Dana by AlphaSmart

Dana by AlphaSmart

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Next generation laptop replacement for mobile writing

Jan 31, 2003 (Updated Feb 2, 2003)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:light weight, great keyboard, great battery life, wide screen, no moving parts!

Cons:low-res screen, PalmOS apps & the "twig paradigm"

The Bottom Line: Dana is an ideal tool for anyone who does a lot of writing away from their primary computer -- reporters, authors, students, mobile businesspeople.


SUMMARY

Dana looks a lot like a laptop, but acts and is priced like a PDA. This makes it an **ideal** tool for mobile writing of all sorts; reporters, authors, students, and businesspeople will all appreciate the light weight, responsiveness, and comfortable keyboard. Dana is the fifth-generation product from Alphasmart, who has been producing "mobile keyboard" devices since 1993. In my opinion, Dana is a forerunner of an new breed of solid-state laptop-sized devices, made possible by low-cost, high-power CPU's and low-cost, high-capacity flash memory.

Although Dana runs PalmOS, it has a full-sized keyboard, and clever OS hooks almost entirely eliminate the need to use the stylus -- to paraphrase someone (I wish I could remember where I read this): 'PDA is pebble that you scratch with twig. Dana is a rock with hole for stick.' I'd add that a laptop is, comparatively, a boulder.

Dana isn't 100% perfect, but it is the premier mobile writing tool available today, and for many people will easily replace a 4-6 pound laptop with a 2-pound device.

DESIGN

+ Overall: Dana's overall design is very nicely executed. It has the feel of a tool, not a toy, and looks and feels appropriate in professional settings. Ports are all placed along the raised back panel, and dedicated Palm OS navigation keys augment the excellent full-sized keyboard.

- The only negative of the overall design is the power switch, which isn't a switch at all, or even a button -- it's the top-leftmost key on the keyboard. This unprotected location unfortunately allows for accidental power-on, either from contact when carrying Dana, or while typing (it's in the location where PC users expect to find the Escape key). This is a flaw, but not a fatal one.

+ Size: Dana is just over 12 inches wide by almost 10 inches deep. This is about the size of a folded "ultraportable" laptop -- except that Dana doesn't fold up.

+ Weight: Dana weighs only two pounds, and since the battery life is so much longer than any other device with a full-sized keyboard, you don't ever need to even consider toting an external power adapter. For someone who has carried a Thinkpad around for years (and I love the Thinkpad), 2 pounds is a vast difference from 6+ pounds -- Dana just disappears in my briefcase or pack.

+ Keyboard: Dana has a full-size, full-travel keyboard that allows you to comfortably touchtype for hours (if you like). Key travel, rebound, and overall feel are exceptional. I have not used the external keyboards available for Palm devices, but I expect that Dana's is probably superior. Personally, I find it just as comfortable as the keyboard on my IBM Thinkpad, which I prefer over most (if not all) external PC keyboards. The keyboard is also relatively quiet.

+ Wide screen: Dana's screen is 7.5"x2.25" at a resolution of 560x160 pixels. The overall width is 3.5 times the width of most Palm devices, and is enough to display 90+ characters per row, even in a relatively large (10-11pt) font. For better and for worse, this nice wide screen is the same screen technology used in the earlier Palm devices; that is, a low-res reflective LCD with only 4 levels of greyscale for "color" -- not nearly as bright, crisp and colorful as the latest Palm and PocketPC devices (or, of course, all laptops) with active-matrix LCD screens.

That said, Dana's wide screen isn't any _less_ readable than a good old Palm, and the fact that it's wide enough to display a full line of text (well, not just one -- but several!) makes a world of difference for reading and writing, and is one of the primary factors that make it a viable laptop replacement in many situations. Virtually all Palm applications will run (but not take advantage of the wide screen), and an increasing number have been tweaked to be able to make use of the full width. Since Dana doesn't have a hinge like a laptop, the screen is angled slightly towards the user. I find the screen to be readable enough (without the backlight) in well-lit rooms. In lower light, I sometimes use the backlight (see below). I suspect that the screen will suffer just as the older Palms did in bright sunlight.

