sunlight, longer battery life, and print-like quality to the displayed text. If you want a writing device that’s easy on the eyes and can be used in bright environments and outdoors, the Traveler with its e-ink screen will, of course, do great! But there are downsides too – significant lag when changing contents and afterimages of what was on the screen before.
From what I saw during my use of the device, the lag is significant. Even for me, a person who has to look at their fingers when writing (I can’t touch-type), the letters are slow to appear on the screen. Sometimes when I glance up at the screen to confirm what I’m doing, the text is still being rendered. The editing and navigating are even worse, with the cursor disappearing when I move it around or not being able to predict how many letters or words I’m going to erase when pressing the DELETE key for longer. I found that I had to wait a second or more for the screen to “catch up” with what I was doing almost all the time.
I don’t know if this is a limitation in the “local refresh” functionality of the e-ink panel Astrohaus is using or a software issue, but the Pomera does handle this lag a bit better:
A comparison video for you – writing “This is some text written” and erasing “some.” Not only on the Freewrite, the cursor is hard to locate, but the way it draws things on the screen looks more glitchy too.
When it comes to the afterimages, the Traveler simply ignores them. After a bit of writing, the screen is filled with artifacts after things you have written before, especially once the text fills the screen and starts to scroll vertically. Maybe it’s because the Traveler’s screen is already a bit darker to start with, but these afterimages are less pronounced than on the Pomera, so they don’t bother me so much, but I can also understand how for some people, these can be a real eyesore.
Look at the faint lines of “afterimage” text in screen areas that should be white:
On the Pomera, again, there is a dedicated button for a full-screen refresh that can be used whenever you like, but here, as far as I can tell, the screen gets fully refreshed only on powerup and when you get into file menus and back again, etc.
The bottom part of the screen, below the divide, is a status bar that can be switched into various modes – it’s an interesting design solution I quite like, but if someone would prefer to use this real estate for text too, that’s not possible – the closest we can get to that is just disabling the status bar and leaving it empty.
Overall, as much as I like e-ink devices and can live with their quirks, the Traveler’s screen is good for basic writing but is not the best implementation I have seen on a typing machine.
Similar to the e-ink screen, the keyboard has some design and functionality choices that will be very polarising.
The keys are fairly standard size and spacing (I could touch-type on it IF I could do it at all) with matt keycaps, laser etched with letters.
The laser etching makes the legends on the keycaps tangible to touch and looks a bit on the wrong side of retro, in my opinion – the diacritic sign legends are hard to see, and the text on the “new” keys looks just bad. I’m guessing this is a cost-cutting choice so that Astrohaus can offer other keyboard layouts just by laser etching key legends of different language sets. Still, at 600USD and for a niche target market that LOVES keyboards, I think this device should be looked at as a high-grade tool – not a novelty.
The keys press down well with a satisfying weight to the depress and do not bind, but the bigger keys (shift, caps lock, etc.) tend to give strange plasticky creaking sometimes and feel a bit spongy (at least on my unit).
The function keys are what makes this keyboard unique – no arrow keys (we can access WASD arrows with a key combo), two red NEW keys, PAGE up and DOWN for reading through the text, dedicated SEND, and SPECIAL keys for unique system functions I’ll write about later.
This unique keyboard layout is supposed to encourage the writer to just do their job and write the whole text as they would do on a typewriter with as little editing and deleting as possible. The goal is to get to the end of what they have to do without disturbing the elusive Flow. Hence no dedicated arrows and no CTRL key for any pesky shortcuts.
Above this writing keyboard, we get some dedicated function keys: the power button with a status LED, WIFI operation buttons, and dedicated buttons for three work folders. These are all physical controls transplanted from the original Freewrite smart typewriter, where they are physical levers.
Some notes on the hardware:
The Traveler looks very neat in photos, and even in reality, at first glance, it’s pretty stylish – retro kitchen appliance style cool – high-gloss and a bit of chrome. Sadly, as I start paying more attention to the details, a bit of the “premium writing appliance” feel vanishes.
Have you ever seen these modern music players that try to look like cool retro radios while offering modern functionality, like Bluetooth and mp3 playback, etc.? This is just my personal take on this – the Traveler too has this plastickyness about it somehow.
It’s hard to photograph, but some of the edges are sharp and uneven (especially on the lid), the hinges seem to be only chrome-like plastic, and the bottom nameplate on my unit is already peeling off after just a month or so of use.
Also, for some reason, the plastic foil that is under the keys (where the keyboard aficionados would say a “plate” should go) was applied crookedly in my unit – it creates folds near the left side of the device, which makes the TAB, CAPS and SHIFT keys very spongy and creaky (Astrohaus staff told me after seeing the photos I sent that this flaw would have been covered by the warranty repair for a regular buyer).
