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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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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Surface Pro 3 Revisited

It’s a bit of an experiment today. I am posting this using the Open Source version of Microsoft’s now unsupported but much loved Windows Live Writer. This is an experimental version but  it seems stable so I’m going to give it a try. The other part of the experiment is that I’m going to look back at a product I have already reviewed and see how I feel about it after putting it to use over a fair length of time.

In late 2014 I bought a Surface Pro 3. It was the basic model with an i3 processor, 4 Gb of RAM and a 64 Gb SSD. I was happy with it when I bought it, but how do I feel about it now?

Microsoft bills this as the tablet that can replace your laptop and I actually put this to the test. For about 5 months I used the Surface Pro as my primary work laptop. I was dithering about whether to buy a MacBook Pro and waiting to see if a new model would come out so I took to working on the SP3 rather than my aging and somewhat damaged MacBook Air.

The Surface served me well during that time. I got my work done and it travelled everywhere with me, during a couple of long family visits to Scotland, a short trip to Blizzard in Irvine and to the London Book Fair.

When I was in the coworking space I used a Dell 23 Professional monitor and a Microsoft Keyboard with a Logitech mouse. This setup is perfect for use with the Surface Pro because the monitor contains a 4 port USB hub. I just left the keyboard and mouse plugged in to the monitor and hooked the Surface up when I came into the office. It worked like a charm. I have a similar setup at home. I didn’t need the docking station although Microsoft will sell you a very nice one if you do.

The Surface Pro was a real pleasure to use on the go. With keyboard cover attached it weighs just over a kilo and it travels easily and well. The power adaptor is superlight and lets you charge the Surface and your phone at the same time, thus ridding you of the need to carry a phone charger. It’s a very elegant solution. Without the keyboard cover the Surface weighs about as much as the original iPad and it makes a good if somewhat hefty tablet.

The machine has enough power for email, Netflix and office applications and the battery life is excellent. There was never a time when I was too far away from a power socket for too long. People were usually impressed when I whipped it out and started taking notes with a pen as well. It has that wow factor.

So why did I eventually go back to using a MacBook Pro as my main machine?

There are several reasons– the first was my own cheapness. I originally bought the cheapest, lowest end model of the Surface Pro I could get in an airport duty free shop. This was  my undoing. 64 Gb is just not enough for a main machine and an i3 processor is a bit underpowered for gaming, speech recognition and the other high end things I sometimes do on a computer. To be fair, Dragon Naturally Speaking worked very well, but it takes at least twice as long to transcribe speech as the MacBook Pro does. This can mount up over time.

The second reason is that the trackpad is (as I observed in my original review) crap. Because of the touch screen you don’t often have to use it but when you do, watch out. The keyboard cover in the SP4 is supposed to fix this and its backward compatible with the SP3 so I may test this yet.

The third reason is that the software is not quite there yet. Don’t get me wrong– anything by Microsoft works very well with the Surface Pro but I had problems with Scrivener and a number of other apps on the extremely high resolution screen. For some reason they just don’t scale up very well. Text can be almost unreadable sometimes. Doubtless this will all be fixed over time as more Windows developers get used to ultra high res screens, but it’s not there just yet.

Another aspect of the software problem is that there is just some software on the Mac side that I am not ready to part with yet. Most noticeably Scrivener (the OSX version is better) but also Vellum (which I will get around to reviewing soon.)

I still use the Surface a lot, in particular for PDF reading and Pen Editing PDFs in Drawboard. It is a superb replacement for printouts when you are proof-reading.

Would I recommend the Surface Pro 3? Yes, pretty much unreservedly. It does what it says on the tin and it is a beautiful piece of hardware. If you mostly use MS Office you really can’t go wrong with it. Even Scrivener is pretty usable in laptop mode if you alter the font settings yourself—it’s a slightly tedious process but it works.


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Read Stealer of Flesh Free Online

You can read the first book in the Kormak Saga free online here. This is a result of my project to archive all of my books in markdown format for easy future reference. To create it, I found the original production copy of Stealer of Flesh, converted it to markdown then to HTML and uploaded it to the site.

Unfortunately, the process of creating my archive was not quite as simple as I had hoped. First of all, my various ebooks were scattered all over the place in different formats usually Word or Scrivener. I had to find them and do the conversion.

For the Scrivener files this was easy. I simply compiled them as MultiMarkdown. For the docx files, I used iA Writer, a markdown text processor I bought from the Apple Appstore for the princely sum of £2.99. I used it specifically because it can automatically convert docx files into plain text.  It was after this step that I encountered a few small problems.

