Astrohaus Freewrite First Impressions

About 18 months ago I backed a Kickstarter for the Hemingwrite, a distraction free electronic typewriter. This weekend I got back from London to find that it had arrived. I set about unpacking it with considerable excitement. I wasn’t disappointed.

The Freewrite, as it is now called, is basically a keyboard and a small e-ink screen inside a rugged metal chassis. It even has a carrying handle. It reminds me of an old-fashioned manual typewriter, albeit one with a modern twist. This machine connects to the cloud and stores your writing there.

The basic idea is that you can get down to writing with no distractions. You can’t surf the net. You can’t answer emails. You can’t play games. All you can do is write.

It’s just you, a keyboard and your words.

I’ve tried various modes of distraction-free writing in the past but they all suffered from the fact that I was using them on a laptop. The world of internet jiggery-pokery was merely a button switch away.I could always reconnect if I wanted to. With the Freeewrite, all I can do is carry it somewhere and just write. It’s what I am doing now, in my local Costa.

Appearance

The Freewrite is striking looking rather than beautiful. The designers have gone for a retro-futurist look that makes me think of 50s motor cars– all metal and fins. It’s basically a keyboard in a metal case with a big red power button and a couple of dials. One of these controls the folder your work will be saved to. The other is for connecting to the internet. Buck Rogers probably typed his reports on something similar.

(The strikingness of the design has just been confirmed by the way. People keep coming up to me in the coffee shop and asking what the Freewrite is.)

It’s made of rugged plastic and metal– aluminum I think. It weighs about 4 pounds. It’s not as light as a modern ultrabook but it’s not heavy and it feels solid. I am not sure I would like to carry it around by the built-in carrying handle simply because I would prefer not to expose it to the elements but I certainly could.

The Keyboard

The Freewrite is obviously going to live or die by its keyboard. Fortunately, this is beautiful. It’s a Cherry Keyboard with actual switches underneath each key instead of the modern pressure pad arrangement. The only modern laptops that can compare to it are a few very high end, very heavy gaming rigs. In some ways, it takes me back to the days of my youth, when machines like the Commodore 64 had proper keyboards that were a joy to type on. No worries here then.

The Screen

This is a  backlit e-ink screen of the sort any user of Amazon’s Kindle will be used to. It updates a little slowly, particularly when you reach the end of a screenful of text but this is what I would have expected. It serves its purpose.

The writing area is about the size of a large smartphone screen where your text appears. There’s a smaller area fenced off below where various other bits and bobs of information can appear such as your word count, a clock or a timer. You switch between these using the special button on the keyboard.

Battery Life

Astrohaus claims a battery life of about 3 to 4 weeks between charges. Unfortunately, this is calculated using the same weasel marketing-speak logic that Amazon uses for the Kindle. It will last for those 3-4 weeks if you write for half an hour a day. By my non-marketing department calculations, that means a battery life of 10 to 14 hours. Why not just say that? Oh yes, it sounds way less impressive. Still even 10 hours is a goodly amount for the purposes the Freewrite will be used for.

I’ll let you know whether it’s a true amount after I have tested it. The Freewrite as far as I can tell lacks a battery indicator, which is an oversight, I think.

The Cloud

The other big selling point of the Freewrite is that it connects to the cloud and saves your writing there. You can use Dropbox, Evernote or Gdrive for this.

In order for this to work you need an Astrohaus Postbox account. This is not a problem. You should basically get one when you order your Freewrite. Once this is set up, all you need to do is connect to the Internet and you’re good to go.

Connecting to the net is a doddle. On the right side of the Freewrite is a three position switch. This sets your wifi to off, on or new. If you choose new, the Freewrite scans the local networks, you choose one, type in the password if needed and you’re good to go. This has worked perfectly for me so far. And that’s really it.

Your files are stored in plain text but by some odd quirk marked as docx when downloaded. This is a sensible enough decision given the fact that most people will probably be opening them up in Microsoft Word but it’s a bit annoying to those of us who use markdown and would prefer them to be just plain .txt.

Distraction Free

The Freewrite is really bare bones. There is no cut and paste. There are not even arrow keys for navigating your documents. The basic idea is that you will sit down and write your first drafts and then edit them somewhere else– Word, Evernote, whatever.

It’s a very different, very old fashioned way of writing, really rather like using a typewriter. It works.

