Freewrite's New Alpha - Smart?
The Distraction-Free Writing Device From Dullsville - But still...
Look, I’m a humorist by nature. If you are looking for a real review of the new, Freewrite Alpha - This won’t be the place. In fact, at the time of this writing, there is no place - the thing isn’t released yet. Today, I am giving my honest opinion of what I have seen at the product announcement, and how I feel about it as a member of a community that loves retro-writing technology. It seemed like this was going to be for them. Was it? Did it win this retro-keyboard guy over? Read on…
What is perfectly rectangular, has very rounded corners, and looks like something you would be handed at a lunch counter? The Freewrite Alpha. The newest not-yet-built-but-looks-rather-nice-in-the-3D-mockup, distraction-free writing device from Freewrite (parent company, Astrohaus).
While looking at the reveal webpage [LINK], something was nagging me. It kept reminding me of something. A Speak N Spell? No. A Fisher-Price toy? Kind of, but no. Then, boom! It hit me: The damn thing looks like a serving tray.
Why am I being so cruel? It’s because of the history that Freewrite is supposedly harkening back to with this design. You see, they scooped-up the website name Alphasmart, and chose to debut the device at that web address. It’s a reference to the thousands of writers, would-be writers, and people who think they can write, who use these classic, ancient electronic devices on a daily basis - Distraction-free writing devices. Un-connected, non-wifi-toting lumps of keyboard, joyfully free of text messages, Twitter alerts and, most importantly, the internet. One of the more prolific brands favored by this crowd? The Alphasmart line. The Alphasmart Neo to be exact.
But while the the Alphasmart company is long-gone, interestingly enough their very well-built products are still here. Possibly to the chagrin of Freewrite. The keyboards are very much alive and kicking. It’s a testament to their simplicity of purpose, decent construction and lack of bells and whistles that could break or wear out - You just type on the damn things. And it looks like people will continue to type on the damn things for years to come.
This retro-community has come to odds with the Freewrite community from time-to-time (although some are perfectly happy to co-exist together peacefully to make the world a better place, one chapter at a time). The workhorse, inexpensive, find them daily on eBay group stick their noses up at the $500 to $650 price-tag of a cool, Freewrite that serves the exact same purpose, but acts more hip and trendy doing it. In fact, to further muddy the waters, the Freewrite group held a buy-back plan in 2017: Give Freewrite your nasty, old, dilapidated, probably not working because it’s collecting dust in your closet right now, Alphasmart - And they would bless you with $50 off of a shiny, new, so much better, Freewrite. The main question in the retro-writing community’s mind was, “Wait a minute. What are you doing with these perfectly capable keyboards that you are picking up?” Was Freewrite (gulp) trying to remove the competition, one retro keyboard at a time? Did they fail to recognize these long-gone keyboards as competition, and now needed to squash them like bugs? Were they surprised when they called the Freewrite, “the first smart typewriter,” and a bunch of people disagreed with them?
When I saw that Freewrite has literally picked up the Alphasmart web domain [LINK], I assumed they were burying the hatchet - Embracing the simpler aesthetic. Trying to hearken back to that 90s vibe - A simple keyboard with the funky look, at a reasonable price.
Then, I saw - The serving tray.
The serving tray mocked me.
The serving tray mocked the community that arrived, hoping for the best.
It was a mockathon. A mockdown. A Mockzilla.
The “Alpha” (get it? ALPHAsmart?) has none of the flair of retro about it, at all. And you would think that a group who have made their first electronic keyboard look like the cockpit of a WWII warplane and sell it for $650 bucks ($1000 for the even fancier aluminum one) would have this concept in the bag. Instead, it’s square, baby. Parallel lines. The bottom-half of a MacBook - Complete with an area where the touchpad would be (which is odd, because the Alpha doesn’t have a touch-pad). Any fun angles, or expressive curves; anything that resembles the personality of the past keyboards they are trying to emulate, is utterly missing.
Now, what does it do? Well, it has a mechanical keyboard, supposedly holds a thousand pages of text, uses an lcd screen, running for 100 hours before needing a charge, syncs to a cloud account for safety, and to move documents to your computer for further revising. That’s all good. I am not complaining about the usefulness of the serving tray - Just the dullness of the serving tray, and the fact that it actually resembles a serving tray. As well as feeling like it was a miss-fire to the community they were supposedly trying to reach. If they ever really were - It’s business, after all. Art that makes money is business. The Marvel Universe is fun, but a business. So, yes, keyboards that allow you to tell fanciful tales and build extraordinary worlds that capture the imagination are - A business.
So, speaking of business, how much is the Freewrite Alpha? Well, $250, if you reserve your spot on the assembly line right now, and that’s actually pretty good. A new Alphasmart Neo2 sold for around that much back in the day - An olive branch to the community? Perhaps. Keep in mind, however, that it will be $350 after you miss the deal, and at the time of writing, there was no mention of when the deal ended. If you want to jump in, you can set that up for a (refundable, they say) single dollar, US [LINK]. Perhaps, in modern dollars, $350 is a fair price. After all, it’s not 1990, any more. Considering their step up from the Alpha, the Traveller, rocks a retail price of $500, and the larger, Smart Typewriter hits the mark at $650. With this perspective, in Freewrite dollars, it’s an absolute steal.
And yet, I look upon the serving tray, and it does not move me. Yes, I have put my refundable dollar down for a place in line, so I may continue to witness the journey of this product. Yes, I will keep an open mind as I see how it develops. I hope there is more explanation to the place they see this keyboard filling, how it will save to the cloud, and if (finally) it will be friendlier to edit on, like it’s retro brothers of the past. Freewrite’s current theology is only forward, never back - Just write. Free-flow. It’s not everyone’s favorite way to go. The retro-cousins actually tried to be more full-service; spell checkers, word suggestions and the like. All kinds of keyboard “shortcuts” (in quotes because some of them are just not that short…) to highlight and move text, or jump around a document to fix something, or add a thought. I believe this is generally verboten in the Freewrite universe, but they have been allowing things like arrow keys to move about a document a bit more freely. Perhaps there will be another olive branch in this area, as well.
If you look upon the squarish lines of the Alpha, and say, “yes, this is definitely for me,” then, more power to you! I am sure you will enjoy the experience that a focus-friendly writing device can offer, no matter the design. It’s back to basics. Back to the typewriter. Back to the notebook paper. It’s enlightening.
But before you take the leap - You may want to hit up eBay and search for “Alpha smart Neo” - Take a spin with a 60-70 dollar total investment. No, they don’t save to the cloud - But they do let you pound on the keyboard and get those thoughts out, Which is the whole point. They also transcend time - A once useful tool for schools that found a new lease on life in the writing community.
With curves, dammit.
Freaking serving tray…
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