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AlphaSmart Dana

Palm device with full keyboard for writers and students
by Shawn Barnett

Posted November 12, 2002

All manner of keyboards have been made for Palm OS devices. Full-size keyboards with elaborate mechanisms, small snap on keyboards that emulate a RIM pager, and now companies like Palm, Handspring, Sony, and Sharp have even integrated thumb boards into their designs. But no one has produced a computer with a full-size keyboard running the Palm OS--until the arrival of Dana, by AlphaSmart.

It's tough to define just what the Dana is. It's not really a Palm device, since it's not "palm-size" or shirt-pocketable. It's not foldable either. Not a clamshell, not a tablet. Not even a notebook. Most fascinating, however, is that it can do just about anything those other devices can. Except fit in a shirt pocket.

AlphaSmart is billing it as a "notebook replacement." Sounds odd at first, especially for those who use their notebooks for so many power-hungry jobs, like storing and displaying photos, playing MP3 files, and even playing DVDs while on the road. But when it comes down to it, many have discovered that all they really need on a trip can be done with a simple Palm Pilot, a modem, and a portable keyboard. These things purchased separately total between US$400-600. Then you need a word processor, office suite, and an email program. That adds between US$50-70. With the AlphaSmart Dana, it's all just US$399, plus between US$80 and US$130 for a compatible modem. Certainly comparable, and the keyboard and large screen cannot be duplicated.

Comparing it to a notebook or subnotebook, while it takes up about the same space as an Apple iBook or Sony VAIO 505 in footprint, it weighs only two pounds, has no hard disk to worry about, and doesn't heat up your lap. Its rechargeable battery is likely to last days instead of hours--up to 25 hours with the backlight on, according to AlphaSmart--and in a pinch you can buy three AA alkalines and go for over 30 hours with the backlight on. It's also rugged, so it can easily stand a three foot drop, on or off. Do that with an iBook or VAIO while it's on, and you'll likely end up with a lot of pieces, but very little recoverable data. Finally, there's no boot cycle. Need to pause to change planes? Just hit the power button. To resume, just hit the same button and you're back where you left off. We saw this idea with Windows CE Jupiter devices, but this is the first time such a large device has used the Palm OS.


The Dana has a solid feel, important for a computer that will encounter a lot of people whose motor skills aren't fully developed, namely children. AlphaSmart has several years experience in this area because of their nine years making computers like the AlphaSmart 3000, a non-Palm OS typing computer for schools (reviewed in the last issue). I was pretty crazy about the 3000, but the Dana is even better.

Its tough ABS body is dark blue/violet, and the keyboard section is quite a bit thinner than the 3000, offering easier typing when the computer is on a flat surface. The Samsung keyboard is superb. Great travel, good tactile feedback, and relative quiet. The keyboard on the 3000 wasn't this quiet, nor this responsive. It's as good as the keyboard on my Apple iBook, but feels significantly more rugged.

While on the topic of the keyboard and Apple computers, I should mention that the bottom left of the keyboard features both a Windows "ctrl" and a Mac "cmd" key, both in their traditional locations. The Command key also features the Palm Command stroke. The good news for one who straddles both PC and Mac worlds is that--at least in the built-in word processor--both the control and command keys will perform many traditional keyboard shortcuts, like Ctrl/Cmd X, C, and V for cut, copy, paste (to clarify, it's Ctrl on the PC and Cmd on the Mac). For most other Palm OS Command strokes, it appears only the Apple Cmd button will work. It seems like a good compromise that addresses the needs of AlphaSmart's traditional customers, used to the 3000, plus Mac and PC users likely to take an interest in the Dana.

The keyboard has eight function buttons and eight Palm OS-specific buttons across the top. All of these can be reprogrammed as desired by the user. The Date, Address, To Do, and Memo buttons can also be programmed to turn the device on when pressed.

Left and right of the screen are two stands for the stylus, to keep it at the ready for both right and left hand users. We've seen this in several products, including the Stowaway keyboard and several cradles. Normally, however, the stylus stows in a slot on the right side. This silo can also use Palm m500 styli in a pinch, making replacement easier.


