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The Freewrite, The Alphasmart, and Distraction-Free Writing

I like writing. And it’s not just story building or making boring things slightly more interesting. Sometimes it’s just the typing. The clicking and clacking of getting things done. I recently told my wife that I think the best thing about old technology is the way it feels and sounds. Think typewriters and rotary dial phones. The way it sounds to set the phone back in the cradle. The way radios crackle as you spin the dial and pass through several channels in a second.

The beauty of modern technology is that you can have access to so many different things using only one device. Even now I am typing this out into google docs using my iPhone 6. It’s brilliant and amazing what all we can accomplish just from our phones while commuting, eating lunch, or for me as I sit here waiting to renew my vehicle registration. I am number A176 and only two numbers away. So I may have to duck out of this for a second and come back to it.

 The Freewrite from Astrohaus. So sleek. So Nice.

The Freewrite from Astrohaus. So sleek. So Nice.

I recently saw an ad on Instagram for a new laptop word processor claiming to be distraction-free. I liked how this sounded. The product was the Freewrite by Astrohaus and the more I dug the more I wanted this thing. The Freewrite is a designated space for writing. It doesn’t check your email, receive phone calls, or push notifications letting you know your crops are ready to be harvested. You type and letters appear on its e-ink screen, and that's it. Well not really, but sort of. The product is so basic that it almost feels incomplete. With its ability to sync your writing over a wifi network, the Freewrite is a great machine for writers. I have been working on my first novel for several years now, and my biggest struggle apart from procrastination has been distraction. The beauty of a computer is the ability to research just one tab over. But for many, research can lead to mindless scrolling on Facebook. I catch myself doing it all the time. But with a machine like the Freewrite, all you can do is write. Seriously you should look it up. If you are a writer, it is definitely something to consider.

The more I looked into the Freewrite the more I kept hearing about another product. Let me say this, there is a huge downside to the Astrohaus Freewrite. Price. It is so expensive. Right now, as I am writing this, Astrohaus is offering the original Freewrite for $499. Here is the thing, if I had that money to buy it, I totally would. But I have been saving up money for a new laptop for a while, and that price point is halfway to a new Mac. You can buy some brand new non-mac laptops for that same price. Other people feel the same way as I do. As I watched video after video about the Freewrite, I kept seeing this other product called an Alphasmart by Renaissance Learning. It looked pretty basic and weird and I wrote it off at first. But many beta users of the Freewrite said that after some writing sessions on the Freewrite, that they prefer their Alphasmart Neo over it.

What is an Alphasmart Neo? Great question. The Alphasmart products were designed by a couple of ex-Apple dudes looking to provide students a great way to learn typing and to work on writing. It was a tool built for the classroom. Quickly, writers of all ages realized what they had built was the ultimate portable, distraction-free laptop. The more I watched videos on this thing I realized how amazing it was. The product itself is pretty basic. It records keystrokes and later you can import those keystrokes into text via a USB cable. It wasn’t the product that initially roped me in, but the experience. I needed something to get me out of my writing funk, a way to unplug and plug away at the story. Many of the videos I watched spoke to this experience. No notifications, no temptations, just a blinking cursor on a small led screen and your story.

So here is what is crazy. From what I have read, these machines cost around $200 back in the day. That’s a lot of money per unit when you think of schools buying these across the country, but the reason I share this is to explain to you the build quality of the Alphasmart Neos. They are really well-made and great to use typewriters. But now you can get an Alphasmart Neo 2, which is the last model they ever made, from eBay anywhere between $20 and $30. With a little for shipping, you can have a distraction-free writing tool for around $35. Now compare that to the Astrohaus Freewrite. The Freewrite is so swanky and sleek, but I don’t think it is worth the $500 when there are products still available for purchase like the Alphasmart Neo 2. (Astrohaus just released the Freewrite Traveler which you can preorder for $329 on indiegogo, but will eventually retail at $599.) I do think that an Alphasmart is probably going to wear out faster than a Freewrite. Also, the Freewrite comes with new technology and support whereas the Alphasmart parent company no longer is making these products. But still, for $35. Shoot. Such a steal.

So, I bought one. It shipped quickly and the thing is practically brand new. I wrote around 3000 words within the first twenty-four hours of owning it. Once it arrived I found myself wanting to get away and write for a bit. Sometimes 250 words, sometimes 2500 words. Since my purchase of the Alphasmart Neo 2, I have written around 15,000 words.

 My Alphasmart Neo 2 in all of its glory.

My Alphasmart Neo 2 in all of its glory.

So let’s talk about this thing. The Alphasmart has a full-sized keyboard with keys that feel and sound amazing. They aren’t the same as the Cherry MX keys on the Freewrite, but it still has a very gratifying typewriter feel. Sometimes, when I am walking by it on my desk, I stop and type something like, ”Hello, this is Mark Apel. How are you?” just so I can hear the keys clack a bit. The machine is thin and easy to put into a backpack, which means taking advantage of a twenty minute break to get a few words down is super easy and convenient.

With the Alphasmart, you have eight writing files that are easily accessed by the click of a button. You can do your own research on exact word counts, but the thing holds a lot of words. The files store to the device itself and you can access more than just the eight quick files, by clearing and loading them into the quick file buttons. This has proved pretty great for writing a novel. I love being able to bounce around to the different chapters I am working on with the click of a button.

When your done writing, you plug in the Alphasmart to your computer via USB and once you have an open document, simply click “send” and the thing starts typing your document up for you at the speed of your choice. The Alphamart runs on three double-a batteries, and many people who have been using there Alphasmarts for years have never changed the batteries. The battery life is unparalleled when you compare it to a laptop computer or even the Astrohaus Freewrite.

I really just wanted to write this to tell anyone listening that if you love to write and sometimes struggle with the white blank page of Google docs or Microsoft word, try starting your draft on a machine that was designed for that very thing. Writing. Get away from your phone, computer and the internet and let your mind write the story for a bit. For $35 dollars, how could you go wrong?

“Now serving A176.”

Gotta go. They just called my number.