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No more Neo, how about the Alphasmart Dana?

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The major attractions to the hobby of admiring and using retrotech is the low cost of entry and the ease of seeing what technologies of the past have stood the test of time to survive and prove their worth and durability for particular tasks.

Recent blog posts in the ‘sphere have lamented the obsolescence (or at least the end of manufacturing) of the Alphasmart Neo recently.. Like the typewriter before it, another excellent distraction-free, single purpose writer’s tool bites the dust. The fact that this happens just before NanoWriMo is doubly sad, I’m certain, for those who haunt the Alphasmarties group. For me, however, the passing of the Dana was a greater loss.

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The main differences between the two are:

1) The Dana has a much larger screen.
2) The Neo has a much longer battery life.
3) The Dana runs a much richer PalmOS operating system than the Neo, and includes a touchscreen interface.
4) The Dana has 2 SD card slots.

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Of these differences, the first two and the fourth are really the only ones that matter to me. My Dana’s screen space is better suited to my writing style, although I do envy the weeks and weeks of battery life enjoyed by Neo users. I’m happy to get a few days worth of work out of a set of batteries, which is, in the long run OK by me. The touchscreen PalmOS is nice, but I don’t often find myself using a stylus when my main use of the machine is as a simple word processor. Often, I just use my finger to position the cursor in the text or select screen icons, and that works as well as the stylus.

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The fourth point is also a big reason I prefer the Dana over the Neo. I have several older SD cards ranging in size from 16mb to 64mb that all work well in the Dana. Newer cards in the GB sizes do not work. These cards are non-volatile and are unaffected by the state of the battery, unlike the Alphasmart’s internal memory. I have heard many reports of people losing their work on Alphasmarts when the battery power failed. This does not happen on a Dana, if you’re careful to start new documents on the SD card instead of the machine’s internal storage. The SD card is also a handy way to transfer files if you don’t happen to have a USB cable handy.

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Because these Alphasmart machines were used extensively in schools for many years, used ones have been surplused in huge lots by schools systems over the years, and you can easily find these on eBay, which is where I obtained mine a few years ago. We have two of these surplused Danas and I have to say that they are well worth the cost (about $35 each with shipping).

A quick check of eBay suggests that they can still be had for about that price. A used Neo will set you back about $50 with shipping. These deals are unlikely to go away very soon, so if you’re interested in trying one out, they aren’t very hard to get ahold of for about the same price you’d pay for a decent typewriter.

Both the Dana and the Neo have full-sized laptop-style keyboards that are nice to type on, compact, light and durable. I like to compare my Dana to my much older Tandy laptops (Model 100, 200 and WP-2) in terms of probable longevity. As long as USB stays standard and AA batteries are still manufactured, the Alphasmart will likely still be a useful tool twenty or thirty years from now. The machines themselves will probably still be kicking then, as long as they are treated decently. I expect mine will still be around long after the more modern Windows machines I have now are sitting in landfills.

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That’s the advantage of simplicity in design of a machine that does one thing well. A large backlit monochome, low power consumption LCD, a good full-size keyboard and multiple well-supported methods to transfer files coupled with a power source that’s not going to be obsoleted are the reasons that the Alphasmart Danas that now exist will still be with us decades from now.

I’ve been skimming through some Google searches for Alphasmart Dana software that might be handy for Nanowrimo, and it turns out that there are a few Wrimos out there who have written Dana apps specifically for Wrimo tasks like compiling wordcount totals for writing sessions and file management on the SD cards. I’ll be loading these up and reviewing them over Nanowrimo to evaluate their usefulness.

Addendum: Blogging via Alphasmart is an easier process than with a typewriter. It eliminates the scanner step, which with my ancient scanner, has lately been somewhat troublesome. The dang thing only works at all with an old WinXP laptop, and it’s not even working well with that in the past few months. Like a balky typewriter, it works just enough of the time that I haven’t yet given up on it, but it’s a break in the chain, a squeaky violin in the chamber quartet of my workflow. (Camera, Writing machine, Scanner, WordPress)

Updated: July 29, 2015 — 5:12 pm

18 Comments

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  1. I have 30 iPads in my classroom. The iPad is a fine machine, but not a good typer. More and more, as schools adopt tablets over laptops, I’m struggling to find a writing solution for my students. Such a shame the Dana is gone. A much greater shame is that no one offers a very cheap laptop.

    I was thinking of buying a Dana, or even a set of Danas, for my classroom, but how would my students transfer content from the Dana to a Mac?

    1. Problematic with a Mac, apparently something to do with the Mac’s increasingly incompliant support for USB keyboards that expect power to come over the USB line. I ran across this post which suggests that a bluetooth adapter can be used to make The Dana play nice with a Mac.

      I’m still hoping someone takes the form factor of a Dana and outfits it with the functionality of the old TRS-80 Model 100, with support for SD and USB and a BASIC interpreter. That would be really neat.

