Writing With the AlphaSmart Dana
The Distraction Free Dana Wireless
AlphaSmart Dana - A Perfect Writing Tool?
Recently, I wrote about my new-to-me AlphaSmart Neo2. I liked it so much and while researching its origins and features, I found out about it's predecessor, the AlphaSmart Dana. The AlphaSmart Dana was a Palm OS based device produced by AlphaSmart before they were acquired by Renaissance Learning, who went on to release the Neo and Neo2 portable word processors later. For serious writers who are looking for the convenience of a laptop without the distraction of the internet and games but want to be able to store more text on a word processor than the AlphaSmart 3000 or Neo model families, the Dana models that AlphaSmart produced can be a major upgrade.
There Are Two Different Danas
There were two models of the Dana produced, with the main differences being the amount of system memory, or RAM available for applications to be installed in, and a Wi-Fi equipped model. The base or standard Dana model came with 8MB of RAM while the Dana Wireless doubled that so users had a total of 16MB of RAM available.
First and foremost, I want to advise that anyone who expects to get online with a Dana Wireless, that is a fruitless venture. The Dana Wireless only supports 802.11b wireless networks and, from what I can gather, no encryption, which is a terrible idea in this day and age, let alone the fact that most wireless routers don't even support 802.11b, or Wireless-B, devices anyway. Even if you set up an 802.11b network just for your Dana, you won't get much done online, as most webpages have ditched their formatting for Palm based devices since they're otherwise obsolete in the modern age. You might be able to accomplish some success with email, if you can find the applications for that, but in my opinion, the Dana Wireless just isn't compatible with the modern internet anymore. Which makes it great for writing, because you can take it anywhere and there won't be any email, Facebook, YouTube or anything else to distract you!
In this day and age, the only reason why a person should seek out the Dana Wireless model (and you should if you're in the market for a Dana), is the fact that the last update released by AlphaSmart to fix major software issues can only be installed on the Wireless units. The only reason I can think of that would have led to the standard Dana being left out in the cold would be due to the lower memory capacity of that model, perhaps preventing it from being updated. I would assume that at this point, most Dana Wireless units available used from sources like eBay or Amazon have probably already been updated, especially if they were once used in schools and even with the updates installed, you will still have over 15MB of free space, which in and of itself sounds minuscule compared to a modern laptop, however for a handful of Palm apps, it leaves a massive amount of room for writing when compared to an AlphaSmart 3000, which gives roughly enough room for 100 pages worth of text with its much smaller internal storage, or the Neo and Neo2 models that came later, which would let you cram up to 200 pages of text on them with minimal amounts of smart applets and fonts.
Transferring Text From Dana To A Computer
In terms of connectivity options with modern Windows PCs, you can still use the Palm Desktop Software to perform Hot Sync operations and install other Palm applications, although on 64-bit versions of Windows, you'll have to look online for a 64-bit driver for Palm Devices. I can attest to Windows 10 working perfectly fine with Palm Desktop and my Dana and allows me to install applications successfully. For Mac OS X, I haven't looked into any sort of software that would allow me to perform Hot Sync operations but the Dana, just like the Neo2 and predecessors, can act as a USB keyboard for both Macs and PCs. Simply plug in a USB printer cable, with the squarish end plugging into the rear of the Dana, and the other end into your computer. Then open your favorite word processor, like Open Office (which I'm a big fan of), or Microsoft Word, Pages, or even Notepad if you like, and on the Dana, open AlphaWord and the file that has the text you want to transfer, then press the Send button twice. Pressing it the first time presents you with a dialog informing you that your Dana is acting as a USB keyboard, then gives you to choose a different send speed, before pressing Send again. The 'Fastest' option works perfectly fine on modern computers and will obviously make for a faster transfer.
Another option is to save your files to an SD card, which should be done in any case to prevent loss of your text. AlphaWord stores text in a .pdb format, which is the standard for Palm based devices and applications, but isn't easily imported into modern word processors. Dana users around the web recommend using CardTXT as an alternative to AlphaWord, which can save text as a .txt file, which any word processor can open. If you're trying to move a vast amount of text from your Dana to a computer, using this method is probably going to be the fastest.
Storage And Connectivity Options On The AlphaSmart Dana
More Storage Than A Neo2
The downfall of most Palm based devices from years past is that any data or applications that were stored in RAM were lost completely once the batteries in the device died. This is also true of the Dana and Dana Wireless, however the default applications, like AlphaWord which is the built-in word processing application, are kept safely in the ROM or Read Only Memory on the devices, so the factory default applications are not gone when they go dead, just any ones that you loaded externally, either through HotSync or from an SD card.
Speaking of SD cards, the Dana and Dana Wireless include not one, but two SD card slots. Using an SD card lets you save your writing where it won't be lost in the event of a dead battery event. This also greatly expands the space available to you for how much writing you can save and carry with you. If you're drafting out a longer novel or book, or working on several writing projects, you can stick in an SD card of up to 1GB in size to work with. Working with text only, it would take a VERY long time to fill up a 1GB SD card.
