Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Earth to Alphasmart: Isn't it time for something new?

I ran into my friend Nalo Hopkinson at BookExpo Canada, and she was carrying a backpack with the Alphasmart Dana logo. I've always been intrigued by these dedicated writing machines, and asked her what she thought of hers. Her answer: she'd sold it, and bought a real laptop (but kept the backback!). Me, I've got my eyes on an Asus Eee PC right now, but Alphasmart is continuing to sell the Dana -- and at the same price they've sold it at for years. The window of opportunity for such a device at a $400 price point seems to be closing.

Anyway, this evening, I happened to come across a letter I'd sent to Alphasmart about the Dana in February 2004 -- over four years ago. There's been no change to their product since then; the 2004 (and earlier) Dana is still what's on the market -- same hardware, same price ... and that's too bad.

Here's what I had to say in that letter to Alphasmart back in 2004:

As a professional writer, I had been contemplating buying an Alphasmart Dana, and now, after trying one that belongs to a friend, I have decided not to. But because I am intrigued by your product, I thought I would tell you why, in hopes that you might consider these suggestions for future versions.

Ultimately, three things disappointed me. First, was the display. Now, yes, indeed, you do offer a lot more screen real estate in terms of square inches than does a typical Palm. But for a couple of years now, almost no new low-resolution Palm OS PDAs have been sold; modern units use four times the pixel density. Your 560x160 display has 89,600 pixels, and you splay them over 3.5 times as much space as a standard 320x320 palm, which displays 102,400 pixels.

If you were to offer a model that used modern, high-resolution screens, that would be fabulous. But after having used WordSmith on a high-resolution Clie, I couldn't see myself going to the low-resolution display, with the jagged fonts, available on the Dana.

The second issue, for me, was the backlight, which, again, is reminiscent of the backlights on Palms from a few years ago: fine if you need to write in darkness, but adding no boost to readability in normal lighting conditions. Again, on a modern Palm (say, the Zire 71) or Clie, the backlight is so much more robust. It was clear that I would encounter ambient lighting conditions during my normal workday in which the Dana would be hard to read; I never have trouble reading my Clie under any conditions.

The final issue for me was the lack of handwriting recognition when not in the dedicated opening screen Graffiti area. I applaud you decision to use Graffiti 2 with a Palm OS 4 device, but when trying editing in AlphaWord, I was frustrated at not being able to highlight with the stylus, and then delete the marked passage with a Graffiti backspace gesture, as I would, say, in WordSmith on my Clie. Ironically, despite the Dana's [wonderful] keyboard, I was finding it slower going doing some kinds of editing on a Dana than performing similar tasks on a keyboardless Clie.

I do think your choice of a monochrome screen is fine (my own favorite of the various PDAs and palmtops that I own is a Sony Clie SJ-20, which was the last monochrome model made by Sony). Color isn't crucial for word processing. And I think your keyboard is excellent. I'll be watching your website as time goes by to see what Dana Next has to offer.

All best wishes!

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


At June 18, 2008 12:34 AM , Blogger Ian said...

$400? Ouch! My EeePC cost that much and can do much more. I highly recommend them, although they do feature various distractions unavailable on the Dana and its predecessors. I was considering an Alphasmart for NaNoWriMo before the explosion of small form-factor laptops... with even HP and Dell offering a more robust experience at close to that price point, I'd be hard-pressed to see who would buy the Alphasmart... not even schools, which now have the option of the XO as well...

At June 18, 2008 6:30 AM , Blogger writer for hire said...

RJS - did Alphasmart/Renlearn ever come back to you?

At June 18, 2008 8:48 AM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Hi, Writer for Hire. The response I got back, on 9 February 2004, was:


Thank you very much for your evaluation of Dana by AlphaSmart. We appreciate your taking the time to give us feedback. I will certainly pass this information on to our marketing and R&D departments. Technology is always changing and we are certainly always looking at the future and how we can improve our products in the most feasible ways. It's good to have suggestions from professionals that could enhance their experience with our products.


Karen Deveraux,

At June 18, 2008 11:53 AM , Blogger Fortrel said...

$400 for such an old hardware is ridiculous.

I personnally use a bluetooth keyboard on my Windows Mobile PDA-Phone and it's working like a charm. I used this setup for two short stories so far and I'm very pleased. There are many bluetooth keyboards around. From the picture, they would be smaller and lighter thatn the Dana.

I want an EeePc ever seen I've seen one.

At June 22, 2008 2:16 PM , Blogger Catana said...

I just ran across the link to your post, and since I'm a Neo owner who keeps thinking about moving up to the Dana, I'd like to offer info that I just found on the Alphasmart site. The price is now $350.00, and the screen is greyscale. Even with these changes, and perhaps others that they may have made, an Alphasmart isn't for everyone. But I think you do owe it to your readers to give more up to date information when it's easily available rather than recycle something that's now four years old.

At June 22, 2008 4:13 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Actually, Catna, NOT ONE SPECIFICATION has changed in four years. Not one. And the price for the Dana Wireless is $429, and I don't believe that's changed in four years either. The price you're quoting is for the even older basic Dana; I split the difference between the two models, since the price I was giving was a ballpark.

(We can quibble about whether gray scale and monochrome are essentially the same thing -- but Wikipedia is on my side: "A monochrome computer display is able to display only a single color, often green, amber, red or white, and often also shades of that color" -- but you are wrong to say Dana has changed its screen -- it hasn't, and THAT information was readily available to you.)

But thanks for stopping by.


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