AlphaSmart – Dana Wireless review

large-keyboard Wi-Fi PDA with 25 hours battery life
Photo of AlphaSmart – Dana Wireless
£309 + VAT

AlphaSmart’s Dana Wireless is an interesting beast. It’s effectively a large PDA, weighing 910g, with an almost full-sized keyboard; all the main keys are normal size, while function keys and cursor keys are a little smaller. It runs the Palm operating system (version 4.1.2) and has a monochrome screen. Yup, no colour, no bright white backlight, just a simple monochrome LCD screen with a green glowing backlight that you can switch on in low light conditions.

Initially aimed at the education market – it’s quieter, cheaper, easier to use and harder to break than a laptop PC – the Dana Wireless is finding favour in industry too, as it’s simple to maintain and has built-in 802.11b wireless connectivity, plus an infra-red port, two SecureDigital / MultiMediaCard memory card slots and a USB connection for printers and PC/Mac synchronisation.

This is the sort of machine that Psion should have built; big keyboard, big screen (with backlight), useful applications and a long battery life. OK, the more powerful Psion Series 7 / Netbook came close, but that had a battery-draining, backlit colour screen, which made it no better than a laptop when used outdoors in strong light.

The Dana Wireless will go for around four times as long between charges – around 25 to 30 hours – as the Series 7 or Netbook, and that’s primarily due to the simple screen technology. In fact the biggest power drain is probably the keyboard. If necessary you can even whip out the rechargeable battery pack and use three AA batteries instead, for roughly the same power-on time.

Compared to a conventional PDA this is a relatively bulky piece of kit, with a footprint a little larger than a sheet of A4 paper. You can (just about) buy smaller laptops, mainly because a laptop will fold in half while the Dana Wireless will not. This makes it easier to make, cheaper and less prone to being snapped by curious schoolkids, but it also means the screen is likely to get scratched and you really need to spend extra cash on a carry case if you plan to take the Dana Wireless on the road with you.

Other problems? When using the built-in word-processor to insert text near the start of a long paragraph, the formatting that has to be done for each keypress can take a long time, sometimes resulting in the Dana ‘missing’ your keystrokes. It’s clear that the processor powering the Dana isn’t particularly fast, but again, that helps to keep the battery drain to a minimum.

There’s a basic Web browser provided in the box, plus a mail client that’s only let down by its lack of support for adding attachments to outgoing messages, other than those created by the built-in apps. Still, a third-party MIME encoding tool might solve that issue. An additional supplied package, Documents to Go, lets you work with Microsoft Word and Excel files. This works pretty well; it doesn’t include advanced features, but can cope with multiple worksheets and across-sheet calculations in Excel files, and text formatting plus tables in Word files.

While there’s a good collection of applications available for the Dana Wireless in its wide-screen format, the majority of Palm applications – although they will run OK on the Palm OS – will not take advantage of the wider screen, so you’ll be using a small part of the display. This shouldn’t matter too much as the supplied wide-screen applications will cover most of the things you’ll need to do.

Given the target audience, in fact, very little of this should matter. Many users, including those in the education sector, treat the Dana as a glorified, instant-on typewriter, capable of storing large swathes of text and allowing them to jot down thoughts and ideas while sitting in a classroom, office, train, plane, café, forest, boat, field, wherever, with no need for a power supply and no need to find shade or squint at the screen.

As a result of this, the Dana – and its more basic counterpart, the AlphaSmart 3000 – has a strong following among writers and authors, who love its simplicity and portability. It really encourages you to write, rather than mess around with other applications and games.

Ultimately, that’s the point. This is a keyboard with a screen and some built-in document creation tools, for people who really need to type while away from home or the office. The e-mail and Web browsing tools are useful, especially if you like spending your time in wireless-enabled coffee shops, as are the Palm address book and diary tools, but they’re additions to the main story and do not turn the Dana into a true laptop.

Which is why AlphaSmart markets this as a laptop alternative. Having sat in a pub writing e-mails (and this review), browsing the Web via a mobile phone connection and reading part of an e-book, we’re sold. The Dana Wireless is far more useful to us than a laptop would be on a daily basis, although if we were going away for more than a few days we’d probably need the more powerful applications available to laptop users. It’s also cheaper, cuter and lighter than the majority of laptops.

Company: AlphaSmart

Contact: 020 8492 3690

Offering the freedom to sit and type all day, with no computer noise, no cables and no need to squint at a barely visible screen, the Dana Wireless is ideal for people who do any kind of writing for a living. This includes staff and students in schools and colleges, as well as researchers, journalists, writers, poets, novelists and any other word-manglers, this reviewer included. A cheaper, non-wireless version is available without the bundled Web tools and connectivity software, if you really want to avoid distractions.