When not supporting technology needs in the K-12 industry, Jeremiah enjoys camping and spending time offline in the great outdoors.
The Dana Battery Hack Can Give New Lease On Life To An Old Dana
All credit for this clever hack goes to Vance Fry, who detailed his process of how he made the hack and how it worked with his own AlphaSmart Dana. I'm documenting my own attempt at a spin on this modification to my Dana Wireless, and will include any issues or problems I experience with it down the road. I'll also update this article with status reports as I use my Dana throughout the first charge with new batteries in it.
What to Do With No More Battery Packs?
All Rechargeable Batteries (Truly) Die Eventually
I recently acquired an AlphaSmart Dana after I fell in love with my Neo2 that I found in a thrift store. When I wrote about my Dana, and the rechargeable battery pack that came with it, the battery pack was performing decently as could be expected with its age. However, it showed symptoms that indicated either reduced capacity or high internal resistance which caused the Dana to behave oddly, especially when I didn't plug it into a USB cable every other day to charge it. Sometimes it would act like it had been reset when hitting the On/Off button, or the few times I fiddled with the Wi-Fi app and received odd messages about the wireless card not responding, when it certainly did just fine when either plugged into a USB charger, or running off a set of disposable alkaline batteries.
I figured that it was just the battery pack's time to go and didn't worry too much about it since I knew when purchasing my Dana Wireless on eBay that the battery would likely be shot anyway.
Hack Your Dana And Upgrade to Bigger Batteries
Finally I decided it was probably time to take the tired, worn out, and possibly neglected battery pack take it in for recycling and give Vance's battery hack a try. It seemed simple enough, although initially I was hesitant because I typically don't make these kinds of modifications to things that I really like. Regardless, I grabbed my screw driver, my soldering iron, spool of solder, a small length of red wire I salvaged from an old PC power supply, and a four-pack of AA NiMH rechargeable batteries from Harbor Freight, which after a 25% off coupon came to a grand total of $5.24 plus tax.
The batteries I chose aren't exactly the same kind that Vance Fry used, which were the Low Self Discharge, or LSD NiMH batteries that can retain upwards of 80% of their charge after one year in storage. Regular NiMH batteries, such as the ones I purchased, tend to lose their charge over a period of months until they're ultimately empty or flat.
In my use case, since I plan to use my Dana quite frequently, at least once per week, I'll always have the opportunity to plug it in to give it a good charge to keep these batteries from going dead. The original battery pack that came with Dana's stored 1600mAh, which is basically a measurement of the capacity of the battery.
The AA cells I bought are packaged and labeled as having a capacity of 2200mAh, which gives me over 35% extra capacity beyond what the original battery could have given fresh from the factory. Granted, the battery pack that came with the Dana, as old as it is, probably can't even come anywhere close to its original capacity anyway, so it's more or less time for me to go with this future-proofing method, since Renaissance Learning, who bought AlphaSmart, no longer sells the original battery packs in the US.
The Dana Battery Pack
Tools And Items You Will Need
- Philips Screwdriver
- 3 x AA NiMH Batteries
- Wire Stripper
- (Optional) Soldering Iron and Solder
- (Optional) Electrical Tape
Inside The AlphaSmart Dana
Solder and Easter Eggs
Returning home with the new batteries, I backed up all of my text files to the SD card in my Dana. The apps were already safe on my PC and were ready to be reloaded once I was finished.
Flipping the Dana over, I removed the eight Phillips screws on the back case with a screwdriver, as well as the battery door screw, lifted away the back panel cover and surveyed the wiring setup. One thing that caught my eye was the little silk screened "easter egg" on the motherboard that seems to list the names of the developers of the Dana, or at least that's what I think. I'd seen others who had attempted Vance's hack come up with simpler variants of it, since the black or negative battery wire doesn't have to be changed since the alkaline battery tray and rechargeable battery plug's negative lead both share a common ground.
What I chose to do was keep the existing battery connector attached to the motherboard as is and desolder and remove the positive, or red, wire from the battery tray and motherboard. Then I took my salvaged red wire from an old PC power supply, cut it down to an appropriate length, stripped the ends, and soldered one end to the solder patch on the back of the motherboard labeled “NiMH(+)” and then soldered the other end in place of the original wire on the positive end of the battery tray.
I tucked the wires back in so the case would close neatly, replaced the screws for the back panel, inserted three of my new 2200 mAh AA batteries into the battery tray, replaced the battery cover and screws. Now at the moment of truth, I hit the “On/Off” button. The Palm OS logo flashed on the screen and soon I was at the quick setup flow. Success, I didn't end up ruining my Dana!
