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AlphaSmart Dana

Take an operating system designed for handhelds (Palm OS), and put it into a roughly A4-sized casing. Add a few neat features such as dual SD card support and a wide screen, and throw in a little ‘software stretching’ to take advantage of the width. Out of this mix of hardware and software features comes AlphaSmart’s Dana, a system that, the company says, is a true alternative to the notebook.
sandra-vogel.jpg
Written by Sandra Vogel on
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7.0

AlphaSmart Dana

Very good
Like
  • Lightweight yet robust
  • wide 560 x 160 pixel screen
  • full-size keyboard
  • affordable
  • long battery life.
Don't Like
  • Not as functional as a Windows notebook
  • most shareware/freeware Palm OS applications will not exploit the wide screen
  • slow 33MHz processor.
  • Editors' Review
  • Specs

Take an operating system designed for handhelds (Palm OS), and put it into a roughly A4-sized casing. Add a few neat features such as dual SD card support and a wide screen, and throw in a little ‘software stretching’ to take advantage of the width. Out of this mix of hardware and software features comes AlphaSmart’s Dana, a system that, the company says, is a true alternative to the notebook.

We took the opportunity to spend some time with a US version of Dana. The UK model, which will differ only in its keyboard layout, should be available towards the end of January.

School's in
Dana is intended primarily for use in schools, and as such it has been constructed with a few basic principles in mind. Of course, it has to be robust to take the bashing and crashing that only children can apply to a piece of technology. To that end the casing has been made from polycarbonate ABS, a material tough enough to take plenty of knocks; the screen is toughened too. Dana also has to be light: one of the reasons children dislike notebooks is that they are heavy to lug around. At 910g, Dana is closer to the weight of a textbook than the small library a notebook might represent. Schools are not known for having money trees growing in their playgrounds, so Dana also has to have an appealing price. At £350 (inc. VAT), it is far more affordable than the average notebook -- and, incidentally, also costs considerably less than Research Machines' new Tablet PC. IT in schools has to fit in with the way teachers like to do things. Dana can synchronise with a teacher's PC or Mac via a USB cable, while infrared can be used for data beaming. There's a second USB connector for a printer (printing is also possible via infrared), and AlphaSmart is expecting to launch a device called the AlphaHub some time in the first half of 2003 which will allow for classroom synchronisation of up to 30 Danas (or is that Danae?). This educational slant should not affect Dana's ability to function as a more mainstream device, and there's every chance that AlphaSmart can sell to anyone looking for basic data entry on a lightweight and affordable device. Certainly our experience with Dana leads us to believe it has a potential market beyond the classroom.

Features
The keyboard, which is very well constructed, is good enough to cater for fast touch typing, and provides a good range of shortcut keys to various functions within both Palm OS and applications. Key mapping to functions such as moving around in the Palm home screen and calling and selecting from menus is intuitive, and the screen is touch sensitive in the usual Palm way. On the other hand, the eight function keys have fairly limited use, and we were disappointed with the positioning of some of the keys. Most notably the Esc key is located to the right of the spacebar, with the on/off key occupying its more usual spot. Educational users will, it seems, be learning to touch type on a somewhat non-standard layout. The lack of a clamshell lid and relatively low weight make Dana ergonomically suited to being perched on knees, a position useful both for commuting and sitting in a comfy chair, while the screen is raised slightly at an angle that makes text viewing easy. The mono LCD screen is backlit, making it reasonably readable in dim lighting conditions. Battery life is far superior to any other portable computer we have used: delivering around 25 hours of working life between charges, it should be possible for most mobile workers to connect to mains power less than once a week. However, using the backlight, which will be unavoidable in some lighting conditions, will deplete the battery faster. If you do get caught short, the rechargeable battery can be replaced with three disposable AA cells. Meanwhile, the twin SD card slots allow you to have a backup card permanently in place, and use a second card without the usual hassle of swapping. That 190mm-wide screen stretches the native resolution of Palm OS 4.1 from 160 by 160 pixels to 560 by 160. This stretching has been employed in two ways. Several of the native Palm OS applications can be rotated through 90 degrees, which can be handy when viewing long To Do lists and Date Book listings, but isn't likely to be widely used. It is awkward holding the Dana at a 90-degree angle, and the rotation has to be set from the Home screen rather than from within applications, which is annoyingly fiddly. Data entry at this angle is usually possible via a software-managed Graffiti area, which sits at the bottom of the stretched viewing area, but the ergonomics of Graffiti at this angle are not great. We much prefer the way these applications, and the bundled AlphaWord word processor, use the screen's full 560-pixel width, allowing large chunks of text to be reviewed with ease. Applications that are not tweaked in this way – and this will include any of the thousands of freeware and shareware Palm OS applications available on the Web -- display in a 160 by 160 space in the centre of the screen, with the Graffiti area located to the right.

Applications
AlphaWord functions fairly well as a word processor, and comes with its own thesaurus, word counter and spell checker. Our spell checker was a US version, but we are assured this will be transformed into a UK one. The 33MHz Motorola Dragonball processor means that spell checking is a pretty slow affair, something the UK conversion is unlikely to affect. Several additional applications will be supplied with Dana for the user to install if required. These include: QuickOffice, a spreadsheeting, charting and document editing suite that synchronises with Microsoft Word and Excel; FontBucket, a font manager; and PrintBoy a printing (via cable or infrared) utility. How far Dana is a true alternative to a notebook is a moot point. Clearly this Palm OS device is not nearly as functional as a fully featured Windows notebook. Dana may therefore struggle to establish itself in schools, where Windows environments are far more common than anything else. And although it may be perfect for many commuters -- for whom word processing and the odd glance at a spreadsheet is all that's required, and for whom long battery life is a must -- its design may count against it. That's not to say that Dana is a bad piece of kit: in fact, it's surprisingly good.



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