Ministry of Prose: making words work for your business

One in a semi-regular series of ponderings, musings and contemplations on the interaction of words and psychology in business.

Alex Cruickshank's writing machines: AlphaSmart Dana

January 2017

This is the big brother to the AlphaSmart Neo, though 'big' refers mainly to the screen and operating system; and big isn't necessarily better.

Whereas the Neo was aimed mainly at the educational market, the Dana targeted business users. What's not to like about a robust machine with a daylight-visible screen, lovely full-sized keyboard, built-in wifi (in some models) and the Palm operating system, giving access to thousands of existing software applications? In the early 2000s that was quite a package. I reviewed it positively at the time.

AlphaSmart Dana

But outside of a small-ish clique of writers and journalists, it didn't catch on. The internet apps lacked functionality compared with the laptops of the day, and although the 20-hour-plus battery life was appealing, it wasn't enough to draw confirmed Windows or MacOS users away. Also, the promised PalmOS compatibility was less than claimed. Few apps were rewritten to take advantage of the Dana's wider screen, and many didn't work at all.

That was then, this is now. The internet apps are even more useless today, as is the basic wifi encryption that means you can only connect to insecure networks. Compared to the Neo's 700 hours of battery life, the Dana's day-and-a-bit seems pathetic.

And yet... the Dana has a significantly bigger screen than the Neo's. It's a little muddier due to the touchscreen layer, but the higher resolution means that the fonts are more readable. It also has a glowing green backlight that's sometimes useful. Plus it has SD card slots, so the background nervousness that's present when using the Neo (which hardly ever loses data, making the experience all the more galling on the few occasions when it does) isn't an issue here.

Ideally I'd want a mix of the two machines: the Neo's battery life and screen clarity with the Dana's screen size, backlight and SD card slots. Since I can't have that, currently I'm favouring the Dana. It recharges while it's connected to my PC to transfer my writing, so I never really have to think about its battery life. And - a minor point - it does look less like a child's toy than the Neo.

There is nothing quite like these machines on the market today. Potential replacements are either hipster-tastic, overwrought, café-posing tools or Japanese-OS oversized PDAs with below-average keyboards. I've seen nothing to make me want to trade in my Dana, and I doubt I will for many years to come.

Alex Cruickshank has been a professional writer since 1994 and gets odd looks from people on trains, which he assumes is due to his Dana.

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