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Dana - Part PDA, Part Laptop For Writers & Students

Review - Dana - Part PDA, Part Laptop For Writers & Students

by , 5:15 PM EDT, May 16th, 2003


Dana
Contact And Other Information
Manufacturer: AlphaSmart
Product Home Page: Dana
Description: Laptop alternative
Address: AlphaSmart, Inc.
973 University Ave.
Los Gatos, CA 95032
Price: 399.00 - Amazon
Telephone: 408-355-1000
Fax: 408-355-1055
Requirements:
System Used
For Testing:
The Dana unit itself

What exactly, is Dana?

Imagine a device that is smaller, lighter, and cheaper than a laptop, runs 25 hours on a single charge or an additional 35 hours on a set of 3 AA batteries, has a full size keyboard and a wide backlit screen for easy text input or eBook reading, includes typical PDA functions including calendar and date book, to-do lists and the ubiquitous address book. This device also includes a very usable word processor, and can run several thousand other applications; and what if this device were aimed at schools as a rough and ready alternative to the laptop, a device that may also find a life outside of the classroom? If you are thinking to yourself, "Hey! That sounds an awful lot like Apple's once great eMate," you would not be too far off. Dana, a laptop surrogate from AlphaSmart, shares many of the features of Apple's ill-fated classroom computer, but the two systems take different approaches to the same problem: to provide an inexpensive, rugged, and useful alternative to laptops.

Looking back

AlphaSmart's first product -- the AlphaSmart Pro, a portable keyboard with memory enough to store 8 pages of text (64k or RAM) and a small LCD screen -- was introduced in 1993, four years before Apple came up with the eMate. The AlphaSmart Pro, as well as every successive iteration of AlphaSmart devices, was and is Mac compatible, able to sync data while connected to your computer using AlphaSmart's own OS, and that's where the Dana is different; AlphaSmart chose to use Palm OS Version 4.1, gaining access to thousands of Palm compatible applications and making it able to sync data just like any other Palm device in the process. The company wisely ported their fine AlphaWord word processor to Palm OS, gave the Dana a screen nearly 3x as large as the ones on the AlphaSmart 3000 and endowed the Dana with more ports and expansion options.

Targets

AlphaSmart sees a need for Dana, a device that can fill the niche between laptop and PDA. Glenn Weyhausen, Senior Director of Marketing for AlphaSmart told TMO: "The Dana is targeting K-12, as well as higher education, including researchers doing field work.  Outside of education, AlphaSmart has been seeing quite a bit of interest among companies and institutions that have large field forces.  For example, a company that has a large number of insurance adjusters working outside the office on a daily basis, would rather spend US$399 for a Dana unit than the price of a laptop.  Similarly, the Dana is suitable for budget-constrained organizations such as state and county social services groups who have people working outside the office all day."

So, can Dana fulfill the promise of truly being a viable alternative to a laptop for the every Joe or Jill, or is Dana a talented bit player on the portable computing stage? Press on, intrepid readers, and see.


Nice keyboard, big screen, needs a cover
(Click for the full-sized image)

First Impressions:

AlphaSmart was kind enough to send us a demo unit. Five minutes from the time we first opened the box to typing the first words is testament to how simple Dana is to operate. As with many new portable electronic devices, Dana requires a full charge before you can actually use it unconnected, but you can operate it while charging, which can be done via the included AC power brick or through the provided USB cable connected to your computer. Like all Palm OS based devices, a simple touch of the on switch and the Dana is ready for action. After an initial and blessedly short setup you are ready to start using Dana. All of the typical Palm applications are there and AlphaSmart includes its very capable AlphaWord word processor, a nice touch for writers. Included in the box is a USB cable for syncing the Dana to your Mac, an AC power adapter for charging the Dana, and software including Palm Desktop.


Function keys access AlphWord docs quickly
(Click for a full-sized image)

Access Palm standard apps with these keys
(Click for a full-sized image)

One of the first things you'll notice about the Dana is its size; while it is definitely smaller than all but the tiniest full featured laptops, it is still bigger than you might expect, due, in part to the full size keyboard and larger display the Dana sports. Other features include an IrDA Infrared for beaming info to other Palm compatible devices and IrDA compatible printers, two expansion card slots (MMC and SD), and two USB ports.


