Retro Writing 10 – AlphaSmart DANA

First, let me explain really quick what an AlphaSmart is. If you, like me, search around the internet for distraction-free writing devices, you will surely find the long line of AlphaSmart word-processing keyboards made by a USA-based company between 1993 and 2007. These were conceptually very simple – a keyboard with a small LCD that allows you to type, edit and save text and when the work is finished, connect to a computer via a USB cable to dump the contents.

I have wanted to try an AlphaSmart for some time now because, just like the still elusive and excessively expensive Freewrite, and the Japanese POMERA, the AlphaSmart keyboards are devices that were built with writing longer texts in mind. All the other things I tried recently were either PDAs that are mostly organizers with a short memo writing function or word processors that work best for composing corporate documents only a few pages long. On the other hand, AlphaSmart has a lively community (on Flickr of all places) of people who use it for writing longer prose and seem adamant about how great the devices are.

The reason why I was “hunting” for the later DANA model was that it uses the PalmOS operating system – something from the famous series of PDAs I already wrote about HERE. I’m very familiar with it, so I wanted to see also how well it works in this strange form factor.

My problem was that these devices are not easily obtained in Japan, probably because you cannot, by default, write on them in Japanese. So when I saw one on Yahoo Auctions, I bought it straight away. Either way, I suspected it was just a US device that someone got shipped to Japan and was reselling after being done with it. 

When my AlphaSmart DANA turned up in the post a few days later, I was able to confirm my suspicion – the unit has the number “1-3” written on it and a label saying “Chestnut Heights Middle School” on the bottom case. The school’s name sounds so delightful that I didn’t try to Google it in case I disappointed myself. Anyway, I first had to get the device to a good working state.

The touch pen was missing, but luckily another one from my PALM m500 fitted perfectly – it even clicked in place the right way.

The rechargeable Ni-MH battery was dead. But, if you disconnect it, three regular AA batteries can be used instead, so that’s what I did for now. A hack also allows one to use rechargeable Ni-MH AA-size batteries and charge them through the AlphaSmart. It’s very easy to do (with just a bit of soldering), so I’ll probably do it in the future.

At this point, I was more concerned that all my data disappeared when I changed the batteries. The manual said that the memory should last for up to 2 minutes allowing for a safe swap. I thought I knew the symptoms – something similar happened to me on another PALM device – I suspected the backup capacitor. I opened the device, unsoldered the likely capacitor (5.5V 0.33F), and discovered that it was dead, with juices leaking. Fortunately, I had a similar part, so I was able to get the thing working.

So, beware before buying! At least these models – DANA and DANA wireless – have age problem that will require some parts and soldering work!

Having that out of the way, I could put the device to a distraction-free writing test at last.

Hardware:

The AlphaSmart DANA is made of plastic (dark blue for the case with a nice red accent on the back) and feels very sturdy. I don’t feel afraid to put it into the laptop pocket in my bag just as it is.

The screen is big, wide, and angled pleasantly. On one hand, I wish it was adjustable like in a DSLR camera, but that would also make it more vulnerable to broken hinges and ribbon cables, so maybe it’s better as it is. The screen supports touch of anything pointy, so the pen is just a passive piece of metal and plastic (it has a reset pin inside, though – useful). The screen’s resolution is low at only 160×560 pixels displaying 16 shades of grey – but that’s plenty for bigger-sized text. The screen is also backlit.

I found the display okay. In good lighting conditions, it can be sharp and nicely visible. My only gripe with it is the shadow the pixels make, which can be a bother when the light is in just the wrong spot, or you look at it at a very shallow angle. The contrast, too, is just okay. Nothing on modern e-ink displays like Kindle’s or POMERA’s, of course, but still usable. I read that some users remove the touch-sensitive layer forgoing the pen input for a bit more contrast on the screen, but I don’t think that’s something I will be doing.