Since the screen is not an LCD, there is an electroluminescent backlight which you may need from time to time. The blue-greenish underwater glow will be very familiar to Palm users. When Dana is on, hold down the on/off key for about two seconds to turn the backlight on and off. Like all Palm devices, it is also a touch screen, which you can manipulate either with the included stylus, or your finger.

(I still wish the screen were brighter -- can't wait for the Dana II!)

+ Durability/Quality: Overall build quality seems very good. Since Dana doesn't fold like a laptop, the keyboard and screen are always exposed. I recommend a protective sleeve such as those made by CaseLogic, WaterField, and others:

CaseLogic neoprene sleeve: http://www.casedirect.com/cgi-bin/sgrp0101.exe?GENO=&GENK=PROD,K101100102&GENF=02&T1=12+NCLE2+SB&UID=2003013106335019
http://www.walmart.com/catalog/product.gsp?cat=3951&dept=3944&product_id=1999489&path=0%3A3944%3A3951%3A4070%3A106545

WaterField SleeveCase: http://www.sfbags.com/ - WaterField says that Sleevecase #6 should fit Dana best.

+ Battery life: Dana runs on an included rechargeable battery pack or its AC adapter. Since there are no moving parts, the battery life is exponentially longer than with a laptop -- I haven't run mine down yet, but I've been using it for a solid 10 days, and the battery indicator still reads 75% full. You can also replace the battery pack with three AA batteries if you battery runs down unexpectedly.

+ Silence: Ah, the beauty of a silent device. Again, because Dana has no moving parts, there is no fan, hard drive, or CD/DVD drive noise. This makes the Dana much more unobtrusive in public situations (classroom, library, etc) than a laptop. No noise pollution!

FEATURES

+ No Moving Parts! Dana has no hard drive or optical device, just memory. With 128Mb SD cards now below $50, and 1Gb available soon, there simply isn't any need for a hard drive.

+ Instant On: Since the OS is in ROM, and all applications are stored in memory, Dana turns on and off instantly like any other Palm device. This alone greatly adds to usability.

+ 2 SD slots: Not one but two SD/MMC slots allow you to add memory, applications and networking. A BlueTooth SD card is already available, and a Wifi SD card should be available by March or April 2003. Alphasmart confirmed that their SD slots are, or will soon be upgraded via software to be, SDIO compliant.

SanDisk will be offering both WiFi-only and combined WiFi+RAM SD cards:
http://www.dpreview.com/news/0301/03010906sandiskwifi.asp

Palm's SD expansion card catalog:
http://www.palm.com/products/accessories/expansioncards/expansioncard_catalog.html

+ Infrared: standard IrDA port just like on any Palm device. Allows beaming to other IrDA devices (some cell phones, laptops), and printing to IrDA-enabled printers.

= USB ports: There are two USB ports: the "client" port (the type of USB port that you would typically see on a device, as opposed to a PC) is used primarily to connect to your PC via USB cable, but there is also a "host" port that can be used to connect directly to a printer. The USB host port does not yet support other types of USB devices, due to lack of drivers for PalmOS. For their explanation, see here:
http://www.alphasmart.com/cgi-bin/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=get_topic;f=22;t=000090

- no built-in BlueTooth: means more cables. argh. Yes, you can put a BlueTooth SD card in when those become available and supported... but it would have been nice to have it built-in.

= built-in memory: 8Mb may sound **tiny**, and it is, in relative terms, but on the other hand if you're familiar with Palm devices, you'll know that you can store quite a lot in 8Mb -- many applications are 50-100Kb, and text uses very little storage. Still, Alphasmart should have included more built-in memory. Another point for Dana II.

- no audio: no voice recorder or audio capabilities at all. A minor point, from my point of view.

USER INTERFACE / OPERATING SYSTEM

+ Palm OS: Dana runs Palm OS v4.1. The newest Palm devices run Palm OS 5, which runs on the ARM processor architecture that these new devices use, and also includes better support for multimedia (sound, images, video) -- but Dana doesn't have an ARM processor, and so Palm OS 4.1 works just fine.

