Dana Wireless: The Laptop Alternative Cuts The Wires

A bout this time last year, we reviewed the original Dana by AlphaSmart and found it to be a capable alternative to a laptop in many respects. It has a wonderfully large keyboard, an expansive screen, and uses the Palm OS, which gives it the ability to run thousands of Palm applications. Many of those Palm OS apps can even take advantage of the larger screen real estate. Dana can run weeks on a full charge, or, if you are caught without a means to recharge either by USB or with the provided AC charger, and you can easily swap out Danais rechargeable batteries for regular alkalines to get through.

Late last year AlphaSmart sent us a new version of the Dana to look over. This new Dana had all sorts of improvements, from a better, more readable screen to more on-board memory, but the icing on this cake is the networkability of the new Dana; it has built-in WiFi. So, how does the new Dana Wireless handle? We thought youid never ask.

Good Stuff

AlphaSmart now offers two versions of the Dana; wireless and non-wireless. As mentioned earlier, we reviewed the non-wireless version and found it a capable device for the classroom and some niche uses. However, we took exception to the screen, which we found hard to read in low light situations, even with the backlight on, and the way the keyboard and screen are exposed when the Dana is in your briefcase or backpack . We loved the full size keyboard and the ultra-wide screen, and the included apps, like AlphaWord, made the original Dana a reasonable laptop alternative if you were willing to put up with some limitations.

Remote Keyboard

One neat feature we failed to mention in our previous review of the Dana is what weill call iThe Remote Keyboardi feature. It works like this:

Letis say you are walking along and are suddenly hit with an inspiration for some prose. You whip out your Dana and bring up AlphaWord and type away while still in the midst of your inspirational euphoria.

You return to home (and to your main computer), and now you want to move your inspired text from the Dana to your Mac (or PC). First, bring up an application that accepts text input, a word processor like TextEdit or Word will suffice, next, open your document on Dana, then connect the device to your Mac.

What you should see is a dialog box informing you that, if you wish to send the document youive typed in on the Dana to your computer, simply press the iSendi key. When you do so the text you typed scrolls into the word processing application as if being typed by a very fast phantom secretary.

A very nice feature.

AlphaSmart has updated the Dana, giving it a screen thatis easier to read and more memory. The biggest improvement to the Dana, however, is the addition of a WiFi model that has built-in 802.11b connectivity. WiFi adds a whole new dimension to the Dana; you can now surf the Internet using the included DanaWeb browser, or check your e-mail using the included Mark/Space Mail app. Thereis also a chat application, which will let you jabber with your friends on either AOL-IM, ICQ, MSNIM, or Yahoo IM. The Dana Wireless also includes a great little app called WiStat, which, as the name implies, offers up the status of your WiFi connection.

We took the Dana to a local WiFi hotspot to see if connecting to the Internet is as easy as the instruction booklet seems to indicate. Before we could even think about connecting to anything we had to first install the WiFi-centric apps. Oddly, AlphaSmart did not choose to pre-load these apps, but everything you need is on the included CD. You must first load the apps onto your Mac, then select them for installation when you next sync. Once installed you are then ready to rock and roll.

Our wireless hotspot required us to register first with a MAC address (see the sidebar for an explanation), so we opened WiStat to get that info and gave it to our hotspot provider. Soon we were attempting to surf the web and check e-mail. Though the quality of any WiFi connection is dependent on many variables, the Dana seemed to have no problem connecting to the either the hotspot or achieving a good peer to peer connection via 802.11b.

Uh Oh!

If connecting to the Web on the Dana Wireless is not a problem, moving around once youive connected may be. As we mentioned earlier, Dana Wireless comes with a nice parcel of Web apps, one of which is the DanaWeb browser. We attempted to bring up some of our normal haunts, like Appleis Web site, and, of course, TMO, but we found that, while DanaWeb did connect to the sites, what was displayed was far from what modern computer users are used to, and not very usable. The Dana does not seem to have the processor umph to crunch Web sites with any real finesse, even when you ask DanaWeb not to bring down pictures or use Java scripts. For example; bringing up the CNN Web site took a full minute and a half, Appleis Web site took 2 minutes.