Would I recommend the Freewrite? If you are in need of what it offers, yes. It is expensive for what it does but it comes from a very small company trying a very radical thing. I certainly intend to integrate it into my workflow. I’ll report back in a few months on how well it has performed over that time. Well done, Astrohaus. You have delivered.

Here’s a link to some pictures!


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White Screen of Death

My apologies to those of you who glanced at the blog yesterday and found only a blank white screen. You were encountering a fairly well known WordPress flaw colloquially known as the White Screen of Death. I was looking at it myself  in a lot more panicked way since my entire website seemed to have vaporised. 

How did this happen? Why was I panicking? Let’s deal with the second one first. I was panicking because  two and a half years worth of blog posts and comments along with various widgets I had hand-written had vanished into the ether and I had absolutely no idea what had happened to them. To add to my angst I thought I had compounded the disaster with a rookie error. 

How did it happen? When I logged into my WordPress dashboard yesterday I saw a notification stating there was an update available for Prose the child theme of the Genesis framework that gives this blog its rather fetching appearance. I was only half paying attention since I was looking at the baby as he played on the carpet in front of me. I toyed with backing up the site as is my usual practise before any update but then I thought hey, it’s only an update to a child theme, not even the framework, what could possibly go wrong? I hit the update, it unpacked and installed and everything seemed to go fine. Then I took a look at the site. Nothing, just a blank white screen. 

I tried typing the URL of the admin panel in. Nope. The site was stone dead. I tried looking at the site in a couple of different browsers just in case its a problem with Firefox. In a panic, I took a look at the update log sent to me by my site security plug-in and fired off a quick email to Studiopress, the providers of the Genesis framework.

I kept hitting refresh like a lab rat hitting a lever in search of a food pellet but nothing happened. It was not a temporary glitch and it didn’t resolve itself. Anyone looking at my site was seeing the same blank white screen as me. Unless they were using Chrome in which case they had the option of looking at error box telling them they were getting a type 500 server error.

I took the next obvious step and googled type 500 errors. I discovered rather unhelpfully that this is a generic error message that means the server is either incorrectly configured or undergoing maintenance. Initially my plan was to just wait for the Studiopress tech support people to get back to me which the support ticket said would happen within 48 hours, but the idea of having the site down for potentially a couple of days started niggling at me. I was googling this stuff anyway so I kept at it. I came across the inevitable references to the White Screen of Death and I came across a couple of solutions, the best of which was here.

Since I could not get to my admin panel, the only way in to my WP installation was through my web-hosting package. It involved renaming and deleting things on the server. This is not something I am normally all that keen on doing but what the hell I might soon be doing a total reinstall anyway.

I renamed the plug-ins folder and still the white screen was there so the problem was definitely not a rogue plug-in.

I made a duplicate of my themes folder on the server and then deleted the Prose theme. That brought the site back but without the theme (obviously). If you looked at the site yesterday and found yourself looking at very basic HTML with very plain links that would be about then. I restored the default 2010 theme and to my surprise discovered that all of my custom widgets, all of the comments and stuff were still there, even if the menus looked very strange. I switched to a very plain text theme where no widgets appeared but at least the site looked tidy. 

I thought about quitting while I was ahead but it struck me that the basic problem was solved. I decided I would download the latest version of the Prose Child Theme, install it and see what happened. I did and it worked and everything was back to normal. My guess is that the problem was not with the child theme itself, but with something that went wrong during the installation. A couple of hours after I put my ticket in Nick from Studiopress support got in touch. He’d taken a look at the site and noticed I seemed to have solved the problem. I was impressed by the swiftness of the response. 

So what did I learn? Well, let’s put the obvious thing first– always make a backup. Even though I have all the material for my blog posts on my client, I risked losing all of my reader comments since the last backup. That would have been annoying.

I also learned that WordPress is very robust and modular. Despite my theme problems, all the comments, widgets etc survived. 

I learned that StudioPress respond promptly to problems which might be useful in the future, if something of a more serious nature goes wrong, although it’s worth saying that this is the first problem I have had in two and a half years of using the Genesis Framework. 

I learned that Murphy’s law applies. The one time I don’t do a backup, disaster strikes.

The worst thing that happened is that I forgot to reactivate my plugins immediately and without Akismet to filter my spam, I got some junk comments. Under the circumstances, I can settle for that.

