I’m writing this article to you from the year 2003, or rather writing it on technology from that fine year of old. The AlphaSmart Dana is essentially a giant palm pilot with a full size keyboard. It features a grainy grey lcd screen and runs of the palm operating system. It just might be the perfect writers tool.
First off, it’s built like a tank and can be had for about $20 bucks off sites like eBay. For that price you’re likely going to get educational surplus that will work fine, but don’t count on the rechargeable batteries having any life left to them. If you’re moderately handy with a soldering iron there’s a very simple hack to replace those old dead batteries with normal rechargeable AA batteries and be able to charge them in the dana.
So other than the cheap price and decent keyboard, why would anybody want a device with a black and white LCD screen that can’t even check Facebook? Everyone is different, but for me the simplicity of the device is the draw. Removing the ability to browse the web or check status updates means less distraction from the task at hand.
The other negative that I view as a plus is the crappy screen. I work with screens all day long as an animator, at the end of the day I want to cut back on the glowing boxes as I find it disrupts my sleep, but I still write best with a keyboard. When I’m writing something, the screen only needs to be there as a basic double check to see if my fingers told the machine the correct letters in the right order. And of course that screen is also a factor in getting at least a week or two of battery life out a single charge.
As I type up this review and first impressions I am pleased by the way this lump of 15 year old technology works. I’m saving to an SD card (1gIg max!) and once I’m done, I’ll try to pop that card in my iMac and see if I can pull this text out. But as I write it, I’m not sitting at my desk, I’m sitting out in the sun and the screen is not washed out (any more than a cry the sunlight. I’m breathing fresh air and thinking this thing has got potential for writing. Basic editing is easy and intuitive – I just scan through the document and press on the screen near where I want to do any editing.
If this thing works out as intended I’ll be writing more articles on it, that will be the real test of its usefulness!
The above text, with the exception of the hyperlink to the battery hack is exactly as it came out of the Dana – all errors are my own. The one factor that surprised me was the transfer process. The AlphaWord app saves your writing in a PDB format which is nowhere near plain text. Fortunately there is an easy and hilarious way to transfer your text to your present day computer.
When you plug the dana into a USB port on your computer it reads as a keyboard and automatically loads up a ‘send’ utility. You open a blank document in the app of your choice on your computer and hit the ‘send’ button on the Dana and it acts as a keyboard retyping everything you wrote into the desktop machine.