The 90s were a weird time for personal computing.
Computers were bulky and laptops were chunky. They had all the computing power of your kid’s scientific calculator (that’s untrue, the modern scientific calculator probably has more computational power than the average circa 1990 PC). PC Gaming was nascent. And, unless you needed something specific, like spreadsheet capabilities, it was more of a pain than anything else to use a computer if all you wanted to do was write.
I was given the choice between a PC and a word processor when I went off to college in the fall of 1992 and, without hesitation, I chose the word processor. Essentially an electric typewriter with storage capabilities, these were weird, transitional devices that existed in that liminal space at the dawn of the computing age.
But they were good at what they did. Even better, they didn’t allow you to do anything else but write. Former Apple engineers Joe Barrus and Ketan Kothari saw the utility of this and launched AlphaSmart. The AlphaSmart Neo was an inexpensive, education-focused word processor with a unique design. Instead of looking like a typewriter, it was essentially a flat keyboard with a small monochrome screen on the top. If you were a K-12 student in the mid-to-late 90s, you saw stacks of these in your school’s computer lab.
AlphaSmart was acquired in the early 2000s but distraction-free writing enthusiasts have been bearing the torch for the Neo and its brethren for decades (you can still buy used models on Amazon). It’s easy to see why. The form factor is ridiculously portable but still fully functional, with a full-sized keyboard and just enough screen to keep you on track.
That’s why it makes perfect sense for Astrohaus, maker of the Freewrite and Freewrite Traveler (essentially new school versions of old school word processors) to revive the AlphaSmart with their latest Kickstarter campaign, the Freewrite Alpha.
A New Neo
Go to AlphaSmart.com today and you’ll be taken straight to the freshly-minted Indiegogo campaign for the Freewrite Alpha (don’t worry, they got the blessing of at least one of the AlphaSmart founders). At a glance, you can see exactly where Astrohaus got their inspiration from.
The Alpha is basically the size of a sheet of paper and is about half an inch thick. But within that demure footprint is encased a full-sized, low-profile keyboard, a three-line LCD screen, and a kickstand, should you need to employ it.
The keyboard is fully mechanical, sporting Kailh Choc V2 low-profile switches (I’m assuming Red switches, given that this is meant to be a sophisticated drafting tool, not a machine-gun shooter). The LCD screen isn’t backlit, so you’ll want to write in a well-lit environment, but it should be able to keep up with fast typists much better than the e-ink screen of the laptop-styled Freewrite Traveler. The screen has a glare-resistant coating, so it’ll be easy to use in full light.
Alpha has memory capacity for up to one million pages. It can also sync your documents to the cloud (either Evernote, Dropbox, Google, or Astrohaus’ own Postbox). Its rechargeable battery (no more AAAs!) lasts a prodigious 100 hours.
Basically, it’s everything you need to bang out a draft of whatever you’re working on but without the distractions of a computer, tablet, or phone.
A Cheaper Freewrite
The other big advantage that the Freewrite Alpha has going for it is price. The early-bird special is $269. The retail price will be $349. Freewrite’s other devices range from $499 (Freewrite Traveler) to $999 (Gen 3 Freewrite, Hemingwrite edition).
That price, almost more than the form factor, makes the Alpha worthy of the AlphaSmart Neo legacy. The Neo was built as an affordable alternative to expensive personal PCs. The Freewrite Neo is the first Astrohaus device that flirts with true affordability.
But the Alpha doesn’t skimp on the minimalist design that makes the other Freewrite devices stand out. I do wish that there was a finish other than the “recycled plastic chic” look, though. I suppose it’s a bit much to hope for a writing focused design that’s less expensive and sports the glossy piano-finish and chrome accents of the other Freewrites.
Then again, the brutalist plastic enclosures of the AlphaSmart Neo devices were part of the charm. I wouldn’t say no to a 90s-inspired clear plastic enclosure as a stretch goal. While that isn’t likely, you can still grab a more stylish Italian felt or leather sleeve to tote your Alpha around in.
Why Do You Need It?
You don’t. You already have two to three devices upon which you can compose documents and write text. If you’re a writer, you probably have half a dozen niche word processing programs, all offering distraction-free environments.
But even the best app is still software running on a device that is dripping with potential distractions. Swipe out of an app or click over to another browser tab and your brain is running free, taking you down random rabbit holes and delaying you from finishing your draft.
The Freewrite Alpha, then, is the solution. Put your phone on silent, or turn it off, pull out the Alpha, turn it on and immediately start typing. There’s nothing to pull your focus. No bouncing notification or error message letting you know that it can’t find WiFi. Alpha doesn’t care. It’ll store as much writing as you’ll throw at it, then upload things when you get back in range of a network.
If writing can be thought of as driving down a dark highway, your words illuminating the story, the Freewrite Alpha is the closest emulation of that axom in real life. You can see just a bit of what you’re writing. Enough to stay on task. But you’re not distracted by what you’ve already written or the blank page to come. You can edit, but are limited to WASD arrow keys, so you have to really have to commit if you want to correct that typo.
It’s the tool you need if you struggle to stay on task. It helps silo the drafting and editing processes, which can make a big difference when it comes to creativity. We use different parts of the brain for each task.
If you’re nodding along with all of this, you should at the very least check out the Freewrite Alpha crowdfunding page on Indiegogo. Just launched today, it has 31 days left in the campaign and has already blown way, way past its initial goal. With a proven track record of delivering reliable hardware, on time, you can trust Astrohaus to deliver the Alpha when they say they will.
Head to the Indiegogo page for all the details.