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PenLab: AlphaSmart Dana Wireless

The Palm with the big keyboard takes to the airwaves (Pen Computing issue #51)

Already a useful writing and organizing tool that many can use as a laptop replacement, the Dana lacked only one thing: easy connectivity. Built on the Palm platform, it was able to HotSync via USB to get data to and from a PC or Mac, and with an Infrared modem, Internet access was possible. But this modem was difficult to find and an additional US$150. Now there's the Dana Wireless, with an integrated 802.11b radio and a bundle of Internet software to go with it. It has all the benefits of the original Dana--namely a large keyboard, wide screen, dual SD slots, and legendary Palm OS battery life--combined with wireless access.

There are some limitations that prospective buyers should be aware of. The good news is that the Dana Wireless is just US$50 more than the original Dana.

My experience with the Dana Wireless reveals it to be a better email and writing machine than a Web browsing device. This isn't really a surprise, since browsing on any Palm is at best a compromise, and at worst a complete mess. The truth is that most sites are designed for high-powered, full screen computers with color monitors and horsepower enough for complicated flash or Java engines. Most, except for personal, private websites, are not designed with handheld computers in mind. Given this limitation, the Dana Wireless does very well. You can go to many sites and view pictures and graphics in dithered grayscale, or you can turn graphics off altogether. While it offers greater speed, this option actually frustrates me more than it helps, because so many site designs are dominated by graphics. Often most of the control text is located in graphics in the form of buttons or pull down menus. When there is actual text, you have to scroll past big blank boxes where graphics would be to get to it.

There are three possible views, Actual, Wrapping, and Miniature. Actual view displays websites at the actual width they were built for: 640 x 480, 800 x 600, or more often 1024 x 786. Since the Dana screen is only 160 x 560, even sites designed for 640 pixel wide screens will flow off the edge. This leaves you scrolling back and forth with each line of text in many cases, and is just too difficult. Wrapping is the better solution. Items that don't fit on the right are moved below. Depending on how a site is designed, this can result in a page that looks very different from the designer's intent. But at least it works.

Miniature is generally unbearable to read. Fonts are so small and blocky I just ignore this mode. These same fonts are used on a Palm Pilot for the same purpose of scrunching a lot of information into a small space, but the Dana screen is so wide that it just doesn't work. On a Palm, all the data is right in front of you, inside just a few square inches. But the Dana requires too much panning for a font this small and funky.

You can browse on the Dana in a pinch, but I wouldn't rely on the Dana Wireless as your sole Web computer. It has a tendency to lock up temporarily between scrolls, even when a page is completely downloaded. Wrapping mode is the only one that performs well enough for everyday use. For those of us who remember the Palm as a simple orgainizer that holds phone numbers, notes, and datebook entries, this browser is okay; the rest will be disappointed.

Email on the Dana is excellent. The bundled Mark/Space Mail is fast and easy to setup and use. The wide screen and excellent keyboard--not to mention WiFi--make handling email a natural application for the Dana. You can program the software to retrieve email at intervals. A standard Palm alarm of your choosing alerts you to downloaded email. The only problem I had with this feature was when I was composing a message and the time to check email arrived. The mail program interrupted my typing, saved the file in drafts, and proceeded to check email. On a full-fledged PC this is no big deal because the process can proceed in the background, but only one process can run on the Dana at a time, and this can really disturb your workflow. Worse than interrupting me, it didn't have the courtesy to return me to my program so I could resume work. Mark/Space might need to add a "do not interrupt unless keyboard inactive for 30 seconds" option.

The bundled WiStat application is used to monitor and modify your WiFi settings. It can tell you everything you need to know on one screen: your IP address, gateway, DNS, MAC address, network speed, and signal strength. There's also a Ping utility for checking your network status on the same screen. You can preset up to four different profiles for quick switching between the office, home, and a WiFi hotspot like Starbucks.

VeriChat also comes bundled, allowing regular online chatting just like on a PC. This is the ultimate in Palm OS chat programs if you haven't heard of it. It will simultaneously monitor most major chat networks, allowing you to be online all the time no matter the network.


It's mostly for writing that I use the Dana. I find the AlphaWord program--a modified version of WordSmith--to be an excellent writing program, with a simple thesaurus and spell checker. The default dictionary could use some improvement, but that's tough to do when you're talking about the limited space available on a Palm device. They put a larger dictionary on the CD, users just need to know to install it. I just spell checked this document with the smaller dictionary, and just about every technical word, including Internet, email, scrolling, and pixel, had to be added to the user dictionary. Also, words that are slightly different from the root word had to be added. The dictionary will have "frustrated" and "alert" but not "frustrates" "frustrate" or "alerts." Thankfully, AlphaWord creates a user dictionary that you can add words to, and go back and edit if necessary.

They also include FontBucket, a font management utility. I find Garamond far more readable than the standard large Palm font, so that's what I use to write most often.

If you need more than word processing, many AlphaSmart bundles also include the excellent Documents To Go or QuickOffice software, both of which enable full Word and Excel file editing. Some versions of Documents to go support Powerpoint and email as well.


Little has changed to the hardware picture of the Dana in its wireless form. It still has two SD slots that can be screwed permanently shut. It has IrDA and two USB slots (one for HotSync and one for printing). There's a power port for fast charging, or you can trickle charge through the USB port with a PC connection. The keyboard is still amazing, absolutely the best I've ever used. The only case modification is insignificant, but nonetheless important: They've built up a little dam, or guard, on the casing around the cursor keys on the lower right. Apparently users were accidentally scraping the keys as they moved from cursor use back to home row and the keycaps were getting knocked off. It had never happened until I heard about it, then it happened the next day. Crazy.

It's just another example of how AlphaSmart is on the ball with these devices. Every problem I've heard about has been rectified quickly, and that's unusual for a company in this industry. A teacher emailed me recently dissatisfied with the spell check performance of her early Dana computers. I placed a call to an AlphaSmart representative, and the problem was solved with a few quick software updates. Good service is important, especially when it comes to education clients, something AlphaSmart clearly knows.

The Dana Wireless is a useful tool for writers, students, and now for major email hounds. There is no argument that the best way to answer email is with a full keyboard. The Dana Wireless offers that plus good battery life and WiFi, along with thousands of useful Palm programs for storing and processing your important data. I love mine.

-Shawn Barnett

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