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AlphaSmart Dana review: AlphaSmart Dana

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The Good Full-sized keyboard; dual Secure Digital slots; large, 160x560-pixel touch screen; long battery life; included word processor and USB printer port.

The Bad Big and bulky; monochrome screen.

The Bottom Line Though an outsider to both the handheld and the notebook worlds, the Dana is a good tool for its student target audience.

7.4 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 7
  • Performance 7

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Review summary

What's more than a handheld but not quite a laptop? You got it: The AlphaSmart Dana. Geared toward students, the Palm-based Dana has a large keyboard and a wide, 160x560-pixel touch screen. Its price is definitely steep for a monochrome Palm, but it costs much less than a notebook, and in capability it falls squarely between the two. Though the Dana looks somewhat bizarre, its broad array of functions, its rugged design, and its long battery life make it a good choice for students in middle and high school.

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Biggest Palm around: The Dana is not exactly pocket-friendly.

The first thing you'll notice about the Dana is that it's big: it measures 1.9 by 12.4 by 9.2 inches and weighs a hefty 2 pounds. You won't be slipping it into any pockets, but it will fit in a backpack. It's lighter than most notebooks (and textbooks), and it feels rather rugged. The primary reason for its bulk is the full-sized, 79-key keyboard, which is as tactile, spacious, and easy to use as any notebook's. All of the Palm function buttons, such as Apps, To-do, and Menu, are duplicated at the top of the keyboard.

The 160x560-pixel screen above the keyboard is monochrome and much smaller than a laptop's, but it's backlit and roomy, bigger than any other Palm device's display. It shows the regular Palm OS screen in the middle and a virtual Graffiti area and application buttons to the side. You may change the screen orientation from landscape to the left-handed or the right-handed portrait mode.

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Writing room: The Dana's full-sized keyboard is as roomy and comfortable as any laptop's.

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Backup plan: You can add three AA batteries for an extra day or two of juice.
The Dana doesn't come with a cradle, just a USB cable for syncing with a desktop computer; it's compatible with both PCs and Macs. An AC adapter is also included, but as long as you're connected to a computer, you can charge the Dana from the USB bus. Though the unit has a long-lived rechargeable battery (see the Performance section), you may also back it up with three AA batteries for an extra day or two of use. The Dana has a relatively slow 33MHz processor, just 8MB of RAM, and Palm OS 4.1, but it's actually better equipped than many other Palm devices. Aside from a keyboard and a larger screen, the Dana has two Secure Digital slots, an IR port, two USB ports (upstream and downstream), and a jack for an AC adapter. It has sound but no headphone jack or MP3-playback ability.

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Sporting ports: The back of the unit has two USB ports and twin Secure Digital slots.

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Look, a book: The Dana ships with Palm Reader and a copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

The USB ports are especially interesting. The upstream one is for syncing with a host PC, and when we connected, a dialog box popped up to announce that the Dana was in USB Keyboard Emulation mode. This feature enables you to use the Dana as your computer's keyboard and easily transfer text from the Dana to your computer's word processor. With the downstream USB port, you can print directly to a USB printer, and AlphaSmart is currently working on drivers for USB modems.

The Dana ships with all the standard Palm applications, such as Memo Pad, Date Book, and Address, but it also includes a few extras. The center of attention is AlphaWord, a full-featured word processor compatible with Microsoft Word--great for taking notes in class. Thanks to the wide screen and the keyboard, typing up documents on the Dana is easier than any thumb work could ever be. There's also Bachmann PrintBoy, which lets you print directly to a printer via either an IR or a USB connection.

The software CD also contains Palm Reader and a complimentary copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. And because the Dana has Palm OS 4.1, thousands of applications and games are available for the device. Teachers and parents can use the programs on the Administrator CD to monitor or limit the Dana's functions. The Dana is not meant to be a high-performance machine, and its 33MHz processor is hardly top of the line. For example, running AlphaWord's spelling checker on a 10,000-word document took a poky 9 minutes, 18 seconds--it takes only a split second on a desktop computer. But in other areas, such as display quality and battery performance, the Dana ranged from acceptable to downright impressive.

The Dana's 160x560 resolution is relatively low compared with the 320x320 of high-end Palms, and it can handle only four shades of gray. While it won't win any beauty contests, the Dana is more for viewing text than pictures. Besides, the screen is three and a half times wider than a low-end Palm's 160x160 display.

Battery life is the area in which the Dana really shines. AlphaSmart rates the life of the 1,600mAh rechargeable battery at 25 or more hours between charges. If that's not enough for you, popping three AA batteries in the back hatch will extend the device's life by up to 30 hours. To simulate the worst-case scenario for battery life, we turned on the backlight and ran a video in Kinoma Player. The Dana held out for an impressive 12 hours, 9 minutes before issuing a low-battery warning. The Palm closest to the Dana in this kind of performance is the Tungsten C, which played the same file for 6 hours, 31 minutes.

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