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Alphasmart's Dana word processor

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2003. Palm-based word processor handy but pricey hybrid tool. The Computer Paper (Eastern Edition), April:32.

Much though I love my Powerbook, packing it for travel is hardly an impulse decisio7n. In contrast, my Palm PDA is as portable as it gets, but as a writer's tool—it’s not, even with an external keyboard. I want a Reese's peanut butter cup: two great tastes, together.

One for the road

Enter Alphasmart’s Dana, a Palm OS 4.1 PDA the size of a sheet of paper and weighing less than 2 pounds. The full-sized keyboard is as good as any laptop keyboard: proper key spacing, full key travel, a lovely solid feel with quiet clicking, and an inverted-T cursor key layout. Disadvantages? Well, you can out-type the display while inserting text in mid-paragraph, but no data is lost and Dana kept up with me handily otherwise. The keyboard provides Mac-style Command and Option keys plus Windows-style Control and Alt keys that support familiar keyboard commands (e.g., boldfacing, copy–paste, moving between words, and “undo”), avoiding the need to rewire your finger habits.

Always on call

Like all PDAs, Dana wakes at the touch of a key so you can start typing where you left off. To hit the road, unplug the power supply and toss it and Dana in your backpack. The polycarbonate plastic shell seems sturdy enough to survive, but hang onto the bubble wrap; you’ll eventually damage the screen or keyboard working this way, or press the power key and drain the batteries. Fortunately, the battery recharge in 4 hours with the AC adapter or 8 hours via your computer’s USB port, which replaces a PDA’s docking cradle.

Taking a screen test

Dana's horizontal screen is both its glory and its biggest drawback. At three times the size of a PDA screen, there’s finally enough space to see what you're writing. The default font displays nine lines of text simultaneously at the width of a typical printed page. Better yet, a control panel rotates the display 90° and the software instantly adapts. You can't touch-type in this orientation unless you have ultra-flexible wrists, but reading e-books finally becomes practical, and you can still use the stylus for most tasks, including using Graffiti handwriting recognition. Unfortunately, the screen isn't particularly readable without the backlight, a tradeoff that provides a claimed 25 to 30 hours of battery life. The backlight significantly decreases battery life, but improves readability. Contrast is still on the low side in a dim room, and long editing sessions can be hard on the eyes.

Educating Dana

Dana is marketed to students and educators, and includes Dana Admin software for teachers that lets you disable beeps to keep the classroom quiet, quickly configure student Danas by beaming, or lock out beaming during tests. The Dana seems perfect for this market, except for its price: US$399 direct, with a $30 educational discount and volume pricing. Wonderful though Dana is, that's too steep for student budgets and compares unfavorably with a used laptop (at a similar price) or a used PDA with an external keyboard (about half that price). In exchange, however, you get generous expandability: an IrDA port for beaming, MMC and SD expansion slots, and two USB ports.

The bottom line

Dana is a marvelous tool for anyone who needs more than a PDA without the complexity of a laptop. Unfortunately, pricing it that high ignores the Apple lesson: wonderful products won't always justify high prices. Drop the price to $200 and Dana becomes an easy impulse buy, but at current prices, its great strength (straddling the PDA–laptop divide) becomes its weakness: too pricey to compete with basic PDAs, but not functional enough to replace a laptop.

Resources and detailed specifications: www3.alphasmart.com/

[A look back from 2009: This article is now 6 years old, and technology doesn't sit still. The Dana has evolved, and improved in many ways, and its overwhelming advantage remains portability and incredible battery life. But there are many new competitors in the "netbook" category of downsized notebooks. Many only weigh a little more and don't cost much more than the more advanced Dana models—some cost less!—but run Windows or Linux (so you can use your familiar software) and have much larger screens. Compare carefully before you buy!--GH]


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