Restoring Apps and Discharging the Batteries Before Charging
I went about HotSync'ing my Dana to restore all of my apps, including Batmon which I used to see the percentage of charge remaining and voltage of the old battery pack. It was registering properly that I indeed was running from NiMH batteries and showed they were not fully charged but were rather low, as to be expected since they may have been in a warehouse and sitting on the store shelf for the last 3-6 months.
I decided to use my Dana until the batteries were sufficiently drained as to trigger it to go into standby mode before I let the Dana go through the process of charging the batteries all the way on its own. I intended to connect it to my USB power meter to see, one, how fast the Dana itself recharges a given battery pack, and two, how many mAh it takes to actually fill up the new battery pack I just cobbled together. I wanted to see if Harbor Freight was telling the truth about their rated capacity.
According to Batmon, the new batteries were registering as only being 9% charged. To drain the batteries as quickly as possible, I turned on the backlight and began typing this article up in a rough first draft form, saving periodically as I went. Less than two hours after first powering on with the new batteries, I received a low battery warning, which I ignored and continued to keep the Dana on until it powered down on its own and wouldn't wake back up. Then I quickly plugged a USB cable into it to recharge with a USB power meter in-line between the cable and a USB wall charger rated for up to 1 Amp.
Dana USB Charging Observations With New Batteries
From the dead-as-a-doornail sleep or standby mode the Dana goes into when the batteries are exhausted, my USB power meter registered that it was pulling 0.35 Amps at just shy of 5 Volts. As time went on, over the first hour the current draw slowly dropped down to about 0.25 Amps. So far so good, the Dana wasn't trying to cook my new batteries and at the current pace, it would probably take somewhere between eight and ten hours of charging to fill up the new batteries.
The next morning, according to my USB meter, my Dana had consumed 2730mAh throughout the charging process. I expected it to be a little higher than 2200mAh on the first charge since these batteries were both new and due to the fact that charging batteries isn't 100% efficient.
New Battery Pack Discharge Observations
- Day 1: So far, I've been extremely pleased with the clever hack that Vance Fry came up with. Roughly 24 hours after first modifying my own Dana Wireless, with about two hours of use, including the backlight for some of that time, the battery level on the batteries I bought from Harbor Freight was still holding steady at approximately 96% charged. Of course, without using the backlight, the battery life will be somewhat longer, as using it puts an additional drain on the batteries.
- Day 2: New batteries are still holding up well at 93% remaining after about an hour of writing the night before. I plan on drafting up a new article and working on it sporadically over the weekend after Christmas.
- Day 3: I ended up fleshing out a whole new article the night before, more than I planned to but its ready for editing and having photos added to it. I'm starting off today at 88% charged, I used my Dana for about 3 hours the previous night, with the backlight on for a significant amount of that time. Since I won't be going to my parent's house until much later this evening, I may get started on another article to occupy my time today.
- Day 4: I again ended up with enough time to draft up another article yesterday before heading to my parent's for our Christmas Eve dinner and gift exchange. Battery wise, my Dana is still holding a charge of 84%. Before I head back to my parent's for Christmas Day, I may attempt to get another article drafted up so I will have plenty to work on for this weekend before going back to work. I must say I don't recall ever having typed so much in such a short amount of time, but not having direct access to the internet on my Dana really helps me to focus on my subject and get my thoughts down, rather than wandering off and letting one thing lead to another and wasting multiple hours just browsing the web.
- Day 5: I didn't get a chance to use my Dana as much as I thought I would before heading back out to celebrate Christmas Day with my family. Today I'm still showing a charge of 84%. I have ideas for lots of article topics and need to list them out so I have a way of seeing all of my ideas in a list. The built-in “To Do List” application is fairly handy for that, although I can just as easily type up a list in AlphaWord, but I like being able to check something off and mark it being done with the stylus, as silly as that sounds.
- Day 6: Starting off today showing a remaining charge of 79%. I'm happy I pulled the trigger and performed the hack on my Dana. Even with the standby drain that the Dana puts on its batteries while not running, I fully expect to be able to make it through the next 30 days before I have to recharge. Of course, that depends on how much I use it on a daily basis, and how often I use the backlight while writing. My goal is to get in at least an hour of writing on my Dana each day, though some days that might not be quite so possible.
- Day 7: Starting off at 77% charged, but that's probably because I only got to spend about an hour on my Dana before life got in the way. I may do some writing on it tonight after my effort to install Ubuntu on a laptop for a project is done.
- Day 8: Still 77% charged but that's because I didn't get to do any actual writing yesterday. So far the standby discharge isn't that bad on the Dana with the new batteries, or more likely they just have a lower rate of self discharge versus the old battery pack. In the meantime, I'll be fighting with my desktop PC and trying to fix some issues with Windows 10 on it, and may end up having to do a clean install to get everything right.
