Review: @Astrohaus Freewrite – the good, the bad, and the ugly

Note: See the update at the end of this post.

The Freewrite I ordered was at last delivered yesterday. Exciting! I’d been looking forward to getting it all week, so I was itching to get the box open and start playing with it.

The good:

There’s a lot about it that I like. The case is metal, solid, tough. The keyboard has a great feel – positive without being too click-clacky. Unlike a laptop, the thing sits nicely on my lap, even sitting in a comfy chair in the living room, without feeling like it’s going to tip backward, and the underside has enough friction that it doesn’t slide around on the knees. The e-ink screen is good and clear, with or without the backlight, and I had no problems seeing it clearly even sitting upright in said chair with the machine on my knees. The switches controlling the folder and wi-fi have a solid, positive feel. All in all, the mechanics of the machine are great.

The bad:

Anyone reading this who owns and loves a Freewrite will almost certainly disagree with me on this one, but I don’t like that it doesn’t allow any editing beyond the backspace and delete-last-word functions. Yeah, I know: part of the point is that it encourages you to work forward and think about editing once you have the first draft. I get that. My problem is that if I see a spelling error at the top of the screen, it’s like a big ugly zit that I have to do something about. Not being able to go back and fix it quickly is frustrating. Could I get used to it? Maybe. But that for me is a rough one. Even using my old Smith-Corona, there was always the Wite-Out option.

I’m not happy that certain settings can only be changed through the Postbox page on the web site. Want to change the font size? You have to change that in Postbox – so wherever you are, you need a device with internet access, and the Freewrite also needs to be connected via wi-fi so that it can pick up the change. I set the timezone on Postbox last night but the Freewrite didn’t get the memo until this morning . . . would a font size change take that long? I don’t know, but if so that’s pretty horrible. Couldn’t Astrohaus have put a settings screen in the machine?

The ugly:

Those couple of bad things are, at least, something I could get used to over time. But there are other things that are killers, to my thinking.

When I first switched the machine on, it flashed an Astrohaus logo; after a few seconds, that changed to a Freewrite logo. Then it went back to Astrohaus. Then back to Freewrite. And it did that for probably a couple of minutes before it came up with a message. “Booting”. That doesn’t look right. It smacks of something inside having a problem starting up. As a software developer, I’d say it smells wrong. But boot it did, eventually, so maybe it was just running some kind of self-test before starting the real boot process. It didn’t inspire a lot of confidence, though.

Once it was up, I checked the battery level; it looked like it was about 70%. Fine. So then I set up the wi-fi connection and started playing with it. This morning I checked the battery level and it was down around 50%, so I used the supplied USB cable with a regular charger (for some reason, even with a $549 price tag, it doesn’t come with its own charger) and plugged it in. It didn’t start charging (it’s supposed to show couple of little lightning-bolt icons in the status window, but it didn’t). I tried a different charger, and a different cable, and plugging into my laptop; no difference. For such a solidly-built bit of kit, that’s surprising and disappointing. It’s plainly faulty and will have to go back.

I hit the web site to find a contact form, and put in the details of the charging problem. Submitted. A couple of minutes later I got an email saying that they don’t do support at weekends so I wouldn’t hear anything until Monday at the earliest. WHAT. THE. ACTUAL.

So then I checked the Community forums to see if any other users had seen a similar problem, with the hope that maybe someone had a fix. But the Community is really badly named, because there are only two forums: Around The Haus, which is written by Astrohaus staff and read-only for everyone else; and Release Notes, with details about the various firmware updates. That’s it. No actual forum where users can swap tips and tales. No support forum where people can discuss problems and solutions. No actual Community.

Astrohaus: I find your lack of support disturbing.

So: hardware problem right out of the box, no support at weekends, no support forums, no community of users to consult with. That’s too many red flags for me, for such an expensive item. I’m sorry to say that on Monday I’ll be making use of the return label and sending it back. I’ll stick with my $180 Chromebook and Google Docs.

Update 25-Mar-19: I received not one but two responses from Astrohaus; the reason for the lack of support at weekends is that they’re a small company and don’t have the resources. The fact that they got on the ball first thing Monday makes me feel somewhat better. As such I decided to return the Freewrite for repair or replacement and give it another chance. Let’s see how this goes.

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