Anyway, everything seems fine now and I even got a blog post out of it. Hopefully it will be another two and half years before something else like this happens. Now if you will excuse me, I am off to backup the site. 

RIP, Datamancer

I was looking through Boing, Boing yesterday when I saw an announcement that shocked and saddened me. Richard Nagy, Datamancer, had died. Richard was an amazingly talented artist, known for his work in the steampunk genre. He made astonishing artefacts that felt like they had come from an alternate universe of tesla coils, brass and vacuum tubes. What’s more, they worked.

I first came across Richard’s work somewhere on the Internet in 2007 and I was gobsmacked. I looked at his variants on the Von Slatt keyboard and I wanted one very badly. I did something I have never done before or since. I dropped him an email asking if he would make one for me. The answer was affirmative.

Over the next couple of months Richard and I exchanged emails and he hand-built me a keyboard that I prize to this present day. Richard was always pleasant to deal with and he kept me posted at every step of the way– when he was acquiring old type-writer parts from Hong Kong, when he was making custom key-tips, when he wrapped the finished keyboard and posted it to Scotland. I was very excited when I pulled it from the bubble wrap.

Looking at the pics you can see why. They don’t begin to show how impressive the keyboard is. I am as far from a good photographer as it is possible to get and the pictures were taken on our kitchen table with the camera in my phone and still the quality of the man’s work shines through.

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I’ve always meant to do a blog post about this keyboard. It looks like the sort of thing you ought to write Warhammer 40K novels on. Those blue lights actually work. They give off an eerie glow when the Caps Lock and Num Lock are on. 

I am sorry to be finally writing the post under these circumstances but I wanted to say my piece about someone who had touched my life with his work. Richard Nagy was taken from the world too soon. He left behind some amazing monuments.  Here are some more links to them.

A New Tablet

So I finally got round to buying a tablet. In a week where the whole world was going mad over the iPad Air, I bought an Asus T100T. A what? I hear you cry. An Asus T100T. It’s the latest release from the people who brought us the original netbook and more recently the very lovely Zenbooks.

Why did I buy it, rather an iPad? Well, I was curious, about a lot of things, Windows 8, Intel’s new Bay Trail processors and how useful a tablet would be in general. Given my needs a Windows tablet looked like it would be a better fit, particularly this one. Since the Asus has the full fat version of Windows 8.1, it runs Scrivener, Dragon Naturally Speaking and a lot of other software I use right out of the box. I wanted to use the tablet mostly as a PDF reader for my extensive collection of games PDFs, but I thought I might do a little light editing and emailing on it as well. Using speech recognition software obviates the need for a keyboard and, as I have remarked elsewhere, Dragon Naturally Speaking is very, very good for this.

The T100T was cheap. Roughly 10900 Czech Crowns, around £360, and that was with an Xbox 360 thrown in. Granted I suspect I was doing the retailer a favour by clearing the Xbox from his shelf space before the new Xbox Ones arrive but what the hell, I thought, I’ll set it up in my office and maybe finally get around to playing that copy of Dishonoured that has been sitting on my shelf since last Xmas. Not only that the T100 comes with a detachable keyboard and a free copy of Microsoft Office. Under the circumstances, it’s a bargain. For comparison the cheapest local version of the iPad Air (16Gb) is 12900 or so. In the US the Asus machine complete with Office and keyboard retails for $349, so you can see we Europeans are paying a bit of a premium.

The keyboard is pretty basic. It has no second battery in it, unlike the rest of Asus’s Transformer line and only one USB 3 port. On the plus side, I have to say it is the best netbook size keyboard I have ever used aside from the one on the Lenovo Thinkpad Tablet, and let’s face it, you just can’t do better than a Lenovo keyboard. On the negative side, the trackpad sucks big time. Fortunately, the tablet part of the T100T doubles up as a touchscreen so I can ignore the shonky trackpad for long periods.

The build quality is solid. I have friends who tend to dismiss anything not made in Apple Aluminium as cheap-feeling but the truth is that I don’t care. I spend more time working with my computer gear than fondling it, and all I am concerned about is whether it will stand up to abuse. The T100T feels like it will.