- Day 9: 76% charged and no writing done last night. I fixed my issues with my desktop PC by unfortunately re-installing Windows 10. This evening is a bit more promising for getting a chance to write and get my thoughts down for a new article topic.
- Day 10: After about 2 hours of writing last night without using the backlight, I'm now down to 74% charged. Since these are NiMH batteries, I'm beginning to wonder if the remaining battery charge will start to take a dive as the batteries' voltage decreases closer to 1.0 Volt per cell. I don't have a great familiarity with Batmon to know if it tracks NiMH batteries reliably through an entire discharge, since NiMH cells have a nearly flat discharge curve over the majority of their state of charge. Time will tell if Batmon tracks the battery level reliably on the way down to a 0% state of charge, or if it starts to show a rapid decline in percent charged after I've hit 50% charge. Overall, I'm still pleased with how my Dana is running on the new batteries so far, considering that I haven't had the pleasure of testing a factory brand new battery pack, but my MacBook would have been dead after at best two days from a full charge and accounting for battery drain in sleep mode.
- Day 11: Hiking today at Hungry Mother State Park in Marion, VA so I will not be doing any writing today since I'll be getting back late tonight. Battery charge level today is at 73%
- Day 12: Starting off at 72% charged today. With freezing temps that creeped in over night, I'll be working on a new article, although I have others saved up from Christmas break that I need to find photo's for and publish.
- Day 13: 71% this morning with a little bit of writing done last night, maybe about a half hour. I may do a little more this evening.
- Day 14: 69% today. Yesterday I wasn't terribly productive. I worked on beefing up an upcoming article that I'll publish down the road. Who knows what will happen tonight!
- Day 15: 68% and no writing achieved yesterday unfortunately.
- Day 16: 66% today, and so far the standby discharge doesn't seem all that bad.
- Day 18: 53%. I haven't really touched my Dana at all in the last couple of days since I'm preparing to go back to school this semester and have been rather too busy to do any writing now, but I foresee using it to draft up my speeches for...ugh Public Speaking.
- Day 23: 37%
- Day 25: 29%
- Day 30: I've been so busy getting ready to go back to school and taking care of work that I haven't used my Dana for a while now, but as of day 30, the batteries are still holding a charge at 16%. I did make it a month, but not without taking an unintentional break from writing. Still it does show that the new batteries are working perfectly as a replacement to the worn out battery pack. With winter storm Jonas approaching, I'll probably go ahead and charge my Dana up tomorrow before the weather arrives so that I'll have a full charge and something to do if the power goes out and I can't leave the house.
Overall I'm happy with this hack, even though I've been too busy to do any real writing lately
AlphaSmart Dana User Survey
Conclusion And Reader Invitation
If you own an AlphaSmart Dana or the Dana Wireless, either with a weak or dead battery pack, or if you bought one second hand without a rechargeable battery pack, Vance's hack is definitely a great way to keep your Dana both useful, and avoid buying pack after pack of disposable batteries to feed it. Also, if you have tried this modification to your Dana, I'd love to hear about it in the comments, especially anything that you did differently, your experience after the modification, and what batteries have worked best for you as a replacement for the original battery pack.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Chris on September 29, 2017:
I just did the hack myself because...Why Not :) you can still use std. AA's in a pinch just as long as you don't try to charge them...
I don't have the rechargeable AA's yet...tomorrow I'll pick them up.. and I want to see if it will charge from one of those power packs thats 5000 mAh or at least prolong the charge as I need to run one of those LED USB lights to really see the screen when not in direct sunlight...
Jeremiah Simpkins (author) from Pulaski, VA on September 24, 2017:
As they say, there is more than one way to skin a cat. That's certainly a valid way to go about it. Myself and others might prefer to not rebuild the battery pack itself and just leave the option to swap individual cells or all of them in a matter of minutes instead of having to take apart a battery pack if something goes wrong or 1 out of 3 cells happens to be a dud.
It's also a, comparatively, quick and dirty way to get deal with getting a used AlphaSmart Dana without a battery pack and not wanting to deal with hunting down the appropriate connector. To each their own though!
Chris on September 24, 2017:
Just a question, Why?
Why do the surgery when all you have to do is cut open the old Alphasmart battery pack to save the connector...Tape three NiCads together attach top and bottom connector tabs..tape over them to keep from shorting them out...and plug it into the connector...
This way you can go back to the std AA's in a pinch as this was the original intention of Alphasmart... I'm I missing something here??
We did this a lot at a Electrical store I worked at...make new battery packed for devices
Jeremiah Simpkins (author) from Pulaski, VA on January 09, 2016:
Glad it worked, hopefully you still have many years left in your Dana!
Chris Bluma on January 09, 2016:
Just used this hack. Worked like a charm. Thanks!