How to be cool: Buy retro tech gear like Freewrite or Bambo Spark

by Peter Griffin / 05 August, 2016
To be cool in today’s tech world, you need to cultivate a taste for retro gear.
Photo/Getty Images
Photo/Getty Images

At the risk of blowing any tech cred I have, let me disclose that the most expensive gadget I’ve bought in the past year was a $700 electronic typewriter that looks like it could have been made in 1984. Meanwhile, the gadget I’ve enjoyed the most lately is a notepad with paper that I scribble on with an ink pen. Cleverly, it beams what I write or draw to my smartphone; when the notepad goes missing, as it inevitably will, I’ll have a digital copy of its contents.

What’s going on here? Next, I’ll be adding old Nokia handsets to my Trade Me watch list or shelling out thousands on a turntable that plays vinyl records.

There’s actually a term for it: retro tech. Yes, it’s a thing and it’s big. A lot of people, it seems, quietly pine for the days of chunky buttons and grey-scale screens.

And it appears to be millennials, the digital natives, who are at the forefront of the retro-tech movement. They never had keypads on their phones or the maddening experience of a cassette tangling itself in a stereo tape deck. They feel they’ve missed out.

I remember computing in the mid-1980s. It meant going outdoors to kick a ball around for 10 minutes while the tape version of Pitfall loaded on my ZX Spectrum. Now the games are an app-store download away and load instantly, in high-definition. There’s something just a bit too convenient, too easy, about modern technology.

Hipster heaven: the Freewrite.
Hipster heaven: the Freewrite.

More broadly, a lot of us are just craving a simpler, more organic experience, a return to a time when calendar alerts and Snapchat messages didn’t shatter our attention into hundreds of meaningless fragments.

I bought the electric typewriter as part of a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, persuaded by the designers’ vision of a “distraction-free writing tool”. Tech website Mashable dubbed it “pretentious hipster nonsense”. But the Freewrite, by Astrohaus, is exactly what was promised: an electric typewriter with big, tactile keys that make a racket and an e-ink screen that displays only the last couple of sentences you’ve written. There are a couple of switches on the front and a big red power button. I was excited to discover a word-count function.

Behind the scenes, the Freewrite connects over a Wi-Fi network to save your writing to the cloud service of your choice, such as Dropbox or Google Docs. Its battery lasts up to four weeks because there are no flashy graphics or processors to be powered.

Would I take it down to Caffe L’affare for a spot of writing over a flat white or two, like the guy in the Freewrite advert? Erm, no. I’d be laughed out of the place.

But the Freewrite tears me away from my computer screen and all its associated distractions to a place where I can just worry about getting down the ideas that come to me and where I’m not constantly editing myself as I go. That’s 700 bucks well spent.

Hipster heaven: Bamboo Spark.
Hipster heaven: Bamboo Spark.

In a similar vein, the Bamboo Spark notebook ($289) is for those of us who like to put pen to paper. I‘ve never taken to tapping notes on a tablet screen. Writing, drawing and scribbling in the margins in ink helps me think.

The Spark doesn’t need special paper – a sensor panel in the cover detects everything you write and draw and stores it in digital memory before transferring it to your phone via Bluetooth. It is easy to use and even does a reasonable job of converting my handwriting into lines of digital text.

These gadgets are part of a wave of reimagined products for those seeking a lower-tech experience. Flip phones have had a resurgence, Polaroid cameras do great business and Kodak is even producing a new Super 8 film camera. Sales of vinyl records and even cassette tapes have surged in the past year.

I’m clearly part of a progressive movement. All I need now is a designer leather satchel for my typewriter and a few days’ worth of facial hair to live up to the pretentious-hipster label.

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