Freewrite Versus Neo

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It’s time to update my impressions of the Astrohaus Freewrite.

All the things that were good about the Freewrite, the keyboard, the simplicity, the basic idea, are still good. Using it has revealed a few shortcomings, though.

First and most importantly, for what is supposed to be a simple, reliable device that enables one to write, the Freewrite is not reliable. In fact, it has been anything but. We’ve become used to software being sent out into the world in beta version and then fixed through updates. This is the first time I have encountered this with hardware.

When my Freewrite was left overnight, it discharged all the power and would not restart. The only way to get it working again was to leave it plugged in for at least half an hour, hold down the power button for 10 seconds and wait.

This was not exactly an intuitive procedure. It certainly made it impossible to do what the Freewrite was supposed to do– just pick it up and go. The first time I picked it up and went to a cafe after leaving it overnight, I got no writing done because it would not switch on. I am far from the only one who had had this problem. I did find a solution on the Astrohaus forums, but it has been fairly hit and miss since.

The Freewrite uses a stripped down interface to get out of your way when you write. This is great, but it means that when things go wrong, you are left without a clue. There is a way of finding out how much charge the battery has, but you’ll need to head to the forums to find out what it is. Currently, there is no way of getting your text files off the machine if something goes wrong with the wireless. Or if there is I have not found it.

The real problem is, of course, that this is still a prototype. I backed a Kickstarter. I did not buy a machine from a shop. The good folks at Astrohaus are working hard to resolve these problems but none of this helps me right now use the machine for what I hoped would be its purpose.

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I have fallen back to using my Alphasmart Neo. This does not have quite as good a keyboard as the Freewrite, and it does not have the wireless connectivity that makes the Freewrite so easy to use when it works. You need to connect the Neo to your computer with a cable and squirt the text into it in a process that looks spookily like the Flash typing your text.

That aside, the Neo has many advantages over the Freewrite. The first is that it really is pick up and go. Mine has been using the same set of batteries for almost two years now– normal AA batteries you can buy in any shop– and it is still at 38% battery charge.

It has a much easier and more intuitive way of handling text files. You simply push a button marked with a file number to switch between your open files. You can have up to eight of them. You push send to send your text. It is that simple. It also weighs less than half of what the Freewrite does. It is also incredibly rugged and long lasting. I can carry it with me everywhere in a normal daysack or even just a canvas bag, and it never gives me any problems. I’ve given it to my toddler to use as a toy, and it has kept him amused and survived the experience.

The main difference is probably that the Freewrite costs $500, and the Alphasmart can be picked up for less than $25 on eBay. Yes, that’s second hand but like I said I have not had any problems with mine.

I’m not saying the Freewrite is bad. I think someday soon it will be great. If you’re interested, read the forums, follow what people are saying and when the word comes down that it’s working as it should, buy. Until then I would advise you to stick with the Alphasmart if you are looking for a portable, long battery life, distraction-free writing environment.

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