As a long-time Windows, Mac and Unix user, I find PalmOS a bit frustrating in general. I hides its proprietary file system, and doesn't expect users to know, or care, where things are stored -- or want to move them. It requires translation or import/export for almost all file formats found in the PC/Mac/Unix world, except for raw TXT. It has lots a lots of cute apps, most of which only come close to replicating their computer-based counterparts (word processing, spreadsheet, database, PIM, etc). PalmOS may excel at powering PDA's, but it has a way to go before it can compete with desktop OS's. The argument that a leaner, lighter device should run a leaner, lighter OS does hold some water: Dana II should run Linux (or MacOS?)!

- Memory Management: As noted elsewhere, Dana has two SD expansion slots. Although many newer Palm OS devices (including Dana) support SecureDigital (SD) or CompactFlash (CF) memory cards, Palm OS still treats such cards as second cousins: making use of expansion memory is not seamless. Some, but not many, applications can be stored and run from expansion memory, and most, but not all applications can use data stored on expansion memory -- but this often requires some unfortunate trickery.

Palm OS v4 introduced the Virtual File System (VFS), an API that, IF implemented by an application, makes expansion memory virtually transparent. BUT, the vast majority of older applications do not implement VFS, and so a type of utility known as the "Transparent Loader" came about. Transparent Loaders sit between applications and the OS and fool non-VFS programs into thinking that things you have stored on your expansion card(s) are actually in normal memory. As you might imagine, this trick works well sometimes, poorly at others, and sometimes not at all. For example, ThoughtManager, the outliner application provided in a demo version with Dana, cannot [yet] be run from or use data stored on extension memory.

In summary, expansion memory will probably work fine for your purposes, but depending on what they are, it may require some fiddling. The situation will undoubtedly continue to improve, but this is certainly an area of weakness for Palm OS.

For further information on this topic, see Jim Thompson's introduction:
http://www.jimthompson.net/palmpda/Expansion%20Cards.htm

And Larry Garfield's excellent, detailed explanation:
http://www.infosync.no/news/2002/n/1772.html
http://www.infosync.no/news/2002/n/1787.html

+ Navigation: Although Dana runs Palm OS, and Palm OS is designed to be used with a stylus, Dana is designed to be navigable entirely from the keyboard -- and that design succeeds in most cases. Alphasmart has included OS extensions and dedicated keyboard functions that allow navigation of most Palm OS UI elements -- menus, buttons, pick lists, with (in general) efficient keystrokes. There are at least two exceptions (one minor, one less so) that I've found so far:

= You use Ctrl-Tab to navigate sequentially through controls in a dialog box. This works fine, but if there are a lot of controls, it can take a while, and I often give up and start poking at the screen with my finger (which of course works just fine).

- More seriously, there is no way to keyboard-navigate into a text-field list -- an example is the list of Applications in the "Delete" applications dialog. This comes up more frequently than you might expect. Luckily, all it requires is another finger-poke at the screen. I expect that Alphasmart will produce a software fix for this before too long. To be fair, keyboard navigation is (understandably) a general area of weakness for Palm OS, and Alphasmart has done a great job so far.

= Palm OS vs PocketPC: I won't get into this debate here, but it suffices to say that at this point, both Palm OS and PocketPC work fine for their current intended purposes as PDA operating systems. In my opinion, both will require significant work before they are ready to replace or compete with full-blown desktop OS's such as Windows, MacOS and Linux. Palm OS has far more applications than PocketPC -- but PocketPC looks and feels (at least superficially) much more like Windows, and is thus more approachable for many Windows users.

CNet on Palm OS vs PocketPC:
http://www.cnet.com/software/0-429669-7-1980872.html

Some other points of view:
http://www.bugnet.com/analysis/0202/ftpalmvce.html
http://www.palm.com/products/compare/palmos-vs-pocketpc.html
http://www.palmpower.com/issuesprint/issue199903/ninotwo.html
http://www.cewindows.net/wce/windowsce-palm.htm

USABILITY

Note-taking: Because of its light weight and instant-on-ness, I can use my Dana in situations where a full-sized laptop would be overkill -- not only in class at grad school, but also while reading or studying: Dana is light enough that I can keep it readily at hand and take notes while reading, which would be more difficult to do with a laptop.