    2. The dana and the Neo2 et al, will transfer files via the usb. The device emulates a keyboard, and as it says in the manual…

      Open a program on the mac or pc for entering text, with the window active and a cursor prompt blinking, connect the dana/neo2 via the usb, with the file to be transferred in main memory, not on sd card, press “send” and the device will send the file, character by character, writing it in to your open program.

  2. A comment on Mr. Adams’ comment. Good point. Our local schools have insisted on goign 100% ipad this year I wonder did anyone think of writing or typing?

    I wondered about getting one of these. I’ve looked at them more as toys, but I guess they can be quite handy.

    1. With the appLe connector to usb adapter, the dana/neo2 will input/send text, even though the ipad/fone will crossly admonish you that it is not compatible!

  3. The bigger screen on this model definitely looks like an advantage.

    iPads are terrible for writing.

    I tried grafting an AlphaSmart 3000 onto a Kolibri. Results weren’t good.

    1. Wow, now that’s a bizarre contraption, but someone had to try it out I guess :D

  4. I love my Neo, but I need to say that I don’t use it has much for writing as I should. I got it because I write, but I found it useful more for work purposes.

    I have to say that I loved my Amstrad NC200 more, but that was because it had a better screen angle and a backlight. But I used my Amstrad so much that I killed it and no computer repair service has been able to revive it (sigh).

    Oh well. Sad to hear that the Neo’s being discontinued, although with the advent of iPads as a learning and research tool, it was hardly surprising.

  5. you can use the dana, as 3000 or neo as a keyboard for your ipads, you use the camera attachment to the usb port in the ipad and then attach the other end(usb} into the usb on the dana,as3000 or neo
    goggle it, it works….you will have the best of both worlds

    1. This is true, conect the camera usb adapter to the ipad, then conect alpha smart, it should work, the usb adapter you can buy directly from apple, ask for a camera usb adapter, also you can buy it brandless and works pretty good also, by the way alpha smarts are awesome, have the 2000 and the neo myself, I am a BSIT/MIT and tired of pc´s and macs with apps that dont do anything in the real world

  6. I own an Alphasmart Neo and simply love it. Nothing works better for me when I’m drafting a novel than the simple Neo and then uploading my text into a structured file project in Scrivener. I hope that I’ll be able to continue to find Neos and Danas for years to come.

  7. I am simply smitten by this product. It would be so handy during the field trips I have to make from time to time. I work as a geologist, hydrogeologist to be more specific; searching for ground water in underdeveloped areas.

    I love to write fiction as well.

    The alphasmart, however, isn’t available in my country, India. And now, as it seems, it never will be, for its production has been discontinued.

    So, l, still have to slog on my laptop and bear the power problem, heat, cumbersome, clumsy typing, not to speak of the plethora of distractions loaded into it.

    Sanjaya

    1. There are always many, many alphasmart Neo2 devices availble on ebay dot com. Twenty to forty us dollars before freight.

  8. I am an occupational therapist working in schools. We had the Alphasmart for several years and the decision was made to ‘up grade ‘ them with the Neo. We had to trade in the Alphas.. We like the Neo; however students can be physically rough with them and I need replacement parts. Does anyone have a resource for keys, and battery backs? I also have a Neo that only has the top half of the screen visible. Is this fixable or possibly my supply for parts?

  9. Just bought 3 Danas off ebay for under $10 for the lot. As you wrote, as long as USB and AA batteries are around, I’m set for writing for YEARS. The cat decided to douse my first Dana in Dr. Pepper, but it still works (unless it gets too cool where I’m writing, then the keys stick.) I do NaNoWriMo every year and did the majority of my writing on the Dana last year. Loved it….

  10. I love my Alphasmart Dana. I often think of things in the middle of the night (I write philosophical academic journal articles). Press the ON button, whizzo! ready to compose a paragraph instantly. Love the keyboard too. I set the text size to Garamond 14pt bold, and can see it easily without my glasses, saving the file from the start to an SD card. I get two weeks out of one charge, but that’s light use only. (I did the power hack to be found on the internet, so just use three separate NiMH batteries in the slot). Absolutely perfect for my circumstances. And totally silent too. To transfer the text into an MS Word doc, I simply use a USB SD card reader, go to MS Word Insert on the main page, insert an Object, Text only and I have it. I get a bit of extraneous material at the start of the text, easily deleted. I use $$ for line breaks. Then in MS Word, change all the $$ to paragraph commands. Easy.

  11. I have both the Dana and Neo2. The biggest difference between them is the battery life. The Dana burns through batteries every few days. The NEO2 seems to never need new batteries. That difference makes all the difference for me. Plus, even after many months of use, I am discovering more features in the Neo2 software. It is a great machine. Finally, transferring data when I have a lot of files is easier with the neo2 – no need to convert through palm format or anything. No need for a card reader. They are equally good at sending single files at relatively slow speeds via the USB cable into a wordprocessing document, however. And the Dana does have a bigger screen, backlighting, etc. If only the battery life of the Dana was better. Nothing compares to the battery life of the Neo2, making it an easy favorite for initial drafting of documents compared to anything else out there, old or new. I throw it in my suitcase whenever I travel, not worrying about adapters.

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