The Dana being designed for a very different purpose, a different screen was naturally required. AlphaSmart worked with both HandEra, makers of the revolutionary HandEra 330, and Samsung. The result is a 560 x 160 monochrome screen with a real backlight. HandEra provided more than the adapted screen driver, they also programmed the virtual Graffiti area, which can be moved from left to right, as well as the screen rotation software. Yes, you can rotate the display into a columnar format and read it from left or right. You might wonder why you'd want to do this, but it allows for easy Graffiti entry and use while holding the Dana vertically like a clipboard and walking around. Because it can rotate left or right, it's compatible with both right and left handed users. Mobile data collectors might find the tall screen helpful for long checklists. Reading books could also be more Palm-like, which in turn is more newspaper-like, with shorter lines to scan for a quicker, less laborious read.

The screen is good overall, but I do enlarge the font while writing so I can see it better without squinting. An interesting problem comes up that one can better compensate for when the screen is only 2 1/4 inches square, and that involves reflections and polarization. Overhead lights are both a blessing and a curse. If placed just right, they'll give you light over the whole screen without reflecting into your eyes. Placed wrong they will either reflect in the glass or only part of the screen will appear illuminated. This is also true when the backlight comes on. The pixels in the left and center are well defined, but the pixels on the right are sometimes slightly faded. The technology is tuned for smaller screens, so it's to be expected.

Also, if the light is coming from a steep angle in front of you as you type, it can cast a shadow that can make reading of small fonts a little more difficult at certain light levels. Outdoors, performance is great in direct sunlight, a little dim in shade; again depending on light levels. In any case it's far more useable outdoors than the average backlit color notebook display.

I mention all these factors because the different mission of the Dana makes screen performance more important. Unlike a small Palm device, you can't just tilt the screen this way or that to eliminate glare or gather more light. A lap and tabletop offer fewer options. But the good news is that I've been able to write this entire story on the device in a wide range of lighting situations with little trouble.

Many of the programs included with the Dana have been modified to work with the wide screen, including the four main applications and the word processor. But the main applications window appears in the center of the screen, with the Graffiti area on one side and the word "dana" on the other.

The screen is vulnerable to direct impact with a pointed object, but was carefully mounted to deflect and absorb case impact when the unit is dropped from most any angle, according to Glenn Weyhausen of AlphaSmart.


The front I/O bezel is translucent red with more I/O ports than any other Palm OS device. We're talking two USB slots, IrDA, and two SD/MMC slots. The SD slots can be locked in place with optional covers that screw in place. This is so students can't remove the cards, and also to secure them from flying out if the unit is dropped. Two other screw mounts are for an optional handle or flip cover, to be released in a few months. The power input port is also here.


On the bottom is the reset button, easily activated with the tip of the stylus (a trend started by HandEra and now becoming standard on many other devices), and the battery door. Opening this door reveals the proprietary NiMH rechargeable battery. It can be replaced with three AA batteries should they run down. I charged this unit two weeks ago and have used it for probably six hours, most of them with the backlight on, and the battery level is currently reported at just above 3/4 charged. I have not recharged it since that first charge. That should give some perspective. The Dana offers battery performance worthy of a Palm OS device.

Rubber feet on the bottom are mounted only in the back, and do a decent job of keeping the Dana from sliding around while typing.


The primary application that the Dana was designed for--word processing--is enabled by a modified version of one of the best programs on the market: WordSmith. Renamed AlphaWord, the program's primary modification allows text to be displayed across the wide screen. It maintains the simplicity and power of WordSmith, complete with multiple fonts, spell check, and thesaurus. By default it is mapped to activate with the Memo button, and files are synced with the AlphaWord conduit. When the Dana is plugged into the computer, it can also serve as an offline typewriter, releasing text into the computer when the Send button is pressed.

When in AlphaWord, the eight function buttons across the top of the keyboard serve as document quick links. On the AlphaSmart 3000, these buttons were used to store applications so kids can quickly find and work on their files without having to first understand directory structures or even typing. Because the AlphaSmarts are often shared between classrooms, the files can be password protected so that no student can see or modify another's work. This feature is present in the Dana as well.