Writing: In a few weeks of use, I've found the combination of the full size keyboard, wide screen, instant-on and unobtrusiveness makes Dana very usable in classroom and meeting situations. There's no whirring, beeping, or huge screen in front of your face as with a laptop -- just a little slate-like device in front of you.

Laptop replacement: With plenty of memory and the right applications, Dana could easily replace your laptop entirely, at least while you're actually on the road. I now use my laptop as my home PC, and Dana otherwise. Keep in mind however that Palm OS and Windows are different operating systems, and so you'll have to invest in a suite of applications that allows you to replicate your PC data to Dana. Some of this is transparent, some much less so -- many Palm OS apps require an export-import step, but the more recent, more sophisticated apps can often read and write PC-format files quasi-directly via their integrated "conduits".

PDA: Because it's a Palm OS device, Dana of course handles all of the usual Palm PDA functions. However, unlike a PDA you can't just stuff it in your pocket...

CONNECTIVITY

+ Internet: PalmOS does offer built-in support for internet connectivity over IrDA and piggyback modems, but I doubt anyone will make use of that sort of thing, now that CF and SD WiFi cards are becoming available. Once the SD WiFi card comes out, I'll update this review with feedback on internet connectivity.

= Synchronization

If you use a PC, you probably use Microsoft Outlook, and if you use Outlook, you're probably not going to want to switch to Palm Desktop -- which means that you're going to need a supplemental piece of software to synchronize between Dana and Outlook. This breed of application is known in the Palm world as a "Conduit". There are a few different ones available for Outlook; the most popular seem to be DataViz DesktopToGo, PumaTech Intellisync and Chapura PocketMirror. A comparison between these packages would be the subject for another review; for now, I'm using Intellisync.

+ Palm Desktop vs MS Outlook: Great comparison - http://www.palmpower.com/issues/issue200012/outlook001.html

+ PumaTech Intellisync: http://www.pumatech.com/is_desktop_main.html
review: http://www.palmpower.com/issues/issue200108/intellisync001.html
review: http://www.dgotech.com/morepalm/reviews/intellisync400/intellisync400.html

+ DataViz DesktopToGo & DocumentsToGo: http://www.dataviz.com/

+ Chapura PocketMirror: http://www.chapura.com/pm_professional.php
setup: http://www.palmpower.com/issues/issue200101/pocketmirror001.html
review: http://www.dgotech.com/morepalm/reviews/pmpro31/pmpro31.html

= Other Conduits: http://directory.google.com/Top/Computers/Systems/Handhelds/Palm_OS/Software/Conduits/

SOFTWARE

+ ThoughtManager: I use Dana for writing and taking notes. For taking notes in particular, I prefer an outline-based metaphor that lets me [re]organize my thoughts easily, and expand/collapse the outline to show/hide what I need to see when. On the PC, I use MS Word's Outline view -- very simple, and easy to navigate via the keyboard. After looking at **several** outliners for Palm OS, I've settled (for now at least) on ThoughtManager. While not perfect, it does do simple outlining quite well, and you can do basic navigation by keyboard. It supports Dana's wide screen, and it will even import and export MS Word outlines!

http://www.handshigh.com/html/thoughtmanager.html

+ DocumentsToGo: http://www.dataviz.com/products/documentstogo/index.html

WEB SITES

+ AlphaSmart Dana Product Page: http://www.alphasmart.com/products/dana_overview.html
+ AlphaSmart Discussion Forums: http://www.alphasmart.com/cgi-bin/ultimatebb.cgi
+ PalmInfoCenter: News & Reviews - http://www.palminfocenter.com/
+ PalmGear: Palm OS Software - http://www.palmgear.com/
+ PalmPower Magazine: http://www.palmpower.com/
+ Download.com: Palm OS Software - http://download.com.com/2001-2008-0.html?tag=dir -- Note: ZDNet is exactly the same.


Recommend this product? Yes


Amount Paid (US$): 399


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