The Traveler also makes weird faint whining noises that get louder when the screen refreshes – similar to very old LCD screen backlights or chargers – it’s faint, but I can hear it while I write in a silent room.
It might be a bit unfair to compare this device with the Pomera, which is made by a well-established company making complicated office supplies (like label printers and such), or to devices made by even bigger companies like Apple or HP, but in terms of hardware, the Traveler leaves me with a – Kickstarter first generation device impression.
The main goal and focus of the Freewrite devices is to get the elusive First Draft of whatever you are trying to write down as fast and seamlessly as possible. For Astrohaus, this means as few distractions as possible – no editing, no correcting, no backpedaling – just plowing straight through what has to be written and then moving this ugly and uneven nugget of a text somewhere else for polishing.
The hardware too, but mostly how the software is constructed, makes it as bothersome as possible to edit and tries to force us just to write.
The Freewrite is truly a digital equivalent of a typewriter or a pen – from what I have read, the first iterations of the smart typewriter did not even have the ability to move the cursor around and had only the BACKSPACE key for correcting mistakes.
A few years later, even though the user’s pressure softened this approach a little, the editing capabilities of the Freewrite Traveler are still limited on purpose: we get a cursor that can move around, but it’s done using a key combination, works slowly and is very unpredictable. I never know where exactly the cursor will end if I press NEW+W for UP ARROW, for example – it sometimes skips a few lines, sometimes a whole paragraph. NEW+A and NEW+D move the cursor one word at a time, LEFT or RIGHT, but this also is rather slow and unpredictable as the cursor just disappears for a second or so to appear, not exactly where I expected it.
Instead of trying to correct something, it’s often faster to erase the offending fragment using the BACKSPACE key letter by letter or use the NEW+BACKSPACE combination to erase whole words. This process is also cumbersome because of the screen lag, and sometimes holding down the key erases far more text than I expected, and I have to re-write parts of the text because – you guessed it – we have no UNDO option here either. Forget about any more sophisticated options – there is no text selection, no copy-paste functionality, and search. I think you can see the pattern here – we can only move forward to complete the draft and then export it.
The PG UP and PG DOWN keys offer a bit of help with reviewing the text we already wrote screen-by-screen. While doing this, the cursor stays where it was, so we can resume writing instantly no matter how far back the text we went. We also get a scroll bar at the bottom of the screen that helps us locate ourselves in the document.
The SPECIAL key circles through the modes of the status screen – one of my favorite software features of the Traveler. We get a clock and date, a writing timer (for timed sessions counting up from zero), date and sync status, document stats (word count, reading time), just a clock, and a blank screen. I like this status screen a lot as it is, but I would like to see even more information in some of the modes (like WiFi status and signal strength, always on battery meter with numbers of hours left, date of last changes to the file, writing speed, and so on – more options would be neat).
Pressing the SPACE key for longer gives us the battery status on the status screen and a preview of the current keyboard layout on the main one.
This brings me to the next point: keyboard layouts in various languages. One of the unique options available on Freewrite, very welcomed by people like me – writing in multiple languages – is the option to use many keyboard layouts and switching between them on the fly. I was able to add Polish and Japanese (marked as beta) layouts and write in both languages, similarly to how I can do it on my laptop. One of the status screens displays the current layout name, and you can confirm what key types what by long-pressing SPACE.
As painless as this was for typing in Polish (I was able to get all my ąśćół and such with just the NEW+SHIFT combination with no problem) then, typing in Japanese was not so smooth. I asked Kana to test the most crucial part of this – the live conversion of typed letters to kanji (Chinese characters), and she deemed the system rudimentary at best. Compare this to the Pomera, which licenses the well-known and loved ATOK Professional system and dictionary for kanji conversion, and it’s a completely different experience – some users state that it’s better than writing on the computer. So, yes, in theory, we get 60+ input languages on the Traveler, but I would be careful about the more complex input methods like Japanese.
The file system used on the Traveler is a curious one: we have three folders named A, B, and C to use – each can contain a number of .txt files (the website states: 1,000,000+ pages of drafts total). These folders can be accessed by long-pressing the dedicated A, B, and C buttons or the SPECIAL key (it opens the current folder). On this screen, we can Bookmark, Archive, Shred (delete), and Move a file between the three folders. The Shred function is self-explanatory. The Archive option deletes the document from the device and makes it available only in a special folder in the online service (on this later).
