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It was, as I recall, a rainy night sometime in the late ’80s. I was standing in a dockside phone booth in Port Colborne. The ship I was travelling in, a lake freighter, was sliding down the draining lock just beyond the booth’s glass wall. I was writing a story about life on that freighter. Writing it on a TRS-80 Model 100, an indestructible brick of a notebook with clicky keys and a dull grey eight-line LCD screen.

I was filing my first instalment of the story back to my paper via a 300-baud acoustic coupler that squirted bits from the little notebook to the phone mouthpiece via a binary buzzing. The ship, my ride, kept sinking down; soon down below a distance I could safely jump.

The modem kept its rat-a-tat stream of ASCII characters. The ship’s deck was now out of sight. Finally, silence. Story filed. I grabbed the coupler, my TRS-80 Model 100 and dashed to the edge of the dock, landing a little roughly but unharmed as the ship continued its progress down into the emptying lock.

That story comes to mind because another boxy little word processor is on the market. But, while the TRS-80 Model 100 was the darling of journalists everywhere back when “We Are the World” won a Grammy, this new device is as useless and twee as artisanal toothpicks.

It’s called the Freewrite. It looks a bit like the Model 100 and a lot like the love child of a Kindle that had a three-way with a Selectric and a plastic model of the 1966 Batmobile. The $750, 10-kilogram Freewrite doesn’t do much of anything but lets you type on big clicky keys. Your words appear on a 5.5-inch e-ink display that isn’t even backlit. The kind of display that has the refresh rate of a sloth blink. A 5.5-inch e-ink screen. On a $750 device. You can’t move your cursor. Not cut and paste. No browser, no software other than the meagre OS it comes with. You upload your documents to the cloud via Wi-Fi, once you throw the mechanical “Wi-Fi” switch.

The Freewrite is supposed to allow writers a laser focus on the craft of writing. No tabs, no pings, no Facebook alerts, no web. Just type your masterpiece like Jack Kerouac banging out On the Road on a typewriter fed with a long scroll of paper.

The thing is, laptops and tablets have had distraction-free writing tools for years now. In fact, tablets with their full-screen apps, do a good job of encouraging distraction-free writing, especially when, with a single swipe, you turn off your Internet access. Plus, software and apps like iAWriter, Ulysses and many others clear your screen and give you a cursor/words experience that is as distraction-free as you would want.

If it’s clicky, mechanical keys you want, it’s child’s play to hook up a mechanical-action Bluetooth keyboard to any tablet.

And a Freewrite is about the same cost as an entry-level tablet, even with the cost of an external keyboard.

The Freewrite is not the first distraction-free word processing device brought to market. In 1993, you could have bought an AlphaSmart. It was, like the Freewrite, meant just for writing. It featured a real keyboard, a four-line LCD display and ran on two AA batteries. It sold for $270. You can still get one on eBay for $30. So, if you really want the kind of distraction-free writing the Freewrite promises, save yourself $720.

The final downside to the Freewrite is, of course, that you would look like a horse’s ass using one in a coffeeshop. It’s the kind of device that screams, “Look at me, I am an artisan so devoted to my craft that I will spend $750 on an ugly, heavy near-useless device, with a shitty little screen.”

Well, maybe you wouldn’t look like a horse’s ass if you frequented a coffee shop where would-be novelists eschewed even the Freewrite and decided to lug a vintage typewriter with them to write in public. Yes, that’s a thing. At least when I was using the TRS-80 Model 100 back in the ’80s, I had no choice, and I was by myself, in a phone booth, on a dock, at night in the pouring rain. Which really, is the only place, especially today, this sort of thing should be allowed.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for on technology and the Internet.

Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author.

Photo: Randy von Liski/flickr

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Wayne MacPhail

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years. He was the managing editor of Hamilton Magazine and was a reporter and editor at The Hamilton Spectator until he founded Southam InfoLab,...