Brighthand Reviews the AlphaSmart Dana

by Reads (23,031)

Front View The Dana certainly isn’t your typical handheld. It really isn’t a handheld at all. It’s something halfway between a handheld and laptop. It runs the Palm OS and most of the software written for it but it has a full-size keyboard and a 160 by 560 pixel screen. This makes it far larger than anything that could be logically called a handheld. However, I don’t think it can seriously be considered a full-fledged laptop. These days we expect a lot in a laptop, like huge color screens, CD burners, and other features the Dana can’t deliver.

With its feature set, I’m not suggesting that you turn in your handheld for a Dana but I would like you to considering getting one for your children. It offers the things students need without the complexity and cost of a full-fledged laptop. It’s also a lot more durable; the Dana has been designed to survive a 4 foot drop, which I don’t suggest you try with your laptop.

On the Outside

The Dana reminds me of some of the early laptops, especially the TRS-80 Model 100. It has a full-size keyboard below a horizontally-oriented screen. It doesn’t fold up like modern laptops. This means there is nothing to protect the screen, which concerns me. Its casing is ABS plastic, which means it is easily rugged enough to ride around in a backpack, but with nothing to protect the screen I’m afraid it will get scratched up.

The outer casing is 12.4 by 9.3 by 1.9 inches. The Dana weighs 2 pounds. Like I said, not your typical handheld.

It has a standard keyboard that includes function keys and arrow keys. It also has keys that launch the standard Palm OS apps. When I said it’s full-size I mean it; it is almost 11 inches wide, while the one from my PC is just over 11 inches. It can can be configured as either QWERTY or Dvorak.

The Screen

The 160 by 560 pixel screen is one of the Dana’s most interesting features. It can run most Palm OS apps in a 160 by 160 window in the middle of the screen. The Graffiti area appears on either the right or the left side. The Dana comes with several apps that make use of the full screen, like the built-in apps and AlphaWord, a word processor.

Screen

Though this is usually the most convenient way, these apps don’t have to have a horizontal orientation. The Dana can rotate the screen 90 degrees either way. This allows you to hold the unit with one hand and write in the Graffiti area with the other, useful if there isn’t a flat surface to type on nearby. Apps that have been specially written for the Dana then stretch all the way down the screen; others appear in a window at the top.

In less positive news, its a monochrome screen doesn’t have great contrast; it reminds me of the screen on the old Palm III series. Unless the light is fairly good, I find myself using the backlight. Fortunately, this isn’t the reversing backlight from the Palm III series but it is blue-green.

Also, the screen is simply black and white, with no shades of gray at all. This turns out to be one of the big limitations in what apps you can run on the Dana, as many games require at least 4-bit greyscale.

Connectivity

The Dana has an impressive array of ports. It has not one but two SD/MMC slots for external memory cards. Or one of these could be used for memory cards while the other has a Bluetooth wireless networking card.

It also has a USB port that allows the Dana to be connected to a printer. It comes with a copy of PrintBoy that allows it to print documents created in AlphaWord, Quickword, Docs to Go, and the standard Palm Doc format. It can also print these through its infrared port.

This infrared port can also be used to exchange info and applications with another Dana or any Palm OS handheld. It can also be used to HotSync.

Of course, the Dana doesn’t depend on infrared to HotSync. It also has a different port for a cable that can connect to the USB port on a desktop or laptop to HotSync. It comes with a dedicated AC adapter to recharge but this USB port can charge the battery, too.

Top View with Ports

Though this isn’t available yet, AlphaSmart is writing drivers to allow the Dana to connect to the Internet with USB modems. In addition, SyChip is working on an SD 802.11 card.

Battery Life

The Dana’s rechargeable battery is one of its best features. This device was designed for students and therefore it needs to be able to last through an entire school day without having to be recharged. It is more than successful at that. In fact, I can’t give you an exact figure of the Dana’s battery life because despite extensively playing around with it and writing this review on it, the unit I’ve been testing is still on its first charge and isn’t even half way discharged. AlphaSmart says it will last 30 hours before needing to be recharged and I think that’s quite possible. As if that weren’t enough, the rechargeable battery can be taken out and three AA batteries put in, extending its life even more.

If you are a professional writer, like to work in a variety of places, and are tired of your laptop running out of juice in just a couple of hours, you might consider getting a Dana for yourself.

Software

I’ve mentioned it a few times, but I wanted to say more about AlphaWord, the word processor that comes with the Dana. Regular Palm OS users will recognize it as a version of WordSmith. It offers most of the basic features you’d want in a word processor, like text formatting, a spell checker, and a thesaurus. However, it doesn’t have many advanced ones, like footnotes, images, and tables. Of course, its documents can be synchronized with Microsoft Word documents on a PC.

Like I said before, the Dana will run most Palm OS apps but not all apps will be able to take advantage of the full screen. Several companies have written versions of their apps that make use of its widescreen API, like Cutting Edge’s Quickoffice. This is important because it means there is a spreadsheet that can make use of the Dana’s unique capabilities. Other apps that are available include powerOne Graph, ThoughtManager, and Aileron.

The Dana runs Palm OS 4.1 on a 33 MHz Dragonball processor. This is a bit pokey but not unacceptably so. It has 8 MB of RAM, which is a decent amount, though not exactly generous. Fortunately, those two SD/MMC slots will let you store a huge amount of applications and files.

Conclusion

I know, this device is pretty limited when compared with a laptop. However, I’d like you to consider that sometimes limitations have advantages. Let’s face it, if you give a 14 year old boy a laptop, he’ll find a way to look at pornography on it no matter what you do to try to prevent it. This isn’t going to happen with the Dana. He also won’t waste a lot of time playing Doom on it when he’s supposed to be doing his homework.

Also, if you give your child a laptop, guess who’s going to have to spend a couple hours reloading Windows when they do something to screw it up. That’s right, you are. If they find a way to screw up the Dana, you press the Reset button on the back and the whole operating system and all the built-in apps are reloaded from ROM in a couple of seconds.

Another advantage it has over a laptop is price. The Dana costs $400, significantly cheaper than any new laptop. You could find a used laptop for that price but you’d have to give up the other advantages of the Dana I already mentioned.

As I’ve said many times in the past, no one device is right for everyone, but if you are looking for a simple, rugged word processing device with a full keyboard, easy upkeep, and long battery life, consider the Dana.


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