As an aside, when I showed the AlphaSmart 3000 to three children, between ages 8 and 12, each of them was completely familiar with it, and began using it immediately. "I only have to remember which number computer I used and which number button to press," said eight-year-old Joshua Atwater. As they each quickly composed documents of their whimsy, it became clear to me that the AlphaSmart concept has merit in the education field, offering a simple solution for beginning computer users.

Cutting Edge Software's excellent Quickoffice is also bundled with the Dana. It offers word processing, spreadsheet, and charting, excellent features for most business travelers. These applications have also been tweaked to work on a wide screen. Naturally, you can map the Memo key to launch Quickword instead of AlphaWord. Both offer conduits to sync either Word or Excel documents to and from the Dana.


Sending and receiving email requires some kind of modem or network device, since none is built into the Dana. But they did include some good email software, Aileron Mail. Also modified to work wide-screen, it meshes with the Dana nicely, offering a more laptop-like email experience. The full-size keyboard makes it nothing like as tiring as it can be with smaller-screened Graffiti or thumb-board devices can be for longer emails. Another benefit is the ability to remain online while responding, since it's far quicker typing on a full-size keyboard.

I used one of three methods to connect the Dana to my dialup ISP: the Psion Travel Modem. It's both a good functional and aesthetic match, since connection is through IrDA and the color of the Psion is just a slightly darker shade of blue/violet, with the same texture on the ABS casing as the Dana's. The Psion Travel Modem can still be purchased from a few outlets, including CDW, and HP Shopping (of all places) for US$120 to $149. An IrDA-enabled cell phone can also work, and a few USB modems will be able to work with it as soon as some drivers are written for the purpose, according to AlphaSmart.

PrintBoy from Bachmann Software is also bundled as a 30-day free trial. It comes with standard HP drivers that will work with many printers, and other drivers can be downloaded and synced to the Dana. Printing is through USB or via IrDA.

PalmReader is included for reading books. Interestingly, because the screen can be rotated on the Dana, the screen rotation feature has been removed from the bundled version of PalmReader. That could cause come confusion indeed; it's a good indication that the folks at AlphaSmart pay attention to detail.

A great inclusion in the Dana's OS is HandEra's CardPro file manager. The Dana's special mission in life requires such software, especially given its two SD slots. Frankly, the Palm OS needs an application like this as well, but it's clearly more necessary on a device with two expansion slots.

Special stuff

AlphaSmart has long sought to address the needs of all students, so there are many interface enhancements built in, with more in the works. Currently in Dana are multiple alternate keyboard layouts, including DVORAK, and right- and left-hand-only layouts. "Sticky keys" make key combinations easier to enter for the one-handed typist by making shift and control keys remain pressed while the accompanying keystroke is found. "Slow keys" make it take longer for a character to register, an option that can be controlled with an onscreen slider. Soon to be released are screen enhancements to make text easier to read for those with impaired vision.

Dana Admin

In a classroom setting teachers will need to control just which features are enabled on a student's device, so AlphaSmart offers Dana Admin separately. Sounds and beaming can be turned off until needed, for example. Eventually AlphaSmart Manager in conjunction with AlphaHub will allow teachers to set an entire classroom full of Danas at once via IrDA. Dana is also expected to be able to use the Palm Bluetooth card as well as upcoming 802.11b SD cards.

Augmented with eWallet, BackupBuddy VFS, and only the included software, the Dana has been a good companion for the last two weeks. Phone number lookup is as quick as any similar Palm, and alarms are good and loud. It was a bit strange at first trying to translate certain Graffiti concepts into keyboard format, like Command T to go to the top of a document, or Function + OK to press the OK button.

Typing on the Dana is a dream. I honestly think I'm faster on the Dana than on any other of my many computers, including the iBook. Odd, but true. As a writing computer, I don't think it can be surpassed. The Dana is proof that you don't need the heavy horsepower of a Pentium 4 or G4 multipipelined microprocessor/lap warmer sucking amps from the wall or high-tech battery to type a document, nor even to crunch numbers in a small spreadsheet. The power of Dragonball is more than sufficient, and far more efficient. Perhaps the best way to express my enthusiasm about the Dana is to say that most of the stories written in this and following issues will be written on none other than an AlphaSmart Dana. US$399.

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