There is the usual assortment of micro-ports—micro USB, micro HDMI, micro-SD as well as the aforementioned keyboard mounted full sized USB3 port. There is 2 Gb of RAM and 32GB of SSD. Much to my surprise I found I had 18 Gb or so left over after everything was installed. Many recent reviews of Windows 8 had led me to believe I would have about 4 Gb. 18 Gb is more than enough for my purposes but the memory card slot accepts up to 64 Gb SD memory cards so there’s more there if I want it.

The screen is not super-high res—its 1366 by 768, not anything like retina quality but it is clear and bright and perfectly readable, if a bit of a fingerprint magnet.

The new Bay Trail processor is pretty impressive for an Atom. I see no reason to doubt the claimed 11 hour battery life and everything runs with a certain snappiness. It is certainly more than capable of doing all the office work, web browsing and PDF reading I am likely to throw at it. I wouldn’t want to try the latest ninjatastic 3D games on it but that was never really going to be on the cards anyway. In truth, at the price I am delighted with the hardware. Which brings us to Windows 8 or rather in this case, Windows 8.1.

I have to say that I understand the hate that many people feel for Microsoft’s latest offering. I don’t dislike it myself but I can see why people would. It is schizophrenic in the extreme. The new Metro bits of the interface look great and work well but when you get into the Desktop itself, it is just familiar enough to be completely confusing. It looks like you should be able to understand it and do all the stuff you usually do in the way you would normally do it but when you come to try and do so, you find that nothing is in the right place. After a week I have gotten used to it eventually but I have to say I am felt some resistance at the start.

Going to the app store and looking at the reviews of the apps I use every day was also a bit of a shock. Dropbox and Evernote Touch appear to be watered down and very buggy versions of those old favourites. Fortunately since the T100T comes with Windows 8, not Windows RT, I can go to the appropriate websites and download the proper versions.

All of this leaves the T100T straddling a somewhat uncomfortable position. It is without a doubt, the best netbook I have ever owned. (That sounds like damning with faint praise, I know, but I’ve always kind of liked netbooks.) It can be split into a tablet that is only slightly heavier than the iPad Air and a detachable keyboard. As a tablet, the hardware is just fine but Windows 8 still has some ways to go as a tablet OS. The legacy desktop does not work very well with touch and the icons and menus are just a little too small and fiddly. The tablet does do everything I want it to, but my needs are not really those of most tablet users.

Would I recommend the T100T? Well, that depends. It is superb value, and it does everything the manufacturers claim and more. The problem is Windows 8 at the moment. If you are looking for an iPad-like tablet experience, or even an Android-like one, it is not quite there yet. If you know you are going to need a netbook-like computer and only want to do the most basic of Tablet-like things—answering email, streaming media, reading news and PDFs, I would say go for it. If you want something with the polish and limitations of an iPad, I would say go with that. The T100T is not really a tablet. It is something else, something new and something old at the same time. It is what netbooks look like in 2013. I wrote this blog post on it and it was a pleasure.

Computer Migration

Last week I upgraded my PC computer. Since my games machine often doubles as my work machine, it normally being the most powerful computer I own, I had to migrate my work stuff to the new machine this week.

Back in the bad old days, I used to dread this. I would needed to have locate a large number of disks and activation codes and installed my software onto the new computer. I would have had to burn CDs, DVDs or used an external hard-drive to shift my data. There would have been a lot of fumbling as I tried to locate various essential items, failed and had to find a workaround.

One of the great appeals of Apple’s Macintosh machines is the ease of migrating to a new one. Once upon a time this was done with firewire cables and Migration Assistant. These days all you need is a time machine backup on an external hard-drive. There is similar software available for Windows apparently but I don’t own it so I was going to have to do things the hard way.

The App Store is great for migration as well. Being able to automatically install all the software you have paid for on a new machine without the hassle of license keys is appealing. Since there won’t be a Windows App Store until Windows 8 I was going to have to do things the old fashioned way. Sort of. A few things were different. This time it was actually a lot easier.

That is mostly down to the Cloud. The first thing I did was install Dropbox on the new machine. Since I keep all my work files in Dropbox, it meant all of those were synched in pretty short order. Also in Dropbox I keep my encrypted 1Password files and backups of my Firefox Preferences. I imported the preferences, installed 1Password and its browser extensions and I was back up and running in a perfect replica of my normal browser experience. I could, of course, simply set up Firefox to synchronise my bookmarks over all my machines which would make this even easier.

