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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)