Dana has enough connection options to satisfy
(Click for a full-sized image)

You may also appreciate the Dana's curvy lines and tough polycarbonate ABS shell, all part of the design philosophy that went into the Dana. About the design of the Dana, Mr. Weyhausen said:

"There were (and continue to be) a host of design considerations for the Dana.  From an industrial design standpoint, the product needs to be very durable.  Also, from an industrial design standpoint, the product needs to be lightweight and the keyboard needs to be comfortable for children and the disabled, as well as for adults.  The device also has to be able to run on a rechargeable battery as well as on off-the-shelf batteries. 

"In addition, communications capabilities are important.  The device needs to be able to incorporate both current and future communications standards so AlphaSmart can offer easy and cost-effective ways for users to print, sync their information with a PC or Mac, and work wirelessly, and as previously mentioned, the platform needed to support a wide range of applications. "

The Screen

There are two ways to look at the Dana's screen, from the perspective of a PDA user or from the view of a laptop user. From a PDA perspective, the screen is huge and many of the thousands of Palm applications can take advantage of the extra real estate. Looking at it from the laptop world, the screen is small and not feature-rich enough to use many of the latest graphic-heavy apps. AlphaSmart's primary focus with the Dana is to provide a usable means of creating and editing formatted text files without lugging around a heavy laptop. For this, the Dana's screen is adequate.

Under normal lighting conditions we found the Dana screen readable, but using it in less than optimum conditions presents a challenge. For instance, while banging away at the Dana keys in an office setting, we could easily view the text that was written. In well-lit settings, as we imagine most classrooms are, the Dana's screen performed well. In a home setting, however, perhaps while sitting in your favorite chair where the only illumination is a coffee table lamp, we found that the Dana' screen, even with the backlight on, was hard to read, making touch-typing a chore.

The Keyboard is Key

One obvious advantage that the Dana has over any PDA is its full size keyboard. While there are many add-on keyboards for Palm and PocketPC devices available, it's doubtful that any of them can offer the feel that the Dana keyboard possesses. Touch typers will love it. The keys are QWERTY configured with a row of function and 'hot' keys along the top. There is a distinct arrow keypad that can be used to navigate through any app. There is no separate number keypad but that's not such a bad thing unless you're an accountant.

The feel of the Dana keyboard may remind you of an Apple laptop, it's just that good. The keys feel firm and have the right bounce. The layout may take a bit of getting use to, however. The Delete key, for instance, is located where the CTRL key is located on most other keyboard. Worse, the On/Off switch is where the ESC key is normally. Fortunately, turning the Dana on and off is an instant affair, as it is with most every Palm device. There are no hard drives to spin up and no OS to load into memory because the OS always remains in memory. Whatever you were doing when you switched the Dana off will still be there when you power it back on again, exactly as you left it.

One thing that we didn't care for about the Dana's keyboard is how the characters are affixed; they are not etched in, they appear to be decals. This may not be a problem under normal circumstances as many current keyboards are made this way. Where we believe the problem will come in is the additional wear and tear the keys face while being jostled around in your backpack or briefcase. More on this in a bit.

Having a nice keyboard for text input is a real boon and is one of the Dana's biggest advantages over normal PDAs. Writers looking for a light weight device for cranking out text will find the Dana useful.

One nice feature about Dana and the AlphaWord word process; while in AlphaWord you can easily switch between documents by simply pressing one of the eight function keys and cut, copy, and paste between them. This feature is very helpful for writers or anyone missing the convenience of having multiple documents open.

Synchronicity

Getting data to and from Dana is as simple as it is with any Palm device. On a Mac you use Palm Desktop to manage synchronizing calendars and addresses. Those on a PC would use whatever software they normally use, too. You can easily move text files back and forth using the included AlphaWord Sync software. We were able to move this review to a Mac with only a few mouse clicks. The resulting file was an RTF document editable by any good word processor.

The Package

As mentioned earlier, the Dana uses version 4.1 of the Palm OS, which means that it won't have some of the latest feature offered by Palm latest iteration of its venerable operating system, but that doesn't mean the Dana is lacking features. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Syncing is a snap with just about any Mac or PC because, at heart, it's a Palm device. Running the Palm OS also means that Dana can run just about all of the many thousands of Palm compatible applications available either as freeware of for extremely modest fees.
  • Dana includes a sizeable dictionary and thesaurus and produces RTF files that are readable by Microsoft Word and AppleWorks.
  • Dana's screen can rotate 90 degrees to the left or right and is touch sensitive. Maneuvering around the Dana is as easy as touching the screen with the included stylus or with your fingertip.
  • Dana is lightweight. At barely 2 pounds, Dana won't tax even the smallest physique, so school kids, grandmas, or even some people with a physical handicap won't find Dana hard to handle.
  • Dana is rugged. AlphaSmart built the Dana with school kids in mind, so the Dana contains no spinning hard drives or other relatively delicate technologies that can break. Dana is covered in a tough polycarbonate plastic, and should withstand a fall from a desk without incident.
  • The Dana is long on battery life. We charged up the Dana when we first got it 3 weeks ago, and haven't plugged in the included charger or synced since. We wanted to see just how long we could use the device before feeling uneasy about losing data. Even though we've used the backlight for most of the time we've used the Dana, the test unit still had about 1/2 of the battery left. That's impressive but truth be told, you may not use your Dana the way you would a laptop. The Dana is designed for a specific purpose, to be a lightweight device for data input so the battery doesn't have to support high-powered graphic cards and such. So, battery life is bound to be more on par with PDAs than laptops.