(For those of you who have never used it, 1Password is a password vault, a program that memorises your various logins and passwords and keeps them in an encrypted format, then produces them securely for you when you try to log-in to your Amazon account, Gmail, whatever. It started life on the Mac but is now also available for Windows. It works very well. I used to use Lastpass, which was also excellent but there was a minor security scare a couple of years back which got me to switch to 1Password.)

Anyway, with my internet connection up and running it was time to install Microsoft Office. This went as straightforwardly as usual. I use Excel and Word constantly and Outlook is a pretty decent email client let down only by the primitive way it interfaces with Google Calendar. I had to break out the disks and the Licensing codes for this one. I copied the passwords for my email accounts from 1Password and downloaded my email using IMAP which keeps everything in sync across all my machines.

It was more disks for Dragon Naturally Speaking. If you feel like using this speech recognition software, here is a quick tip from a guy doesn’t read the manual unless forced to. You absolutely must install this program inside an Administrator account otherwise you are setting yourself up for an afternoon of sheer frustration and bizzaro error messages. Simply giving the installation Administrator permissions from the account control box will just not cut it. I must have known this once because I have installed Dragon Naturally Speaking successfully many times. I did not remember it this time though. Not fun.

After Dragon, I downloaded and installed Evernote, which I use for clipping and keeping my notes in. This synchs with your existing account over the net. Pretty soon I had all my notes back with me.

My computer came with Windows Live Essentials installed so this just meant setting up an account on Windows Live Writer so I could blog. I copied the details from 1Password and was good to go. It’s what I am writing this on.

After this, it was Scrivener for Windows. I normally work in Scrivener on OSX but I like to keep the Windows version on-hand in case of need. In any case, thats it. I am ready to work on pretty much anything that comes my way. It was all relatively painless. Use of cloud based software like Dropbox and Evernote certainly helped with this. I would imagine a Windows App store will make the process even easier in the future. There might be something to this cloud thing.

(I have talked about a lot of this software before here.)

MacBook Solutions

As some of you may recall I have been having problems with my MacBook Pro, to the point where I was just about ready to give up on it. It has been crashing more and more often recently and this is not something you want in a work machine. I had installed a new SSD but the machine refused to boot after awhile so I stuck the old hard drive back in. There were still random crashes but at least it worked, most of the time. Sometimes programs would not work as they were supposed to. Sometimes the whole machine would simply freeze and all I could do was lean on the power button until it reset. I was, to say the least, unhappy. One reason I have always liked Apple machines is, to quote the slogan, they just work. Apparently not this MacBook, not any more.

A friend of mine had been having similar problems  after migrating his stuff from his old Mac to a new MacBook Air. The machine worked fine when he bought it but when he imported his old programs and data to the new machine it kept crashing. A clean install would see the machine working again and a Time Machine update would cause crashes. On my own machine I had started to suspect motherboard failure but this gave me pause for thought. Over the years I have migrated my programs and data a lot of times, from a 2004 vintage iBook through various system upgrades to an Intel iMac and on to an Intel MacBook and finally the current MacBook Pro. Some of the stuff on my computer dated back to era of PowerPC chips and ran on the Intel machines using Rosetta, the PowerPC emulator that used to come with all the Intel Macs. This got me thinking that perhaps I was not experiencing hardware failure but maybe kernel panics caused by some sort of creeping incompatibility or instability. There was only one way to find out.

This weekend I formatted my Kingston SSD again, fitted it back into the MacBook Pro and did a clean install of all the software I wanted to use from downloads or the original disks. This was going to be a completely clean installation. Most of my work is stored in the cloud in Dropbox. My notes are all stored in Evernote. My passwords are in a 1Password encrypted file in Dropbox too. This made the process pretty simple if a little laborious. In a few hours, my machine was running again and running pretty much perfectly. To be honest, it is like having a whole new computer. The MBP always booted fast from the SSD but now it is twice as fast. I have only been using the machine for a couple of days now but so far there has not been the slightest hint of instability. No crashing, no kernel panics, all the installed software works perfectly as it is supposed to.

This might just be a coincidence and the machine may start crashing again tomorrow. I hope not. I’ll report back if there are any problems. If you’ve experienced similar crashes you may want to give this a try. It’s a pretty radical solution but right now I am really, really happy with the machine. On the other hand I am going to be a lot more suspicious of the whole process of upgrading operating systems and migrating data in OSX in the future.