The Bookmark functionality allows us to choose some documents in a folder to a shortlist of sorts available via a NEW+PG UP or DN key combination. This is neat, if a bit slow.
My favorite thing about the file system by far is the three dedicated folder buttons on the device itself – with just a press, we can move between three currently edited files in each folder. This is very useful – I can have an article open in folder A and some random notes in folder C and be able to move between those very quickly in a way similar to ALT+TABbbing between open windows on a laptop or using the shortcut buttons on the Alphasmart Dana (there we have EIGHT dedicated document keys).
The last thing that we can do with a file that is currently open is to press the SEND key that allows us to, well, send a .PDF and .TXT copy of the content to our own e-mail address if we are connected to WiFi. I really liked this feature because it just perfectly did what it was supposed to – just a quick press, and a minute or so later, I have the e-mail on my computer – neat, efficient, and also allowing for sharing and storing texts easily.
Apart from the above functionality, the software doesn’t really offer anything else – on the device, we can only configure the WiFi connection – which is useful when using our phone as a hot-spot or syncing using public WiFi, though I really don’t know how safe the Traveler’s connection is, so maybe let’s be careful with that.
Web interface and getting our data OUT:
As the Traveler doesn’t have an SD card slot – the only way to get our text files somewhere to edit them is to use the device itself. We can either connect it to a computer using a USB C cable or let it sync to the dedicated Astrohaus service called Postbox.
Option one – the USB C cable – is useful but limited. We can copy our files onto a laptop or a smartphone (an iPhone using a Camera adapter, for example). Still, the contents are only visible as a read-only drive, so we cannot copy any files TO the Freewrite or manage them this way.
For more thorough control over the device’s settings and our created texts, we have to use the Postbox service. As far as I can tell, it’s the only method to not only get our documents synced to other file storage services (Google Drive, Dropbox, and Evernote are supported) but even to set the font size of the Traveler’s screen or manage the keyboard layouts. We can also turn on a password-protected lock screen option and turn off the famous writer’s screensaver (which I did straight away.)
The file managing section is very simple – mirroring the options that we have on the device and allowing for a simple edition of the text files in the browser using Astrohaus’s Sprinter text editor.
I like the fact that we can sync the three ABC folders to different third-party services – folder A to Google and C to Evernote, for example – this could be useful for dumping all the random stuff to Evernote but important novel chapters to Google Drive, and so on.
This is all very well, but I still can’t get over the fact that I have to log in to a proprietary web service even to change the font size of my device! I would prefer to have some settings screens on the device itself. All the devices I tested so far were able to do that.
These were my observations about what the Traveler is and what it can (and cannot) do. How it felt using it is a different story.
There are two main aspects to this device: the design and the standpoint of the people who made it.
The standpoint is clearly the idea that this device should be only used as a mind-wringing machine for writing drafts. The design follows the standpoint almost to the letter – the device forces us to do nothing but move forward with our text – no edits, no going back, just output.
I can understand the appeal of such thinking: using a really high-end but purposefully limited tool can sometimes be a very creatively liberating experience. Think of the LEICA M11 digital camera that costs 10000 USD but does not even have autofocus and is basically very barebones. The photographers who want the most “out of the way” digital photo-taking machine will buy it.
Does the Traveler work like this for typing? For me, it sadly doesn’t. I don’t think that the limitations the device imposes come with a high-quality enough typing experience that would inspire my creative process. It’s not yet the “Leica of typing” that I would like.
It might be that the way I write is not very compatible – I sometimes like to add a thing or two into a previous paragraph, cut some text and paste it later or undo something I did. As a non-native English writer, I also make a lot of mistakes that I like to fix straight in the first draft.
To work for me, the Traveler would have to have more editing options, spellchecking, faster responsiveness, etc., which contradicts the original device concept.
On the Pomera – a very similar device – I also have a fullscreen editing mode with no distractions on the screen whatsoever, but the extended functionality is there if I need it. This works a bit better for my needs.
Being forced to focus on pure output might be lifesaving and a breath of fresh air for some writers that struggle exactly with that problem, but for me, it does the opposite – it induces stress because I have to fight with the device to get things done and distracts me as I try to remember the mistakes I did to fix them later on my laptop.
This is my personal opinion only, but for me, Astrohaus’s approach smells similar to the “real draftsmen don’t use erasers” or “real watercolor painters don’t need opaque paint to cover mistakes,” and so on.
Would I buy one?
