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Hands On With the Hemingwrite

hemingwrite 1The Hemingwrite retro word processor is one of the more unusual gadgets to launch this year, and today at CES I finally had a chance to put my hands on it.

I spent some time today with Hemingwrite co-founder Patrick Paul, and he let me play around with one of the prototypes. It was a fun device, and even though the software was obviously in a state of flux and the prototype used components which may not make it into the final product, I could see that a lot of thought went into it.

The Hemingwrite is actually designed to be a far simpler device than I had been expecting. While I call it a word processor and it is running software which is similar to what you might find on one of those outdated devices, the Hemingwrite is actually intended to be closer to an even more outdated device: a typewriter.

hemingwrite ces 2015 proof

The Hemingwrite is running complex software, yes, but the software is being designed to limit the operations. For example, the three "folders" indicated by the switch on the left side would better be described as "stacks". There’s no actual folder structure nor can you view the file names; instead you get to tab through each of the open files in one of the folders, just like you would flip through a stack of paper notes.

The other software features show a similar design intent to intent to limit what you can do with the Hemingwrite. For example, there’s no way to move back and make a correction short of using the backspace key to delete everything (and they’re not planning to add one). I was told that the idea was that the Hemingwrite is intended for _writing_, and not editing, and so the user was limited to going forward rather than going back.

I could write more about the software features, but since the software is described as being incomplete I won’t go into further detail here.

Edit: But I should probably note that one or more of the upper KS tiers do entitle you to an SDK. You can write your own software for the Hemingwrite.

Physically, the Hemingwrite is as blocky as it looks. The prototype  I used had a shell made from milled aluminum, so it was considerably heavier than the production units will be, but since I didn’t have an opportunity to vamoose with the prototype that doesn’t really matter.

hemingwrite ces 2015 1

It is a very simple design with a switch on the left of the 6″ E-ink screen (folders), a switch on the right (Wifi), a power button, and the keyboard. This last was sourced from another device (the spacebar was scratch built, which is why it looks different), and was still labeled for functions not supported by the Hemingwrite.  In addition to the number row and the qwerty keys, there are several keys which might end up being mapped to various functions, but aside from the one print/send function key that is still up in the air.

In use, the keyboard was as nice as you would expect from a mechanical keyboard (although small). I usually type on a full-sized USB keyboard which feels mushy in comparison to the Hemingwrite, although mine might be healthier for long term use.

I noticed while typing that the design of the Hemingwrite is likely going to cause wrist problems. Due to the thickness of the Hemingwrite’s base, the keyboard is position in such a way that my hands were angled upwards while I was typing. That is a position you’re supposed to avoid because it puts stress on your wrist and could lead to carpal tunnel syndrome.

I would expect that Hemingwrite owners will want to buy a wrist pad to place in front of their unit, if they don’t already have one for their computer’s keyboard.

All in all this was a fun toy, but I’m not sure that the problem it is trying to solve justifies the $500 price tag.

If you think it does, you can pre-order one on Kickstarter for $400.  It is expected to ship in September, although I would bet for one reason or another (FCC, manufacturing delays, redesigns) it won’t ship until next March at the earliest.

P.S. I’m betting that the Hemingwrite will be redesigned to include a protective shell for the keyboard and screen.  As I sit here thinking about it, I don’t think anyone is going to want to carry it around loose like it is. That’s not how we carry laptops today, and it’s not how portable typewriters were carried (they had cases) for the simple reason that these devices are easy to damage.

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Scott_Tx January 7, 2015 um 10:52 pm

apparently fans of the trs80 model 100.

Nate Hoffelder January 7, 2015 um 11:06 pm

There’s more than a faint resemblance, yes.

Sharon January 8, 2015 um 4:26 am

Less than thrilled now with your report, Nate. Thanks. Not being able to use even the backspace key during writing would seriously cramp my style.

Nate Hoffelder January 8, 2015 um 7:03 am

Oh, you can use the backspace key; it’s just that there is other option for editing.

Richard Herley January 8, 2015 um 4:51 am

The name is unfortunate. I understand how they got there, but Hemingway is not everyone’s shot of bourbon and I would not want to be reminded of him every time I sat down to compose. I’m not talking about his politics, but his artificial and self-conscious literary style, his cruelty, his depression, and of course the fact that he ended up by blowing his brains out with a shotgun.

Moreover, from what you say it will suit only the minority of writers who just plough on regardless, without polishing as they go, and compose in a linear fashion (i.e. Chapter 2 after Chapter 1). A typewriter, even a pencil, is better and cheaper for people who work like that.

Then there’s the need for a wi-fi connection. So much for working in your hunting lodge in the foothills of Kilimanjaro.

Having once experienced the freedom and flexibility offered even by an inexpensive computer, why would anyone shell out $4-500 for one of these?