And what about the future of Dana? What does AlphaSmart have in store for would-be Dana owners?

"You will see many improvements in the Dana as time goes on," explains Mr. Weyhausen. "There will be new third-party education applications that become available.  Plus, you'll see a classroom management system, like that for the AlphaSmart 3000, used by teachers to download information from and send information to a classroom full of Danas at one time.  You'll also see the Dana incorporating communications capabilities such as WiFi and Bluetooth.  Also, because the Dana supports SD technology, you'll see new capabilities become available that are based on SD cards."

That was Yin, this is Yang

Of course, nothing man made is without its faults and the Dana has its fair share. For one, the very feature that elevates the Dana above most ordinary PDAs, its full size keyboard and its large screen, may be the very features that prevent it from garnering widespread appeal.

The keyboard, as we said, is wonderful to use, but when not in use it gets in the way. Dana wisely allows you to rotate the display on the screen 90 degrees in either direction, making it useful for lefties and righties alike. But when using the screen in the rotated position the keyboard becomes this unwieldy mass with which you must somehow contend. The keys are not deactivated, so grasping the Dana so the it is comfortable to use in the rotated position also means that you may inadvertently press keys.

The screen's size makes it easier on the eyes when inputting info but it too can not be conveniently stowed when not in use. This can become painfully apparent when you stuff your Dana into your bookbag or briefcase. Unless you carry nothing that has edges or points and is hard, your Dana may survive the rigors of daily transport to your place of business. We used a large soft-sided mailbag-like satchel to carry stuff from home to office and back. During three weeks of testing, we carried the Dana in that bag with books, pens and other normal bag inhabitants. The Dana still looks good after the manhandling, but upon closer inspection we found some odd marks around the screen that made us want to be a bit gentler with the bag when the Dana was onboard; and since the keys, including the on/off key, are exposed to the same random in-bag poking, we have to wonder what sort of potential damage, or at the least, battery drainage, was taking place when traveling from place to place.

Which brings us to one last point, the Dana's size makes it hard to use in all but a few specific situations. Ideal for classrooms, the Dana is large enough for small hands to grasp and hold, and solid enough to take some pretty serious kid abuse. Outside the classroom, however, the Dana becomes too inflexible to find a home in many business or home applications. Writers will like the Dana, as well as anyone needing to input a large amount of text using Palm applications. Beyond that the Dana falls short on convenience, and that is the main draw for wanting a laptop alternative in the first place.

Bottom-line

We found the Dana fun to use for the most part, but then we tested it primarily as a writing tool. If the Dana's screen could be better viewed in low light situations and if one could fold away the very nice keyboard and cover the screen when either is not in use, it would be easy to say that the Dana is the ideal choice for students and business people alike who may not want to spend huge bucks for laptops when all they really needed is something with some basic functions.

Schools looking at the Dana should grab them up. Dana is very useable in a classroom environment and works well as a precursor to full fledged computer use. Test it out in your environment first to be sure the screen is adequate for your needs.

Writers will also enjoy using the Dana. This review was typed whilst your humble author was sitting under the shade of a tree. We found it better than a laptop in this case because there are no e-mail or instant messages to distract you while you work. That may change, however, when wireless and other add-ons become available.

But what about the rest of us? Is the Dana a viable alternative to your trusty but bulky laptop? If price is the limiting factor, then we'd say yes. The Dana will allow you to do work away from your computer as long as you understand the limitations and are willing to put up with some inconveniences. If you can afford it, however, a laptop with a small footprint, like the 12" PowerBook or the iBook, may be a better choice.


Final Score (Maximum Score is 5 Thumbs Up)
3.5 Thumbs Up
Pros Rugged, Palm OS version 4.1, Large screen, great keyboard
Cons No screen or keyboard protection, large size, screen need more contrast

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