AlphaSmart Dana Wireless

Dana Wireless
Price: $429
Pros: full-size keyboard; built-in Wi-Fi; battery backup
Cons: black-and-white display; bulky

The Dana Wireless from AlphaSmart is a bit of an enigma. It runs the Palm OS, but at 12.4 inches-by-9.3 inches and two pounds, it’s certainly not a handheld computer. It has a full-size keyboard, a wide screen and built-in Wi-Fi, but it’s not quite a laptop either.

In fact, the Dana falls somewhere in between. Reminiscent of the old typewriter-style word processors, it’s functional rather than flashy; picture a QWERTY keyboard with a 2.5-inch-by-7.5-inch black-and-white display running along the top, raised slightly for easier viewing.

On the back of the device you’ll find ports for connecting to a PC and a printer (both via an included USB cable); MultiMediaCard and SD card expansion slots; and an infrared port. The plastic stylus is stored along the right side of the keyboard; there are also holders on either side of the screen to quickly stash the stylus in while you’re typing.

The Dana runs Palm OS version 4.1.2 and includes 16MB of memory (15.5MB is available for files and programs). The Web browser, e-mail client and instant messaging application eat up about 1.6MB, but that still leaves plenty of space for addresses, calendar entries and memos.

The screen, which is 560-by-160 pixels, is adequate, but didn’t impress. You can rotate it 90 degrees clockwise or counterclockwise to use the Dana as a clipboard, which can be handy when working in checklist-style applications, such as the to-do list.

The Dana’s primary draw, of course, is its keyboard. While there are other Palm OS-based devices with keyboards (either the thumb variety or full-size attachments), this is the only one that was designed from the ground up for typing. And in that sense, it’s a runaway success.

Hands down, the Dana is the best Palm OS device I’ve ever used for entering large amounts of text, such as when composing e-mail or memos. However, it’s also probably the most awkward for just about everything else. It’s hard to imagine whipping this baby out while on the move just to look up a phone number or to check an appointment time.

To be fair, the Dana wasn’t really designed to compete with the Clies and Tungstens of the handheld world. It’s aimed primarily at students (with the emphasis on grades 5-12), who presumably do a good deal of writing, and don’t need (though they may want) a battery-draining color screen or built-in MP3 player. AlphaSmart, which bills the Dana as a low-cost “laptop alternative,” is also targeting mobile professionals and vertical markets such as health care and insurance.

As such, its case is designed to withstand a reasonable amount of abuse. AlphaSmart says the black, polycarbonate ABS case can survive drops of up to four feet without any damage, which I unintentionally confirmed twice (so it’s good not only for students, but also klutzy types).

Connecting to a wireless network from the Dana was a snap. By default, it tries to connect to the first access point (AP) that it finds, but you can also set it to use a specific AP and SSID. You can save profiles with configuration details for up to four different networks.

You can also disable DHCP and manually enter settings for the IP Address, Gateway, Netmask, Primary DNS and Secondary DNS. Encryption options include 40-bit/64-bit and 128-bit WEP.

AlphaSmart includes a cool diagnostic tool on the Dana called WiStat that provides status information about your Wi-Fi connection, including the signal strength. I found that I could only go about 20 feet from the AP in my home office and still maintain a reliable connection. However, I had no problems connecting to the network in a Panera Bread store. (I did have other problems with the Web browser, but I’m fairly sure they were related to the hotspot and not the device.)

WiStat is also the place to find the MAC address for the Dana. And it allows you to Ping an address, which can be helpful for troubleshooting.

As with most Wi-Fi devices, the Dana’s battery life suffers with heavy wireless use. I was able to work for about 2-3 hours with a constant WLAN connection. AlphaSmart did add a nice touch, though: If you run out of juice and are away from a power outlet, you can pop in three standard AA batteries and keep working.

Aside from the standard Palm OS applications (some of which have been reformatted to take advantage of the wide screen), the Dana includes a word processor (AlphaWord); Web browser (DanaWeb); e-mail client (Mark/Space Mail); an eBook reader (Palm Reader); and software (PrintBoy) that allows you to print directly from the device to a USB printer (I couldn’t get this to work).

The Dana is very much in the tradition of the Palm OS, which is to do one thing and do it well. In the end, it boils down to this: It’s the keyboard, stupid.

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