I wish the founders of the company good luck and salute their enterprise and hard work, but I fear this particular product will not succeed. I always liked the idea of the Alphasmart, especially the fact that it ran on AA cells — maybe that notion needs an update, with a better screen and running Linux so you can choose your own text editor and run spreadsheets as well to keep track of wordage, characters, etc.

Sharon January 8, 2015 um 5:57 am

Agree. When I can’t take my laptop with me, I can write with paper and pen and can still cross out what I’ve written (analog backspace key) And it travels easily with me wherever I go. Costs substantially less too and I can buy refills (more paper and pens) globally. 🙂

Steve Vernon January 8, 2015 um 6:21 am

My two-bits would be that they need to forget about that screen and build it so that you can use it with a regular monitor. They definitely also need to address the ergonomics of the thing – unless the user doesn’t mind keeping a rolled up hand towel on their desk in front of them to rest their wrists on.

This would be an item to REALLY push during NaNoWriMo – where the promoters could advertise the benefits of typing without the distraction of the internet – but in my opinion it is still going to be an AWFULLY hard sell for the company to make. The price tag is just a little too fat for what it gives you. Bulk sales will allow them to bring the price down a bit but they aren’t going to get those bulk sales until they manage to bring the price down.

Good luck to them.

Kate January 8, 2015 um 2:39 pm

Actually, using something to prop your wrists on is a really BAD idea. Throw away those wrist rests – they just encourage you to bend your wrists down and restrict that carpal tunnel.

The best position for your keyboard is at waist height, but if you can’t do that, then you really need to practice keeping your wrists either straight or slightly curved upward, not downward. If you’ve ever played the piano, then like that.

As someone who’s old enough to have learned to type on a manual typewriter, I have no idea why anyone would want this. It may seem 'cool', but you can really severely injure yourself from using it in its present form. Lots of people did back in those days. Let’s not go back there.

Alberto Nencioni January 8, 2015 um 11:42 am

They reached the 250.000$ goal in 32 hours, so in theory the machine has been already sold and paid.
Moralistic criticism of Hemingway’s values and lifestyle is really not necessary nor requested, and personal tastes about Hemingway’s the author have little influence on Hemingwrite the typewriter.
The founders are geek enough to know what a personal computer is and is capable of. That is exactly the reason why they made Hemingwrite what it is, and that is the reason why so many people put their money in the thing. It is the same reason that brings people to buy a vinyl turntable instead of an ipod, or a saxophone instead of a MIDI looper.
It is NOT the answer to Lenovo foldables, and it is NOT meant to be. It runs on the concept that editing should detached from writing the draft: it work for me and for many others, it doesn’t for many others. There is no conflict, no competition and no reinventing the wheel.

Nate Hoffelder January 8, 2015 um 1:14 pm

"They reached the 250.000$ goal in 32 hours, so in theory the machine has been already sold and paid."

But they’ve only sold 900 units. That’s not really enough to be proud of.

Alberto Nencioni January 8, 2015 um 2:02 pm

Again, it is not meant to be for all or for everything.
Writers are not so abundant, either, if you exclude blogs, forums, facebook, tweeter and associated social soup. Take also away from the count technical writers or assay writers, that need and use sophisticated programs like Scrivaner; subtract those (many more than you’d imagine) who do not use informatics of any kind, and you are left with the relatively small group of tech-savvy novel/comedy/ poem writers, of whom many work with standard word processor. And finally take into account that this is a Kickstarter project, and the majority of the REAL world has no idea whatsoever of even the EXISTENCE of Kickstarter or what’s happening inside it.
At this point 900 units sold in one day and half are, in my opinion, a more than respectable result.

Kate January 8, 2015 um 2:42 pm

Is word processing software MAKING you go back and edit? You don’t have to use that functionality if you don’t want to, but forcing someone to write only way seems to be counterproductive and uncreative.

Dickens never used a typewriter, let’s make everyone write in long hand!

You can still do that, too, if you want. It’s probably healthier than using a typewriter.

Roman January 8, 2015 um 3:15 pm

Thank you for an honest rewiev. I actually am the backer of this project, and still have quite a few doubts, whether I should cancel my pledge or not (unlike Alberto, who is very active in commenting and correcting other’s opinions). For one thing, I really would love to try to write on such a machine, but still find it so hard to justify its cost. I also almost can’t stand those talking about "philosophy" and "this is not for everyone" (Add a backlight and it will spoil a thing.. Just a minute, will it become a nuclear power plant? Or can’t you just let it turned off, if you don’t like it?) Well, to me, bad ergonomy clearly isn’t a matter of higher principles. Thanks again, made my decisions a bit clearer.

Nate Hoffelder January 8, 2015 um 3:23 pm

Thank you. I’m glad the details I noticed were useful to you.