It turns out that my word-processor derived method of paragraphing using a carriage return is not quite what markdown expects. Markdown indicates a new paragraph with two line breaks. In addition, I use the classic method of indicating scene breaks with two carriage returns. These were converted into the only true paragraphs in the document. The result of this was something that seemed fine when I looked at it in my text processor but when I came to export it, was a bit messy.  You can see how export filters could get confused under the circumstances.

The solution was not hard. I used the excellent TextWrangler (available free here) to search through the plain text files and replace one line break with two line breaks. I then replaced all quadruple line breaks with section breaks. (The previous double line break paragraph markers had increased to four line breaks during the first step.) That was it. Job done.

Once this was done I stored the finished markdown files inside a dropbox folder, Ulysses and a VoodooPad document so I can find them again easily in the future. The version of Stealer of Flesh you can read online is a product of HTML export from markdown. It was all a little more work than I expected but I now have (hopefully) future proof archives of all my work.


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The Advantages of Markdown

I was going to review the writing app Ulysses 3.1 today but David Hewson saved me the bother. If you’re interested I suggest you take a look at David’s thorough and fair review. I’ll just add that, as an owner of Ulysses 3 and its previous versions, I agree with everything that David says.

For those of you who want an edited summary, Ulysses 3.1 is a text processing program that uses Markdown as its basic file format. It has some very clever ways of storing your writing either on your computer or in iCloud. It makes it very easy to keep your writing in one place and even easier to export your work to any format you may want to use it in. It is one of the new breed of text processors with a minimalist interface designed to get out of your way when you are writing. It is also spectacularly beautiful and very easy to use. I’ll get back to that later.

For me the main selling point is Markdown. This is essentially a cut down version of HTML originally designed by John Gruber of Daring Fireball to allow non-coders to work in HTML back in the day. It uses very simple codes to modify text for export. For example, a hash sign at the start of a line indicates a level one header, two hash signs indicate a level two header and so on. Italics and bold are represented by enclosing the text to be emphasised in either one or two * signs. Yes, it really is that simple.

At this point you are probably thinking the same thing as I did when I first encountered Markdown. So what? My word processor allows me to do this with Command/Control +i or +b. This is just a throwback to those old control code based word processors of the 80’s and early 90’s.

Well, yes and no. Markdown is not WYSIWYG. It separates the writing from the formatting more or less completely. What it does not do, which is what nearly every word processor does, is use a proprietary format for saving its files. Markdown is just plain text, pure and simple. This means you can write it on almost anything, and use it almost everywhere.

It may not sound like much but it is important at least to me. On my computer live bits of novels written in file formats known only to the Blind Priests of Set from the Oasis of Aank-Re who chiselled them on the very first stone hard drives. At least it looks that way to me. I suspect some of them were actually written in the Lotus version of Ami Pro back in the early 90s because that’s what I was using back then but who knows?

It’s one of those things that is a trivial problem until it isn’t. Right now I use Scrivener for 90% of my work but companies change their ways, go out of business and hey, sometimes even change their file formats. Today Word’s doc and docx formats are universal. Who knows whether they will be in 20 years? Who knows whether Microsoft will even be around then. Hell, different versions of Word sometimes have problems talking with each other and this may be compounded in coming years. Plain text is pretty close to a true universal format. Chances are it will be around.

The real advantage of Markdown is that there are numerous converters which enable you to transform it into other things: HTML, Doc(x), OTF, PDF, LaTex, ePub, you name it, it exists. I can take a markdown file on my computer and transform it into almost anything you can think of with a touch of a button. This is useful for me when I want to create ebooks, send manuscripts to publishers, put stuff on the web (and, yes, I am writing this post in Markdown).

Scrivener has a MultiMarkdown export function for compiling. MultiMarkdown is a superset of Markdown with some more functions for publishing. I use this Scrivener function to create Markdown versions of the things I write in the program and keep them in a Dropbox file in case of future need. In ten or twenty years time I can revisit what I am doing today and be able to read it even if I don’t have a copy of Scrivener on my computer.

From a writing point of view Markdown has a couple of advantages. The first is that it gets out of your way. Most of the Markdown based text processors I know of have a minimalist interface that lets you write with no distractions.

The second advantage is that your hands never have to leave the keyboard. Whatever formatting I need to use, which admittedly is very little, I can access from the keyboard. This speeds up my writing by a few percentage points.

