This is not the first Palm OS device with a keyboard - but it's the first one with a natural size keyboard and a widescreen LCD. When I first saw the Dana, by Alphasmart I thought this was a neat device. And being a handheld based machine it had to be reviewed here.
I've found that Alphasmart is present in New Zealand, through its distributor Intelligent Keyboard Company Ltd, who sent us a unit to try.
This Palm OS (version 4.0) device was created to be a real PC companion. Something more than a simple PDA, but less than a full fledged laptop. Users of this product will have a computer at home, but need a device with a keyboard, a wider backlit screen (3.5 times wider than a standard Palm screen, 560 x 160 pixels), some office software and all the Palm software available to load.
Dana is very light (only 900g or 2 pounds) and smaller than a laptop. Its price is smaller too. Although more expensive than other Palm devices (but not more than some Pocket PC, it's much cheaper than a laptop. And if you have a PC at home and don't need the full PC power when out and about, why have the laptop too?
It seems to be an ideal tool for students (even college and university). It can easily be taken to school and when back home it can be connected to a PC, like any other Palm device. All the standard Palm OS applications are there, meaning you can have your PIM data anywhere you go. The Address Book, DateBook, To Do and Memo Pad are optimised for widescreen. The Palm desktop is part of the software, but users always have the option to synchronise with other PIM systems on the desktop (PocketMirror for instance allows sync with Outlook).
The unit comes with a CD packed with some cool software. There's AlphaWord, a word processing program, with thesaurus and compatible with Microsoft Word format. On this CD the user will also find QuickOffice from Cutting Edge Software, a full Office compatible package, including Word and Excel formats. Palm reader is also available, as Printboy and a few other demos.
To help word processing, there is a program to copy TrueType fonts from a Windows computer to Dana, allowing the user to keep using selected fonts while working on a text imported from Word.
The whole screen is a touch screen. While showing normal Palm applications the area in the center of the screen is used, covering the same size as the standard Palm screens. The Graffiti pad can be positioned to either the left or right side of the screen. But the keyboard is by far the easiest way for entering data.
The keyboard can be configured to work as QWERTY or DVORAK. There are function keys available to be assigned to specific applications, and features like repeat speed and audible feedback can be turned on and off through software.
In the back of this device there are two USB ports (one for Hotsync and the other for printers), two SD / MMC card slots and an infrared port. I've used the infrared port to connect to the GPRS network (Vodafone New Zealand) using my Nokia 3650 via infrared. The configuration was easy, exactly like other Palm OS devices. I was able to browse using the Handspring Blazer browser (not included) and checked my e-mail. I'd highly recommend using a proxy service, like Skweezer while browsing.
The device comes with 8MB RAM, which is ok for Palm standards, but could be more. There's the advantage of the two SD / MMC card slots in the back, which means that memory is not a problem - add a card and you can have your school files. Another card you have a couple of games.
Dana can print directly to a USB printer. The software allows configurations for a variety of makers and models.
Its battery can be recharged while connected to the USB port on a computer, or simply using the AC adapter. Not that you'll need it all the time, since the battery charge can last for up to 25 hours. Remember, there's no mechanical parts on Dana, including hard drives.
There is also a wireless version of Dana, which allows users to connect to wi-fi hotspots at home, schools, campus and other public access points.
It is, as I thought, a neat device . The only thing I can think would add even more to its value is a colour screen. This is perhaps for a next model.
Update: Just as I finished posting this review, Alphasmart announced an updated Dana, including SDIO (for SD peripherals including Bluetooth), double memory and more.