We contacted AlphaSmart and they suggested that we try a different type of browser, Blazer, which is designed for Web browsing on a small window and requires memory. Blazer cost US$20. We downloaded Blazer, loaded it on the Dana without a hitch, then went back to our local wireless hotspot to test Web surfing again. What we found was both heartening and a bit disappointing.

Blazer is a fine PDA web browser and worked flawlessly when we fired up the Dana. The problem is that Blazer is designed for dinky PDA windows, and Dana has 3 times the viewing real estate of a typical Palm PDA. So, what you wind up with is a small PDA size window from which to view the web, which is kind of silly since you have so much more room.

So, you either surf the Web using a slow browser that makes use of Danais big screen, or use one that is quick, but feeds you Web info through a tiny window. Since you will likely surf wirelessly from hotspots that donit provide an electrical connection, we recommend spending the 20 bucks and use Blazer. Thereis a certain attractiveness in terse Web surfing, you avoid so much advertising and can get the info you need quickly.

Getting the Message

Man does not use the Web through browser alone; being connected allows you to get mail and chat with friends. Dana comes with apps that let you do just that. Mark Space Mail is a nice e-mail app that puts Danais screen and wireless capabilities to full use. Instead of downloading the complete e-mail text that is stored on your mail server, Mark Space Mail downloads the header information (From, To, Subject, etc.) and the first sentence or two of the e-mailis body text. You can retrieve the full text if you need to by simply selecting the option.

The problem with this scenario is that the complete text of any particular e-mail isnit loaded automatically, so when you are offline, you have no way of reading all of your mail. Remember that e-mail text can take up a lot of space, and downloading the full contents of you mailbox can be an overwhelming proposition for the Dana, or any handheld device.

Some planning and mailbox maintenance should make it so that you can download the full text of your e-mail each time you connect.

Dana Wireless comes with a trial version of VeriChat, a catch-all chat application that will let you connect to different chat services. If youive used applications like Fire, Proteus, or Adium then you have an idea of what VeriChat is about. We had a minor problem getting our AOL IM account to see the server, but once we got past that we were able to chat up a storm.

Wrap up

The addition of the wireless capability to Dana add some new dimensions to an already interesting product. As with the original Dana, a person looking for a laptop alternative must understand that there are certain limitations when using the Dana. For the person whois wireless, and whose mobile needs are limited to brief excursion to the Web, a few e-mails, and a chat or 2 while away from his or her main computer, the Dana Wireless fills that need quite nicely, and for a price that even the cheapest PC laptop canit match.

One final note: The folks at AlphaSmart are a conscientious bunch; they noted two of the problems that we highlighted in our review of the original Dana; the lack of a cover for the Dana when the unit is not in use, and the possibility of accidentally turning on the Dana while it is jostled around in your briefcase or backpack.

AlphaSmart engineers came up with two very good solutions: First they have a variety of cases to slip your Dana into. These cases are designed to protect the Danais Screen and keyboard. AlphaSmart sent us a spiffy neoprene case to look over. The case has a stiff keyboard/screen cover sewn in that should go a long way toward protecting the Dana whilst in that hostile territory that is your backpack. Being made of neoprene means that the case will make an already rugged Dana even more so. The cases will be offered as accessories and will range in price from US$15 for the neoprene case, to US$49 for a portfolio case.

The second improvement deals with accidentally turning on the Dana while it is in your briefcase or backpack. AlphaSmart will be releasing a software update that will allow you to opt for a 2-button turn-on feature. The idea here is that, while your pens, candy bars, and textbooks can likely hit the one button that will turn on your Dana, it is very unlikely that can happen when 2 buttons are needed to turn on the device.

These two solutions should alleviate the problems nicely. Now, if we can get some more processing muscle and a color screen...

Product: Dana Wireless

Company: AlphaSmart

List Price: US$429

Any computer capable of running a Palm desktop.

Pros: Nice screen and keyboard, no trouble connecting to wireless hotspots, good for e-mail, chatting, and limited surfing
Cons: Can\'t compete with a full fledge wireless laptop for displaying Web pages (but isn\'t intended to), could use more processing horsepower.