I have been looking for a way to optimise my writing workflow and find a perfect setup for many years. I have tried numerous solutions, both software (word processors, markdown editors, notepads) and hardware-related (keyboards in almost every shape and form). The more I looked for a perfect setup the more I doubted it had ever existed. Experimenting, however, brought me an immense joy, even if paired with a bit of frustration at times.
I have always appreciated writing. It is a truly fascinating process, in which one can immortalise their thoughts, opinions and memories. I have learned more about myself by reading my old journals than through any other form of retrospection. But for me the act of writing is strongly affected by technical aspects and the smoothness of the overall experience. That is why I write a lot by hand, and use fountain pens on a daily basis. I care about the details of the process, as they can help me to immerse myself in the story I am telling without any external disruptions. That is why the quality of the writing workflow and specifics of the writing setup are so important to me.
For handwriting, I have already found the perfect solution1: a combination of a comfortable fountain pen with an excellent nib, good quality ink and acid-free paper. My daily driver is Aurora Talentum GT, currently paired with Aurora 100th Year Special Edition Gray ink and Leuchtturm 1917 notebook.
For typewriting, I have tried many solutions. It is relatively easy to find a good stationary setup. If one has no intention to move the hardware very often (or at all), a good mechanical keyboard with a high resolution monitor can be paired with a multitude of devices, from a regular PC, through a Mac, to a tablet or similar device. Having a dedicated space for a stationary setup means that one can invest in hardware that is optimised in terms of ergonomy and usability. An excellent solution would be a second, e-ink computer screen, used solely for writing, although they are hard to come by and pretty expensive (one of the best examples is Onyx Boox Mira). I would love to use it as a dedicated computer screen for writing, yet I cannot justify such expense.
E-ink screens are superior to regular LCD or LED ones, due to lack of a backlight and eye strain that comes with it. They have also excellent readability in the sunlight, which may not be a top priority for a stationary setup, but is a huge factor for a mobile writing station. There have been a few projects trying to use the advantage of an e-ink screen in a portable writing device, with mixed results.
One of the most notable examples is the Freewrite Smart Typewriter, produced by Astrohaus. I wrote about Freewrite back in 2016, when the first generation was available for purchase. The device combines a mechanical keyboard with an e-ink screen and some basic sync functions in order to deliver a distraction-free typing experience. Currently Astrohaus sells the third generation of the Freewrite, which, while virtually identical to its predecessor in terms of visuals, offers certain software enhancements. The synchronisation feature is also more developed, allowing for wireless sharing of the draft to Google Drive, e-mail or Postbox (Astrohaus’ proprietary cloud service). I must admit that I was seriously considering buying the newest generation of the Freewrite Smart Typewriter (they also sell a portable device called Freewrite Traveller, but it lacks mechanical keyboard and the screen, while still e-ink, misses the built-in illumination). Two things that ultimately pushed me away from purchasing a Freewrite were: unreliability of the device and the unfriendliness of the company towards users.
Both in the unofficial Discord server dedicated to Freewrite users, as well as their subreddit, there are many, many complains from dissatisfied users. Those users lost large parts of their drafts due to software glitches, had issues with syncing their drafts wirelessly due to company’s proprietary cloud service being down or had their Freewrite Smart Typewriters or Travellers rendered unusable due to hardware failure (battery swelling, circuit board failure, keys being stuck or unresponsive, etc.). To make things worse, Astrohaus offers only limited, 90-days warranty for their products, which is absolutely ridiculous considering the 500-600$ price tag for regular models (and even higher for special or limited editions). One can find many posts on Reddit in which users lament due to Astrohaus wanting an exorbitant amount of money to repair their broken Freewrites, and some hefty two-way shipping costs on the top of that. And good luck if you want to try and replace the broken part yourself: design choices made by Astrohaus make it nearly impossible, due to, for example, battery connectors being soldered (!) to the PCB. It is hard to explain such decision by anything other than hostility towards users wanting to repair the device on their own, since there is plenty of space inside Freewrite’s chassis to use a regular detachable connector instead. Heck, Astrohaus could even sell the replacement batteries themselves, extending the lifespan of their products, but apparently it is not in their best interest. I refuse to support a company with such dubious standards.
There is a viable alternative for people looking for a mobile e-ink device suitable for writing: Remarkable 2. It is an e-ink tablet which allows for the creation of handwritten notes, offers handwriting OCR for many languages, PDF annotations and more. Some time ago a Remarkable Type Folio premiered, an external keyboard in a form of a folio cover. It allows one to use Remarkable as an e-ink typewriter. Although Remarkable Type Folio does not have a mechanical keyboard, it still offers a portable writing solution with an e-ink screen free of backlight-induced eye strain. It lacks illumination, just like Smartwrite Traveller, so is not usable in a dark without access to an external light source. Unfortunately, the Remarkable Type Folio supports only a handful of keyboard layouts, with the vast majority of European languages missing. It means that one cannot enter language-specific diacritics, which sadly is a deal-breaker for me. Although I write most of my essays in English, I want to retain the option to write in Polish if necessary.
This is almost as far as the e-ink options go, both Freewrite and Remarkable do not have competition in their respective categories2. It is a shame, thought, because I believe users could benefit greatly from innovation and price drop forced by competition in the market. Nevertheless, both devices serve a niche purpose, and there is not much demand for an e-ink typewriter or word processor in general. Most people are okay with starring at backlit LCD or OLED screens and are probably not even aware of benefits of the electronic paper.
My current option for writing on the go is an 11-inch iPad Pro with Paperlike screen protector and Logitech Folio Touch. It does not offer full benefits of an e-ink screen, but it does reduce glare and resultant eye-strain. I have been a fan of writing on iPad from the beginning. I used the original Smart Keyboard Folio for 2018 iPad Pro, but sadly the quality of that thing was abysmal. I had Smart Keyboard Folio break down on me after a year and a half, and its replacement followed the same course. After that I decided to make an exception and not buy Apple’s Magic Keyboard for the new 2020 iPad Pro, mostly because I was still wary of all the issues with their folio keyboard. Plus, the price of that accessory, even for the 11-inch model, was eye-watering (in fact, it still is). Since my iPad Pro from 2020 does not support some new functions like Stage Manager on external display, I decided to keep it for as long as possible, and only buy Magic Keyboard for the new model, once I decide it is time to upgrade. And since the current model has been working like a charm for four years now, it might not happen anytime soon.
I am thinking about experimenting with an external mechanical keyboard connected to an e-ink tablet working on Android, or to a Raspberry Pi connected to an e-ink display. The first solution would be trivially easy to implement, but also quite expensive (e-ink tablets, especially ones with a colour screen, still cost a lot), while the second one would allow me to save some money but for the price of time taken to make everything work well together. For now, I continue to use my iPad Pro, hoping that one day I will find that elusive perfect writing setup.
It should be noted, naturally, that what is the perfect solution for me may not necessarily be the perfect solution for anyone else. I am not trying to arbitrary push my setup as the best option here, but merely to show you one of many possibilities. ↩
People often compare Remarkable 2 and Kindle Scribe in general, but for the purpose of typewriting Kindle is useless, as it does not support any external keyboards. ↩