A bottle of perfectly aged bubbly might cost you hundreds of dollars, but is any tipple truly worth that much to your taste buds when you drink it? You could ask a similar question of your fingers and the Freewrite Traveler, a stripped-down, compact laptop with an E Ink screen that bills itself as a distraction-free tool for professional writers. The $429 list price seems sky-high for something that’s essentially an electronic typewriter with a cheap-feeling plastic exterior. But writing is a livelihood for many of the Traveler’s prospective customers, and the device’s signature feature—eliminating distractions—could help them focus and write better. If that’s you, the Traveler could be a vintage, unlike that consumed bottle of Dom Perignon, whose perfect taste lingers long after you open it up. For most everyone else, though, it’ll go down like the Two-Buck Chuck of laptops.
Free Your Writing From Distractions
Marry an Amazon Kindle-size E Ink display with a full-size mechanical keyboard, and you get something like the original Freewrite, a descendant of the venerable typewriter. Introduced in 2017, the Freewrite is the first product from New York City-based startup Astrohaus. It seeks to free serious writers from an avalanche of internet-based distractions by displaying only a few lines of text at a time.
But weighing in at four pounds and standing several inches tall, the original Freewrite is not a device easily carried wherever inspiration strikes. So Astrohaus created the smaller, more portable Freewrite Traveler, which measures 0.97 by 11.3 by 5 inches (HWD) and weighs 1.6 pounds. It’s exceptionally portable when folded, about half the size of a conventional ultraportable laptop.
The exterior of the clamshell-like chassis is smooth, jet-black polycarbonate plastic. Conspicuous Philips screws dot the bottom, and the whole aesthetic looks rather cheap. It also attracts fingerprints at a prodigious rate, to the point that after a single day of use in my testing, the entire device resembled a giant smudge. Despite these drawbacks, the Traveler does feel sturdy, and the build quality is satisfactory.
A giant Freewrite logo is in the center of the display lid, which lends a decidedly retro bit of flair to the otherwise bland exterior. Once you flip the lid open, you’re greeted with a remarkably comfortable keyboard. Unfortunately, Astrohaus has ditched the mechanical switches of the original Freewrite, instead employing more common scissor-style switches. But the board is still satisfyingly stiff, and the keys land with solid clackety-clacks and a generous 2mm of travel distance. (Most ultraportable laptops’ keyboards have 1.5mm or less.) The Traveler’s keys feel a bit like typing on a good but basic external keyboard for a desktop PC, and slightly superior to the best laptop keyboards I’ve used, even the ones on the excellent Lenovo ThinkPad series.
The Traveler’s keyboard has a few oddities that make it clear that the device is not an ordinary laptop. The keys are off-white, except for two bright-red New keys that live in each lower corner, where the Control keys would be on a Windows laptop. Instead of Windows or Alt keys, you’ll find Page Up and Page Down keys to the left of the space bar, and Send and Special keys to the right of it. (More on what all of these keys do below.)
This Is No Ordinary Laptop
The most obvious hint that the Traveler is not an ordinary laptop is that you don’t have a full-size screen above the keyboard. Much of the Traveler’s inner lid is the same plain polycarbonate as the exterior (in white, not black), with a small E Ink display floating in the middle. Other manufacturers have tried adding E Ink displays to laptops before, the best-known example being the Lenovo Yoga Book C930. But in many of these cases, the E Ink serves as a secondary display that complements a main LED screen that runs the Windows operating system.
Not so with the Traveler. Its E Ink screen is all you get, and most of it shows just the few lines of text that you’ve just typed. This simplicity is the Traveler’s main attraction. If all you can see is what you’re writing and what you’ve recently written, with no Twitter window or email pane or other distracting bits of internet-connectedness, your writing should ostensibly flow easier and faster.
The Traveler’s E Ink surface is split in two sections. The main portion displays approximately 10 lines of text, while a small separate section below it displays some rudimentary information that you can cycle through by repeatedly pressing the Special key. Options for this portion include several views of time and date (analog or digital clocks), a timer, and the word count for the draft you’re currently working on. You can also turn the lower portion of the display off so all you see is the text above it.
Assuming you buy into the no-distractions idea, the E Ink display works rather well as a concept. Its two main issues, though, seem out of place on a device that costs more than $400. The first problem: the screen refresh rate, which is painfully slow. It seemed an eternity between my finger pressing a key and the character showing onscreen, certainly slower than the time it would take for a typewriter’s typebar to extend and strike the page. (Astrohaus says the delay is less than one second, but it feels like forever when you are typing up a storm.) The lag makes any sort of editing on the fly frustrating, not that you get much editing flexibility on the Traveler to begin with. As with a typewriter, there’s no cursor to move. Your only editing options are to delete the previous character using the Backspace key, or to delete the previous word by holding down the New key before you hit Backspace.