There are many great things about the Traveler:
- good keyboard for a portable dedicated writing device
- great visibility and low eyestrain of the e-ink display
- ease of use when just writing a draft
- painless syncing files
But the downsides are also very stark:
- lack of basic features caused by the device’s philosophy
- annoying lag and refresh of the screen, sluggishness of the interface
- manufacturing quality that does not feel “premium” to me
- proprietary online service for file and device options management
As far as I can get used to the two first downsides I listed (the features and screen), the overall “first-generation” feel of the device is something that would likely make me quite a bit sour about my purchase if I bought the Traveler for its full price plus the shipping cost to Japan. Also, I don’t particularly appreciate being locked into a proprietary system without any alternatives.
That said – when I’m writing on the Traveler and actually get into the flow of just getting the words out of my head and onto the screen – the device’s magic kicks in, and I forget about my complaints. The device works well for this style of writing. And I’m very glad a modern, cool-looking, dedicated tool for writers like this exists! But whenever I find myself needing to do anything more than just write – I’m reminded about its quicks and downsides. I’ll stick to my Pomera DM250 for now and continue waiting for the Freewrite Alpha, which might just improve the screen problems and make typing more exciting with mechanical key switches too.
I would like to thank Astrohaus for providing this review unit without any pressure, so I was able to just say what I thought here. Thank you!
9 thoughts on “Retro Writing 14 – Traveler at last.”
I’ve always scoffed at these “distraction free” writing platforms and see no reason to stop. It seems to me that a good pen/pencil and pads of paper (or notebook to be mobile) do the job quite well. Having to rewrite drafts results IMO in better output. Rewriting means a chance for rethinking.
To go distraction-free on a laptop, you can just turn off wifi.
These devices really seem to be a solution in search of a problem that doesn’t exist.
Szkoda, że taki ładny sprzęt jest tak niedopracowany.
Ja już bym chciał używać ekranów e-ink na codzień a tu wieczne problemy z oprogramowaniem. W moim przypadku jest to stary kindle 4. Usługa sieciowa raz działa raz wcale. Otwieranie i powiększanie pdf-ów to czekanie + smugi…
Coraz mocniej zastanawiam się czy lekki laptop+okrojony system do edytora .rtf np. pod DOS-em/linuxem nie załatwiłby sprawy.. Pod amigą było fajnie, bo wsadzało się dyskietkę z Amitekstem i był tylko edytor do włączenia, żadnych przeszkadzajek i udogodnień..
Pozdr i spóźnione życzenia zdrowia oraz pomyślności z okazji Wielkanocy
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Dziękuję pięknie! No i też tak można – ja mam takiego Macbooka air starszego co były jeszcze takie fajnie malutkie tylko do pisania i do obsługi skanera ale taka Pomera DM250 do torby czy plecaka to siup i lekkie i długa bateria – bedę pisał o tym modelu nie długo też 👍
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Excellent review of this unique device. You did a great job of covering all the aspects of it.
Agree with your points….
Also, I don’t understand why this and the Pomera, etc, have such small displays when there is room for much larger ones?
Yeah, I would like to see one with a bigger, panoramic-like display too – A4 paper width would be nice and typewrite-like too. 👍 The old Sony Vaio P laptop series comes to mind but these had AWFUL battery life hahah.
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Yes, A4 width and typewriter like would be great.
Had the old Vaio P some years ago….had some good qualities, but performance with the Atom cpu was not the best.
Look forward to reading your post about the DM250….
Your next review should be for this one!
This is the “cheap” model
and this is the pro one ( scroll down for the specs) that is for typewriting sins! lol
I think the “insides” – like the software and screen and so on are similar, and I generally prefer machines that I can take to a cafe 😉 but yeah, these could be very nice for studio work!
Well… it is the notion that you’ll have to have the option to take the typewriter/ word processor with you what makes things more complicated than they actually are.
Because….honestly now…. how many times did you actually go, (intentionally ok, get your gadget writers and go), to write an article or a blog post to a cafe? How many times?
Talking about myself, I have said that I’ll do this a million times but I ‘ve never done it because the best ideas, the inspiration and the need to write something, usually come to my mind when I’m home alone and not when I’m at a cafe, or in public places where my attention is distracted by the surroundings.
I can’t even sketch nowadays when I’m surrounded by crowd not because I feel shy or anxious but because I’m distracted by looking the surroundings, which is not bad perse because it is these visual or other impressions that become the inspiration for writing, or sketching or thinking something.
But generally speaking I’ve realized that there is no way to focus in a public place and though I’m saying that I’ll do it I end up not doing it.
Anyway… this Hemingwrite is a very nice thing…It is IMHO like a modern version of a vintage typewriter. It doesn’t have to be portable and it has some of the characteristic that I personally like, like the full size mechanical keyboard.