Again, its one of those things that sounds trivial but has long term consequences. I write thousands of words per day, hundreds of thousands per year, and a few percentage points becomes many thousands of extra words written over a year, possibly hundreds of thousands over the decades of a career. (If you’re one of those people who consider it crass to talk about production and word counts when applied to creative writing, consider it extra time to lovingly craft your glittering prose.)

Which brings me to the final great advantage of markdown. On the Mac at least , the Markdown text processors are simply beautiful. They are lovely to look at and lovely to work in. Ulysses actually makes me want to write whenever I look at it. For a man as naturally indolent as me, that is quite an advantage. Also, given a choice, why not work in an environment that is beautiful?

All of which seems to have brought me back to Ulysses, a program I set out not to review. I really like it. It won’t replace Scrivener for me because Scrivener does too many things too well that I personally need done. It won’t replace Word for the thing I need Word for; exchanging files with editors.

What Ulysses has become for me is a giant notebook for lots of other bits of writing: ideas, essays, rules for Old School D&D, notes for RPG scenarios I might one day run. I have all of these things now, scattered across various Scrivener and Word files that I am constantly losing track of. Ulysses makes these things easy to find and back up. I’ll also be putting the markdown versions of my novels in it so I can easily search them.


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In Praise of Good Old Games

It all started a few years back when I bought a new notebook computer, one without a disk drive, as is becoming more and more the fashion these days. I had a sudden hankering to play Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic, my favourite ever turn-based computer strategy game. I did not fancy carrying around an external disk drive just so I could play a very old game that used its disk as a security measure. (You could not play at all without the CD in your computer’s drive.)

I can’t remember how I found myself at Good Old Games but I found a copy of AoW: SM there for download and at a very reasonable price. The basic idea of the site was a bit like Steam, except without the DRM and mostly concentrating on good, old fashioned games. (I know — the name is a bit of a giveaway, isn’t it?) Essentially you buy a game on the site and you can download it to any computer you own, back it up to disk or USB stick, whatever you like. There are no restrictions.

It was great. Age of Wonders downloaded just fine and my armies were soon dispatched in search of Shadow Demons to slay. And that was it for me and GOG.com for a few years. I had got what I wanted at a fair price and I was on my way. I was mainly a Mac user at the time and I kind of had the idea that I would download some older games and run them on Parallels Desktop because their system requirements were low enough to run even on a Windows virtual machine. I never got round it.

The year before last my son Daniel, knowing how much I liked the first Witcher game, got me Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings for Xmas. I was  busy, what with the new baby and all, so it took me a few months to get round to installing it. When I did, it was an utter disaster. The game needed a massive amount of patching and simply refused to install the required patches. Nothing I did seemed to solve the problem.

Going online in search of a solution I came across an interesting item. CD Projekt, the makers of The Witcher were also the owners of Good Old Games. They had made available an online backup of Witcher 2 at the site. All you needed to do was type in your game code and you could download away. It seemed too good to be true but off I went. Lo and behold not only was it true, but the version of the game on the site was the latest iteration with all the patches preinstalled. In keeping with Good Old Games philosophy it had no DRM either.

Let me repeat that. It had no DRM. This was a top tier big budget game and it was available for download without any form of copy protection to anyone who had paid for it. In a day and age where big game developers seem to be tripping over each other to load new forms of DRM onto their work, here was a studio who seemed to value the convenience of their customers. A little Googling revealed that CD Projekt had a history of troubles with DRM and had just decided to abandon it altogether on their site. God bless them.

I was impressed by this. I was impressed by the site as well this time around. It was a real nostalgia fest. There were games dating back to Septerra Core—a PC based Japanese RPG clone from the 90s that I had fond memories of—to Heroes of Might and Magic. There were all the Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale games I never got to play the first time around all without DRM and modified to run on modern machines.

There were games I owned such as Neverwinter Nights. I bought it to play on my DVD driveless machines. There were hundreds of games, many of them classics. Their graphics may not be  ninja-tastic but their game play is great. A lot of them are in styles that have gone out of fashion but which I enjoy (turn-based strategy games for example).  During some of GOG’s many sales they can be had for next to nothing. I found myself buying up more than a few and playing them. The value for money is immense.

Nowadays a few indie developers are making their work available on GOG. Some of the games such as Driftmoon are in genres I really like. Anyway, I have rambled on here, when all I really meant to say was that if you have any interest in good, old-fashioned games you should take a look at the site.