Alberto Nencioni January 8, 2015 um 4:09 pm

Ergonomy is a "science" that tries to improve the tools, their shapes and their operating procedures to obtain an OBJECTIVE result: if you are right handed and have a plier and a bolt to tighten, there are only one or two shapes of the plier handle that allow you to reach the best closure with the minim effort and the minimum discomfort.
"Creative" writing, on the other hand, is a totally different thing. Inventing a plot is different from writing its detailed screenplay, a poem is not a novel and so on. Therefore the concept of" ergonomics" and of "best tool" is VERY subjective. A creative tool doesn’t necessarily need "flexibility" if the author has a personal, mature, well tested and managed personal workflow. Flexibility itself is quite an inappropriate term when you speak of machines like a PC or complex software like WP: a computer cannot deviate from its OS instruction set, a WP cannot write or play music (at least not easily). You should better use the term "greater offer of tools", where each tool does ONLY the thing programmed by someone who does not know you, your story, your needs, your stile.
Yes, a pencil is more, much more flexible.
You can write text and music notation, scratch your head, tap rhythm on the table, chew it to fight stress and even stab and kill an enemy. That is to say that FLEXIBILITY, whatever you mean by that, is not an absolute value or a shared universal need. I call friends with a 25$ "dumb" Nokia, photograph things with a reflex Nikon camera, take videos with a Samsung videocam, edit written things in Office and images in Photoshop, and when I feel "social" I switch everything off and go out for a drink with some PERSONS that I know and I like.
A "drafting machine" is perfectly OK with my workflow, my values, my life. Too often the modern idea of "ergonomy" and "flexibility" is stuffing all that passes thru your mind into a smartphone. In this way you have "Jack of all trades" gadgets that take bad videos, mediocre movies, write with difficulty, telephone badly and with faulty connnectivity, consume all the battery in 2 hours but, WOW, man, they can cook hot dogs with a dedicated app…
Well, at least 900 people in the world think different, may be perhaps " because they hear a different drummer. Let them step to the music which they hear, however measured or far away."
As many of you said "you don’t have to use this and that functionality". True.
You don’t have to pledge for the Hemingwriter, either.
If you are happy with your Mac, or your Alphawrite, stick with it…;-))

Peace and love.

Tyler January 8, 2015 um 7:04 pm

Just a quick look but why would you not buy this for half the cost?

Nate Hoffelder January 8, 2015 um 7:58 pm

I’d be concerned about the support for English in the menus. But I do think I’d buy the DM100 before I’d get the Hemingwrite.

Tyler January 8, 2015 um 9:05 pm

I just quickly looked on Amazon to see what was out there. I have one of those TSR Model 100’s btw. I think it still works too. It was cool to have at the time.

I think the Hemingwrite is pretty much just a novelty toy but I don’t see anyone getting serious use out of it.

Daily Links: CES 2015 Day 3 | The eBook Evangelist January 8, 2015 um 9:18 pm

[…] Hands On With the Hemingwrite (Digital Reader) […]

Mackay Bell January 8, 2015 um 11:07 pm

To me it would all be about the keyboard. I might pay $500 for a really terrific keyboard experience, like the IBM Selectric. But it doesn’t seem like this is it.

But it did get me thinking and a little Googling found a Selectric style keyboard for the Mac. So I’m off to Amazon.

Nate Hoffelder January 9, 2015 um 7:58 am

Where did you find that keyboard? I might want to get one.

David Haywood Young January 8, 2015 um 11:41 pm

Sounds like a worthy successor to the AlphaSmart Neo! Maybe.

Actually I’d shell out $500 for a device like this if the keyboard is even an inch or so wider than the Neo’s. The one flaw in an otherwise pretty good device.


Hemingwrite, por fin alguien ha pensado en los escritores May 29, 2015 um 2:00 am

[…] se puede borrar lo escrito. Al menos eso asegura Nate Hoffelder, editor del blog The Digital Reader, que pasó unos minutos con el creador de la Hemingwrite. Sí, la hemingwrtite ha sido pensada como […]

Kristen November 20, 2015 um 10:33 pm

The Alphsmart 3000 costs $25 on Amazon. Weighs 2 lbs and is basically indestructible. It’s the only gadget I want for Christmas.

I’m very surprised this has a $4-500 price tag.

Nate Hoffelder November 20, 2015 um 10:37 pm

Yes, there are a lot of us who like Alphasmart. For me, it’s the Neo.

Shiftwear Are $150 ePaper Sneakers That Will Never Ship | The Digital Reader January 5, 2016 um 10:56 pm

[…] contrast, when I spoke to the Hemingwrite/Freewrite developers at CES 2015, they had a prototype in hand and were ready to answer tricky questions about their screen tech […]

Got a Freewrite by Astrohaus? Want to Write a Review? | The Digital Reader March 19, 2016 um 2:30 pm

[…] but their piece was based on a brief visit to the Astrohaus offices. It was about as deep as the hands-on report I wrote at CES 2015, and both could do a better job at helping potential buyers decide if the […]

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