Astrohaus Freewrite vs reMarkable
by Ploum on 2021-10-07
3 years ago, I bought two e-ink devices as a way to reduce the time I spend in front of a screen. A reMarkable tablet and an Astrohaus Freewrite writing device. What is really interesting after those 3 years is how different the experience was.
It must be said that both devices, while being totally different, have some common grounds: a new, independant and young company focusing on only one device mainly crowdfunded. But the execution was so much different that, in my opinion, it worths comparing them. This post is a small brain dump but if people find it interesting, I will work a bit on this comparison to make a proper long-form read.
As a writer, the Freewrite is really the kind of device I dream about. See my "Computer built to last 50 years" dream and you will get how close the Freewrite could be. The "could" is important here.
On the other hand, the reMarkable was more a "luxury/impulse" buy. The goal was to read more scientific papers without printing them (I don’t have a printer). Expectations were really different.
The experience with the Freewrite
Long story short but the Freewrite proved to be a disaster. A disaster I’m still using because there’s no alternative on the market but, without any doubt, it’s the worst possible implementation of such a good idea. I could list all the problems, all the stories I had with the company and the device. This might be a fun read for those who like rants. But let’s summarize it : the device software is so badly designed that if you type a bit too quickly, letters are mixed. The software can’t even keep up to speed with my writing speed. And managing files on the device require to use their proprietary cloud through wifi. The content exposed through direct USB is only a read-only version.
Basically, I was thinking that I could not imagine having a worse experience for such a dream device. Then they released the smaller Traveler version. That I had pre-ordered too, dreaming of it for bike trips. Wow. They managed to do it even worse. The device is basically unstable, even on a flat surface, when you type. They also removed the background light of the e-ink screen but managed to put, in front of a glossy screen, a huge white power LED. Using the device in relatively low light condition thus means starring at a blinding white LED.
Seriously, it’s like they didn’t even tried their own stuff.
Then it hits me. I remember that they closed their forum when their was too much criticism. I remember that their blog is mainly about "the great art of taking time to write" and never about them. The Astrohaus subreddit also taught me that they were able to flat out lie to their customer by ensuring them that no new version was in the pipeline only to announce a new model a couple months after that.
Astrohaus is not, as I thought, an hardware company which is really bad at software and community management. It’s a marketing company. They don’t care about the product. They care about making good pictures of what could be a good product. They care about doing a good promo campaign with pictures of hipsters sipping coffee while pretending to use their device. During the Traveler crowdfunding campaign, I even asked how much the device would open because on every cheesy picture, the unrealistic users were holding the device in a way that would make it impossible to use.
So they create a cool marketing concept. And because people like me like it, they end making the hardware behind the concept. Which sucks but more or less works. And because all the cool guys do it, they create a proprietary cloud platform. Which make the device harder to use and sucks. And, because, apparently, some software is needed, they throw whatever they could. To make the thing mostly unusable. (The original Freewrite battery dies in something like a few days without being used at all. In a device that weight several kilograms and has nothing but an e-ink screen).
The experience with the reMarkable
I use the reMarkable a couple of times per month. A lot less. But it’s so damn good. They were one of the first (if not the first) e-ink tablet with a stylus. I have the very first version. It still works beautifully, still receive regular software updates. Now, there are numerous other e-ink tablets on the market. there’s a rM version 2. But my first gen is working so well, why would I change? Even after one month of not using it, the battery is still fully charged.
I was not really happy with their Linux version of the desktop client. But reMarkable was so open about API and opensource that there are multitude of hacks,software you can add and open-source clients.
Recently, some development screenshots leaked that a paying version of their proprietary cloud was in the work. I was quite angry because I thought: "I don’t want to be tied to a paid proprietary cloud". Then it hits me: I’m not using their cloud anywore. I’m using an opensource client that SSH directly to the device through the local network. Or I could mount it with a simple USB cable.
The reMarkable team started with a simple idea: bring the feeling of handwriting to an e-ink tablet. They managed to do it technically, working with both hardware and software, optimising the speed with each version. Then, they wrote a software around it. Which was clearly not perfect (reading epub or managing lot of documents is a bit of a chore). But they improved it. They respected their first customers by bringing every innovation to the first device. They also opened their platform as much as they could because, hey, their goal was "handwriting on a tablet", notdeveloping proprietary software. Which made the device even cooler, with lot of hacks and independant software.
Then, in the end, they probably took some marketing pictures because everybody seems to do it to sell a device. But it was pictures with the real device.
Could the reMarkable be better? Probably. Lot of thing could be improved. But, at least, I feel respected as a customer.
This post is already too long for a quick brain dump. I let you make your own conclusions. The main point is that Astrohaus is the only company which does a device like the one I really need every day. If there was any competition in their market, I’m pretty sure they would quickly go out of business (or improve in some way). The simple fact that they don’t even try to be a bit more transparent, that they don’t even care to communicate make it hard to feel respected as a customer.
The success of the reMarkable seems to have helped huge companies understand that there was a market for e-ink tablet. It launched a huge competition.
Unfortunately for distraction-free writers like me, Astrohaus being so bad seems to have the opposite effect. As Astrohaus never become something more than a really obscure niche, every maker should think that there’s no market. Which might be true, I have no real idea.
But still, I’m dreaming of the perfect writing device. I may end up creating a company to do it myself if I find the energy and the partners in the next decade. But I would really prefer avoid that and throwing my money at someone else ;-)