Hemingwrite: The Next Alphasmart?


If you don't know what an Alphasmart that's OK, because it was a horribly niche device aimed primarily at schools that writers picked up and ran with. Here's their Wikipedia article to help give a few details. I do not own one and never have, so all of my information comes second hand via the yearly NaNoWriMo forum thread as well as nosing about the web when I was interested in getting one. For those not interested in clicking links the basics are that back in the early nineties several apple employees branched off to form their own company that made keyboards that you could use away from your computer then have it spit that text into your program of choice. I bring that up because the hemingwriter looks like another attempt at making a modern single task device centered on writing.


Personally while I like the concept, and want to be enthusiastic, there are enough things not said I'd rather wait and see before declaring this The Next Awesome Thing. Their site is sorta thin on specifics, and what I see seems nice enough, but I'd like to know more. Here is what their site puts forward as well as my thoughts on each point.



What their site says:
6+ week projected battery life – Pull a Thoreau and take the Hemingwrite to your off-the-grid cabin in the woods.

My Thoughts
Compared to the Alphamart Neo's 700+ hour battery life where owners would comment along the lines of 'Well it's been a year and it's still at 70%.' six weeks seems anaemic. However it seems nearer the Dana than the Neo in that it has a, relatively, large screen and WiFi. Stacked against the Dana's 25 hours of battery life buying a fresh pack or recharging once every month and change doesn't seem so bad. I will be highly interested in if that figure is with AA batteries, a rechargeable pack, and whether or not WiFi is on or not.

What their site says:
1 million+ page memory – Never worry about having to delete old documents.

My Thoughts
That is a lot of text. However I would like some hard numbers here on how much space there is, if you can subdivide between directories, if text is saved as plain text, markdown, rtf, or any sort of details. Plain text documents are absolutely tiny, with a full novel taking up 150 or so kilobytes of text, and a document with formatting not that much bigger unless it has images. For reference sake let's take your average three minutes and change mp3. Depending on compression that could be anywhere from three to five megabytes. Even with formatting I could have an entire book case of text that takes up the same space as a single mp3 file.

Storage was never something I was concerned about. However being able to cram a small library on the thing is nice. This is going on the idea the million plus words are saved locally rather than the claim going off what Google drive is able to hold.

What their site says:
Best typing experience with the highest quality mechanical keyboard switches – remember those old keyboards with great tactile feedback? This is like that but better.

My Thoughts
Their specs list this device as using cherry MX red switches. This means you get a mechanical keyboard that's going to be durable, serviceable, and likely if a key gets messed up you can replace the cap, or pop all the cap off to clean the crumbs and lent out. That won't be cheap though. The last keyboard I got was a rubber dome keyboard, which is 'eh', but for twelve bucks at Walmart nice enough. The cheapest cherry switch keyboard I could find from a reputable source costs eighty bucks. Granted for that price you get something that's likely going to last a decade or so of hard use, but that is just for the keyboard.

What their site says:
Daylight readable, high contrast screen with backlight for writing indoors, outdoors in the daytime or at night.

My Thoughts
I used to own the original e-ink nook tablet. That thing was very nice for being able to take pretty much anywhere to read with. Direct sun and even at full bright an LCD will be too washed out to read. E-ink however is going to read just fine no matter if it's full sun outside or if you have a reading light clipped somewhere pointing down at the screen. The problem is e-ink displays are fragile, and if this thing's display breaks I want a way to unscrew and replace it, or at least be able to send it to a guy that can pop w handful of screws, pull the bad display, then pop in a new one. Also, e-ink displays aren't exactly cheap. I'm pretty sure they're going with a six inch display as a compromise between price and being able to read what you're writing.

What their site says:
Syncs with your favorite cloud apps like Evernote and Google Docs so you can review and edit your documents later.

My Thoughts
There had better be not just local storage, but also a way to get your documents from the device onto a computer for final cleanup, formatting, and conversion to PDF/kindle/epub, blog postings, or whatever. I'm going to be picky here and go on the record with the fact I do not want it to use Bluetooth to connect for file transfers. Pretty much everything since the mid nineties has USB. I want to borrow a trick from alphasmart and plug into a computer/phone/tablet/whatever and it see the gizmo as a keyboard. From there you hit a key or combo of keys to have the thing automatically type whatever file is open into whatever text box the computer/phone/whatever has up. This will get around any chance of windows/Mac/whatever incompatibilities, updates breaking your ability to get files to and from, or anything like that.

Additionally I want it, when plugged in, to show up as a storage device and you can get files copied to and from as you like if you want to preserve formatting, or simply don't want to wait. Why have typing as an option then? Future proofing mostly. An SD card slot would be nice too for added redundancy. However as long as it's easy to get material on and off the device I won't mind so much if that isn't there.

What their site says:
Beautiful retro-modern design with built-in handle for easy portability

My Thoughts
That is up for debate here. At this point an actual full keyboard that doesn't use chiclet keys is retro-modern. The test unit seen in the site's press kit is also too flat for me, and the screen isn't tiltable which makes visibility an issue since I was taught to look at the page, not the keyboard. However a fixed position screen means no hinge or other mechanism to break or have dirt and grit clog up.

The site's blog says they want to go with aluminum. That'd make it pretty sturdy. However I'm just doing mental figuring here. Solid aluminum case. Cherry MX switch keyboard. E-ink screen. Wifi bits and a custom board to run everything. This is going to be too expensive for most people, myself included, to feel like they can justify for a single task device. After all I have a tablet, I can hook a keyboard to it right?it won't be nearly as nice, and will always tempt me with each notification, and it lasts only part of a day on a single charge... And can't be used in direct sunlight. However no matter how nice a gizmo is, I the consumer have to feel like I can justify spending money on it, or it's going to keep its purpose built self in a warehouse.

Going back to the look for a minute. I'm going to be blunt. It looks very 'pay attention to me! Look how trendy and retro and hip I am!' as flat out ugly as the alphasmart was it put writing above everything else. It didn't go out of its way to look like anything other than a keyboard with a screen attached. This thing with its levers and knobs is trying too hard. I get wanting to make the device nice looking, since you want people to buy it, however for me the look is 'Thing people with too much money buy so they get noticed'' Seriously hoping that changes between now and production.

Conclusions?

I have emailed my thoughts and concerns to the Hemingwrite team, and if they respond it will be posted on my blog. For now though I will say I am seeing a lot of 'I think it's neat, but want to wait til an actual production unit surfaces before passing judgement' here. I am not a professional writer. I do not make my money writing. However I write a lot of stories simply for the fun of it, and I missed the alphasmart boat. Sure I could eBay for one if this thing ends up falling flat, but I'd rather these people do well instead of relying on the second hand market.

Best of luck, and I hope my concerns will be addressed. You can find out more by going to their site.
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