The pen is just a standard slim poking-stick hiding on the right side of the case, but it can be put in a small holder on either side of the device when writing. This is the same solution Apple used in their school-oriented device, the eMate 300, and I like it very much! Having the pen ready is nice, so you don’t have to hunt for it when you want to tap a word or select something from a menu.

Below the screen is the built-in keyboard, which is just MAGNIFICENT. I think it might be one of the most pleasant to use keyboards I have used, period. It’s clicky with plenty of travel, and the keys are well profiled, spaced, and textured. The size is also just right – even though it’s still compact, it has all the necessary keys in their full size, along with some function stuff to boot! Inverted “T” shape arrow keys, big SHIFTs on both sides, and both BACKSPACE and DELETE are also appreciated.

The only downsides for me are the weird position of the ESC key (swapped with the ON/OFF key, which causes obvious trouble) and that I sometimes tend to press some of the system function keys accidentally. I guess that this will get better with me using the device more. Overall the keyboard is a very strong point of the AlphaSmart!

On the back of the device, we get two (!) SD card slots, an IrDA port, a USB for connecting to a PC, one more for printing directly from the device, and a charger port. There is also an LED on the side.

Software:

You are supposed to use the device by simply launching the AlphaWrite app by tapping on it or choosing it with the keyboard keys, and BOOM! You can start writing. The app has most of what’s needed:

Multiple fonts (including installing custom, converted fonts), styles like bold, italic, underline, paragraph styles, indents, bullet lists, text-align, and even sup- and super-script. It also has many editing options: copy, pasting, word-count, find, replace, full-screen mode, and a simple spell-check and thesaurus.

The F1 to F8 keys on the keyboard allow for quickly swapping between eight documents (it saves and closes each, so it’s not hot-swapping, but still), and you can save them into the internal memory or onto either of the SD cards.

I’m guessing that the maker went for two SD cards to allow students to save their work on one and take it out (to give it to their teacher) while still having their other stuff on the second card.

When you finish your work, you can sync the device to your PC (provided you can use the old proprietary sync software) to get all the files converted into nice RTF files containing all your font styling. But suppose you just want to get the text out and don’t care about the formatting. In that case, you can also connect the AlphaSmart to your PC via a USB cable (the same type as a printer uses) and press the SEND button – this will simulate a keyboard and “type” your whole text into whatever text editor you have open on your PC. Done! Nice and neat.

The AlphaWrite application works relatively fast. The text scrolls with not much lag, and the touch works okay too. The whole thing can be operated from the keyboard only through shortcuts and menus. There are combinations of keys, like CRTL+arrows, that allow for fast navigation, and the menu can be browsed using the dedicated “MENU” key, so if you hate the pen, you don’t have to take it out at all.

I have to say that I enjoyed using the AlphaSmart in this “vanilla” way – it’s fast, easy to understand, and robust. The keyboard emulation is just so much fun to watch – your text just being typed into your computer never gets old. I can also connect the AlphaSmart to my iPhone via USB and send my texts to it on the go with no problem. I don’t care about the text styling either way – I adjust the font face and size mostly, so the text is easier on the eyes, and I don’t change it throughout the whole document. If I really want a title or bolded text, I can use the *asterisk* method for Markdown. As a simple, distraction-free writing machine, the AlphaWrite app works great!

But!

There is a small ‘but’ here, though. After using my other devices, especially those with the Windows CE system, I’m used to being able to save TXT and RTF files, and even DOC files too. And to open those formats from an SD card as well! On my NEC Mobilegear, I can save an RTF and pop the SD card into my Mac to have a file with all my font stylings if I need to. I can also easily exchange files between devices in TXT format – almost everything opens TXT files, right? Not PalmOS, though – it natively has only PDB files for ‘databases,’ and that’s it.

Okay, so the DANA is really a PalmOS-based PDA in a weird form, so I can install third-party software like on any PalmOS-enabled device and deal with my problem this way! Not really. Admittedly I did not try very hard, but all the applications I tested were buggy or just did not work. The DANA widescreen compatible versions of CardTXT and SiED seem unstable, are actually glitchy, and still only work with plain TXT format. The office suites (DocumentsToGo) save Word files with styling but are also clumsily ported with weird glitches (keyboard shortcuts don’t work for some reason for example) and freeze when I try to scan the SD cards for files.

