The Hemingwrite: retro word processor with cloud backup and google docs integration



Hemingwrite: The 21st a century Typewriter?

@falcor, @beschizza

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h/t to @singletona082


No letters on the keys? Mavis Beacon wasn’t that good. Also, something about his cadence and personal habits tells me Hemingway was a hunt-and-peck-er…


Because, who isn’t nostalgic for 1990s technology?


surely you jest…


Dedicated word processors are actually 70’s tech. Probably earlier, but 70s was when it reached critical mass for the general public business to actually own and use.

80s would make it much more portable. LCD technology became widely used after it’s introduction. 90s everyone would be switching to laptops.


Reminded somewhat of the Z88.

Although I guess the big difference here is the cloud support, and probably the battery life.


Or, the successor to the 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 caps 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 a 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 because as a concept I want the Hemingwrite to exist in the market. I just don’t want it stuck labeled as a stupid hipster toy when it could do a whole lot more.

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.

Article originally from my blog:


Our use of them has wound down substantially; but I still deal with Alphasmarts in an EDU environment from time to time(nobody buys them anymore; but the ones that take AAAs aren’t exactly running out of battery options and the NiMH-pack ones are pretty durable; usually it’s somebody ripping some keys off and damaging the keyswitch matrix that gets them in the end).

Personally, I like the originals (well, the ‘pro’ through the 3000, the ADB-only ones don’t have much to interface with anymore…) better than the ‘Dana’ line. The Danas are more technically capable; but (as some might remember) PalmOS devices are…a bit eccentric… and ones with notably atypical screen sizes even more so. They are also a bit more of a hassle, occasionally prone to driver confusion, and the PalmOS ecosystem is pretty much dead so the extra power means little.

The classics, while brutally constrained, Keep it Simple, Stupid. You type on them. You plug them in and press the button, they type out what you typed in. You can use them as a keyboard if you really want to.

On the minus side, trying to get any sort of ‘bird’s eye view’ of what you are writing is severely constrained by the fact that you are using a four-line character LCD. I’m sure that it was economically necessary at the time; but it’s a pretty major sacrifice.


Well, I’m intrigued if nothing else. I doubt it’ll translate to a purchase because it’s pretty tough to beat one of the devices I already have but if it integrates well with Scrivener and the price isn’t outrageous, I guess I’ll consider it.

Don’t really need another 4lbs in my overnight bag though having more Cherry MX switches in my life is awfully tempting.


I’m a bit nervous about the design: certain compromises are likely unavoidable(real keyswitches adds weight and depth, unless you want backlit LCD of dubious resolution display size can get expensive (even Amazon charged a small fortune for their biggest e-ink reader and a nontrivial amount for the really-good-e-ink one, and that’s a company with massive bulk buying and a willingness to accept ~0 profit on most sales); but some of the wounds seem self-inflicted:

The original Alphasmart had a fixed-angle LCD; but that was only a virtue in the sense that it prevented hinge wear. Having to adjust your typing posture to get your desired viewing angle was not an ergonomic triumph, and not being able to fold for protection during transport was also a vice, endurable only because the screen was too small for some of the more common laptop LCD damage scenarios.

This one’s march down that path(complete with absolutely hideous twee-faux-retro-button-lobes) is some mixture of tragedy and atrocity. The amount of screen space(as best I can tell from the prototype, carved out from the main screen by a big aluminum strip) dedicated to a clock, battery indicator, and wifi-strength-thing seems jarring as well: If this is supposed to be the ultimate in distraction-free writing, why remove writing space to add some mostly irrelevant movement forever in your peripheral vision? If the battery life is that good, you shouldn’t need a continous indicator, and both time and wifi data are something you could call up on demand…

It just smells more like targeting the nostalgia than targeting the same objectives as the original with updated components.

(On another note does anybody else raise their favorite skepticism eyebrow when they see “Engineered to last decades” on the same project as “Evernote cloud backup”? I’m all for durability in my devices (Model M for life!); but let’s just talk about the odds that API-level integration with a specific cloud service will still be working a decade from now, much less several…)


Personally, I’d rather they go with this design:

Less fake retro and more functional. Possibly with a hinged middle so the display can be adjusted, and fold out legs to tilt the keyboard.


Looks neat. I guess they’ll keep the UI as simple as possible, which is probably for the best, but I can’t help imagining something with writeordie integration.


The only important question: Vi or Emacs?


Jesus. WHY? I find this completely pointless.


Load noisli on there and I’m sold.


A single task device that does that task exceedingly well is antithical to ‘all in one for everyone’ mentality. However not everyone is able to thrive in that environment. Ask anyone with ADHD, or someone that simply doesn’t want a tablet, or smart phone, to bang out their draft work on.

The device interests me. However the fake retro does not.


No need to wait for the device,
Just purchase:

  • an Onyx BOOX T68 Lynx - e-ink reader with front-lit 7.8" screen, full Android with Google play store and Bluetooth
  • bluetooth keyboard, or Bluetooth Desktop Dock, so you can use your geekiest mechanical keyboard.
  • any of hundreds writing apps available for Android
  • an app to lock down your Android device so you can’t distract yourself.



What? No carriage return lever?