To be fair, the latency is a limitation of E Ink technology, not a specific problem with the Traveler itself. If you’ve ever turned the page of a book on a Kindle or other ebook reader, you’re familiar with this kind of lag. And many touch-typers might not actually notice if they’re looking away from the screen. If you’re in the groove and especially confident, the words could flow from your fingertips with no glancing at the screen, no mistakes, and no backspacing required. The dream!
The second issue with the screen is its small size. At 4.76 inches wide and 2.76 inches tall, it’s even smaller than the Amazon Kindle’s 6-inch display. The giant white-plastic borders glare at you from either side of the screen, as if they’re taunting you that the screen doesn’t cover them up and let you see more of your work. The original Freewrite makes better use of this empty space, filling it with stylishly retro toggles to switch the active document folder and turn Wi-Fi on or off. On the Traveler, these functions are controlled instead with small buttons near the keyboard.
The original Freewrite also has a screen backlight, which the Traveler lacks. If you want to write in the dark, you’ll need a lamp.
So Then, What’s the Wi-Fi For?
If the Traveler is all about eliminating distractions, why does it have a folder structure and Wi-Fi? These features are actually necessary for getting your work off the Traveler and into an editable format.
Don’t worry, the internet is used only for this reason—you don’t get even so much as an experimental web browser like the Kindle has. To connect to a network, you press the Wi-Fi On button, then the New button to connect to a network. You can then type the network password (the Traveler won’t work with networks that require a splash page to connect), and once you’re successfully connected, the Traveler will ask for your email address to complete the setup of your account.
You do need a Freewrite account to use the Traveler, since that’s the only way to get your work off the device’s internal flash memory. I find the web interface (accessible at postbox.getfreewrite.com) intuitive, though you don’t have to use it beyond the initial setup if you don’t want to. You can configure your drafts to be synced automatically with Evernote, Google Drive, or Dropbox for additional editing and backup. Whenever the Traveler is connected to the internet, your drafts will be synced.
The Freewrite offers three separate folders, letting you work on multiple drafts at once. On the device, you can toggle among the folders using their dedicated buttons. Once you log in to your account on the web, you can see all of the drafts in each folder, and assign each folder to sync its drafts to one of the three compatible cloud services. To see all of the drafts in a folder on the device itself, hold down the New key and use the Page Up and Page Down keys to cycle through them. To create a new draft, push both of the red New keys simultaneously.
Finally, if you just want to share your draft quickly with someone else, you can press the Send key, which will automatically send the entire currently open draft as a PDF to your email address for easy forwarding. This is also the quickest way to print a draft, as the Freewrite cannot communicate directly with a printer.
Four Weeks of Battery Life
Astrohaus estimates that the Traveler’s internal lithium-polymer battery will last for approximately four weeks between charges. This assumes that you use the Freewrite for 30 minutes per day, which seems a conservative assumption to me. On days when inspiration strikes, I could see myself typing for hours. I suppose the Traveler’s battery life really depends on how inspired you are.
To find out how much battery is remaining, you can press and hold the space bar for a few seconds. In addition to displaying the battery capacity, a long press of the space bar will also show you the last time the Traveler successfully synced your drafts. Note that sync information is also available in your online account, but battery information is not. To charge the battery, you connect the included USB Type-C charging cable to the port on the left side of the Traveler.
For people who plan to use the Traveler as their main writing device, many other settings and secondary features are theirs to explore. You can set up a password to lock your device and protect your drafts in case of device loss or theft. To remove a draft from the Traveler, you can either permanently delete it or archive it. The latter makes it only accessible in the Archives section of your online account.
Changing the keyboard layout is also an option. First, you have to add the one you want in your online account. After that, all of the available layouts will appear on the device, showing up once you hold one of the New keys and press Shift to toggle through them. The Traveler supports multiple foreign-language layouts, as well as Dvorak and regular QWERTY English layouts.
Ultimate Writing Tool, or Gimmick?
Even if it were not expensive, the Traveler has limited appeal. Many professional writers must write for hours each day without the luxury of eliminating distractions, since they need to be able to do research and respond to colleagues. The Traveler concept of focusing exclusively on words doesn’t really work for folks like that.
It works best for people who can segment their writing time, perhaps those who set aside a block of time each day to try to induce creativity and let the words flow. But even if you’re able to do this, $429 is a lot of money to spend on a device with such a singular purpose. And since many people are currently subject to pandemic-related isolation, the portability of the Traveler isn’t as appealing as it otherwise would be. A cheaper DIY approach would be to disable the networking components on an old PC or Mac desktop or laptop, set it up in your basement, and save your work to a thumb drive.
One thing is clear. The Traveler is certainly an improvement upon the typewriter as a distraction-free writing tool: no ink ribbons to buy, almost no noise, and no need to scan in hundreds of leaves once you’re done writing. And the lack of online distractions is certainly true as advertised. If all of this helps you write better, and writing is your livelihood, the $429 Traveler could be a smart investment. Otherwise, for that $400, you can get a decent budget laptop that you can selectively disable yourself as needed.