The best I could achieve for both-way file exchange was only plain TXT files but here also I met with a lot of problems with letter encodings not being compatible – most modern devices I use save UTF8 files but PalmOS devices, as far as I can tell, use “something like Windows 1252 encoding but not quite.” Ugh!

After much fiddling, I decided that the most stable, least stressful way for me to use the DANA at all was to abandon the PalmOS third-party software hopes and rely on the stock AlphaWrite app, send my texts via USB, and that’s it. The only additional apps I have are a simple dictionary, a thesaurus (which I don’t use much, preferring my stand-alone electronic dictionary), and a file manager app. I have all these apps on an SD card, and save all my text files to the card too, just in case. I rarely leave the standard writing app. That’s it; with this simple workflow, the device works fine.

My only major problem with the AlphaSmart is the battery life – for a passive, monochrome LCD device like this, I expected to get by longer on three AA cells. I think 2, maybe 3 hours of intensive writing got the battery down by 30%, which is A LOT. I could go on writing a full day on one set, maybe two shorter sessions, but that’s still pretty short. Other users on the internet also report about max. 20 hours of writing on three AA cells. I still have to test the device with only one SD card inserted and after I do the NiMH battery hack, but this battery life leaves me slightly worried. For me, a distraction-free writing device should always be ready, so I can put it into my bag whenever I feel like going to write somewhere. I should not be bothered so much about batteries going flat and data getting lost if I don’t swap them fast enough.

One last thing about the “wireless” word in the name of the device. The AlphaSmart I have is the “DANA wireless,” which means it has WiFi. Theoretically, you should be able to connect wirelessly to servers for data storage and even browse the World Wide Web! But, of course, this device is old enough that it doesn’t work well with modern WiFi security protocols, so the wireless is more or less unusable unless you go hardcore with a dedicated access point, server, and all. The only good thing is that this version is a bit newer and has more memory and upgraded system files than the non-wireless one.

Overall, the AlphaSmart DANA wireless is a fascinating distraction-free writing device, well made, with the BEST feeling keyboard! The basic writing software is well-executed, but sadly, the weird marriage with the PalmOS rather than making it a more capable device, for me, doesn’t add as much value as I expected and drastically shortens the battery life. Rather than a full-blown operating system, I would prefer a robust build-it file management app and support for more file formats (TXT and RTF) and encodings (UTF8). The battery life problems are a heavy blow. Maybe it would be smarter to instead take a look at the AlphaSmart Neo 2, which seems to have a similar keyboard but no PalmOS woes and is rated for “over 700 hours of use on three AA cells”!

2 thoughts on “Retro Writing 10 – AlphaSmart DANA”

  1. Dzień dobry.
    Szkoda, że nie ma dobrego softu na ten sprzęt. Można się przygnębić, zwłaszcza jak nie ma narodowych znaków. Pozostaje starożytna metoda podstawiania innych symboli pod znaki narodowe a potem konwersja w wordzie.
    Oglądałem sporo materiałów o danie i była przedstawiana jako “nie do zdarcia i niezawodna”… Co do zasilania to proponuję wstawić kondensator 1F lub więcej jak będzie miejsce ( dla większego bezpieczeństwa). Na Palm os są ponoć programy do zwalniania szyny i to mogłoby wydłużyć pracę baterii jakby ją spowolnić do np. 6 MHz. Ogólnie to trzeba by zbadać przetwornicę napięcia i ustalić jak podaje stan baterii. Też wydaje mi się dziwne minus 20% po trzech godzinach pisania tekstu.
    Być może stan naładowania jest wyliczany tylko z napięcia, więc przy 1,2V dla nimh a 1,5V dla alkaicznych będzie fałszował odczyt..

    Like

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