Dana Wireless Battery
When it comes to battery life, the AlphaSmart 3000, Neo and Neo2 still have the Dana models beaten by a wide margin, what with their 700+ hours of battery life from three standard AA batteries. However, compared to a modern laptop or netbook, the Dana's still have an advantage. Using three AA batteries, runtime varies between 20-25 hours of usage, based on other users experiences. Using the backlight feature can certainly affect that number, depending on how often you use it.
The Dana's were often sold with a rechargeable battery pack included inside the unit. In reality, this was just a set of three AA sized NiMH battery cells soldered together, heat-shrink wrapped with a plug that connected to a mate under the battery cover while the battery itself sat in the battery tray. For those with a Dana, or those who may be a prospective buyer of a Dana, if your unit has a rechargeable battery that has bit the dust, you can safely remove it from your Dana and swap in a set of regular AA batteries.
You can also find helpful information online about how to rebuild your rechargeable battery or as Vance Fry has done, hack your Dana so that you can just chuck in 3 rechargeable NiMH batteries in the battery tray and still have the Dana charge them via USB and operate normally. Shortly after I started drafting this Hub, I decided to take a leap of faith and trust my soldering skills and I hacked my Dana to use AA NiMH batteries.
Keep in mind that at this point, given that the Dana and Dana Wireless are both over 10 years old at this point, it would be very unlikely to come across one that has a working rechargeable battery. I guess I just got lucky with mine, but I'm well aware that it may be on borrowed time. The reason I suspect this is that my Dana becomes a bit fussy about powering on sometimes, although it shows that the battery is nearly full, and the few times I messed with the built-in WiFi apps, there is an error about the WiFi card not responding, which to me indicates that the battery isn't able to supply enough current to power it up. However, everything works completely fine when plugged into a USB wall adapter or my PC, and even when using regular Alkaline batteries.
The display is even easier on the eyes than the display on my Neo2, when I want to see more of my text on screen as I type. Don't expect color from the Dana, its pretty much black and white when you're working with text, or greyscale depending on what apps you load onto it. The contrast is fairly good and is also adjustable.
For use in low light or a dark room, there is a backlight built-in, which can be activated and disabled by holding the ON/OFF button for 2 seconds. Don't expect it to be very bright, as this is the typical green electroluminescent backlight that was common on Palm devices. It works for seeing and reading what you've written in the dark, but I find the green backlight to be inadequate unless where I'm writing is completely dark, so I tend to plug in a small USB lamp into the USB port on the rear of my Dana and adjust it so that it lights up the display, which is much brighter and easier to read, though it does put more drain on the battery, both the rechargeable and standard alkaline batteries.
The keyboard is virtually the same as that of my Neo2. It feels like a real laptop keyboard, instead of the tiny chiclet keys that you'd find on a netbook, and have great tactile feedback. The only thing that I find awkward about it, like my Neo2's keyboard, is the fact that the Escape, or esc, key has been moved to the bottom of the keyboard, on the right of the space bar, and in its place resides the ON/OFF button, but actually it doesn't bother me terribly, it just feels awkward to reach down instead of up and over to cancel a menu or popup in that position.
Overall, I'm quite satisfied with the keyboard and it's great for typing on for great lengths of time.
Things To Keep In Mind If You're Looking For An AlphaSmart Dana
When searching for a Dana, look for a Dana Wireless, as it will have both, twice the RAM as the base model and therefore either have the latest update to patch any bugs, or will be able to accept the final update released by AlphaSmart. When buying from eBay or Amazon, be sure to check the details of any individual listing, since some Dana's and Dana Wireless units are often sold without a stylus, or may be advertised as working but missing keys, or even just non-functional units being sold for parts.
Cosmetically, most Dana's since they're used will show some scratches or other cosmetic blemishes, which most sellers who are honest will describe or advise of any blemishes in their listings and may also include photos of said blemishes. Most often, AC adapters and USB cables are also not included, however, the Dana can be both powered and synced with your average USB printer cable, which has an almost square tip, that fits in the back of the Dana. If a rechargeable battery pack is present with your Dana, or you plan to either build your own or hack it to charge AA NiMH batteries via the previously mentioned modification, a USB cord also doubles as a charging cable.
Overall An Excellent Distraction Free Writing Tool
Overall, I must say that the Dana Wireless is in some ways a step up from the Neo2 that I own, mostly because of the comparatively greater storage capacity and option to save text files to an SD card. The built-in backlight, while not spectacular, can definitely come in handy if you want to get some writing done at night, say before bedtime, since the electroluminescent glow isn't as harsh on the eyes as laptop or tablet. And with a working rechargeable battery, or by using Vance Fry's hack to use regular AA NiMH batteries, the Dana can go for a day or more, that is if you could write 24+ hours straight without sleep, handily beating every laptop available on the market. I'll still keep my Neo2 for when I plan on being away or on vacation for a significant amount of time due to its insane battery life, so it will still be used, just perhaps not all the time.