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AlphaSmart Dana: what it is and is not

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k3twm says:

I've recently purchased an AlphaSmart Dana and I'd like to share with everyone who has one or may be interested, what it is and is not.

A lot of people have said that this is not a laptop, it's a word processor. Near as I can tell the newer Neo and Neo2 are word processors with a few additional capabilities suited to classroom use. The Dana however is a whole lot more like a laptop than merely a word processor. The things the Neos have addressed that the Dana lacked was a more solid means of connecting to computers through a special wireless adapter with software that allows you to use your computer's printer drivers among other things. This is one area the Dana can be quite a problem.

The AlphaSmart Dana is a very unique device in many regards, here are the technical specs:
CPU: Motorola DragonballVZ (MC68VZ328) 33mhz, 32bit
RAM: 4 MB
FDD: 16 MB built in flash storage (about 15MB available for user)
OS: Palm OS 4.1.2
LCD: 560x160px grayscale touchscreen
4 shades are possible by oscillation of the pixels, two of which are hardcoded "black and white" (on/off) which are adjusted only by changing the contrast setting on the LCD itself, and two of which are software controlled by adjusting the rate of oscillation. It is however theoretically possible using advanced hacking techniques outside the API to display more than 4 shades at a time.
The display is front lit with adjustable contrast, and features a toggle of an indiglo style backlight that makes the device highly readable in both lit and unlit conditions
OTHER: The device also includes two SD card slots for storage expansion, both a USB and USB Host port, Infrared, and a DC adapter port, as well as a built-in stylus and full size keyboard.
POWER: The device is powered by a 3.6v NiMH rechargeable battery pack composed of 3 roughly AA sized cells, and can be charged via the USB Host port or the DC adapter port. The device also supports regular AA batteries used in place of the rechargeable battery. The device came with a 1600mAh battery pack that is almost surely to be dead or dying if you're reading this today, that was reported to last about 25hrs.

The separations of this device from not only laptops and other word processors like the NEOs begins with the OS, and its separation from PDAs begins with it's hardware, which includes a larger screen and a full keyboard built in, which other Palm PDAs did not have, as well as two SD card slots.

As an operating system, PalmOS has many limitations, not the least of which is that it's no longer supported. Many palm apps have been lost to time, and many of those still available are either still being sold at way higher than normal app prices in today's market, or worse, are NOT being sold anymore, and the versions still available are crippled because you cannot register them. Some apps are also tethered in some way to a computer, often running outdated OSes as well, through helper apps or conduits that specially format data for them. This was done because Palm devices were originally designed to VIEW information on the go, not to ENTER information.

The Dana however is uniquely suited for data entry, and does not share this ideology with its Palm brethren, but suffers due to the fact that most apps developed for Palm OS were designed for small 160x160 screen devices with little memory and no keyboard.

All is not without hope though as there are many applications, and even libraries and hacks to address these issues. The DOC/zTXT reader Weasel for example was designed with those limitations in mind, but through use of the PalmResizeLibrary installed along side it, the application is able to utilize the full 560px width of the Dana. Not to mention the built-in apps were all modified to work with Dana's widescreen.

An OS platform is only as dead as its development options, and Palm OS is not at all lacking in this department. There are tools for development of software right on your Dana in many programming languages Assembly, BASIC, C, Forth, Lisp, Pascal, Python, just to name some of the more popular ones. The books for Palm OS development are all available extremely cheap now, due to the fact that the platform is no longer actively developed. I bought 5 Palm Programming books that retailed for about $180 total for about 1/10th the price including shipping. The books themselves only cost me about a dollar, the shipping is what made it cost almost $20 total. Best of all, you'll notice a theme in such books telling you how to approach palm app design keeping in mind storage limits, a small screen, and a lack of a keyboard.. A Dana developer need not worry about any of this, the screen has nearly 4x the pixels (89,600 opposed to 25,600), more than 10x the memory capacity (1-2GB w/ SD cards opposed to the 8-16MB), and has a full keyboard built-in.

The Dana may not be a laptop, but the more I use it the more I realize thats a good thing, it doesn't have all the pitfalls of a laptop, its lightweight and durable, has way better battery life, loads quickly, doesn't have any significant threats (viruses, malware, etc) in daily usage, just to name a few. When it comes to things it can't do, that a laptop can, you realize most of these limitations are rather superficial, and can be overcome by better software which I think there is a strong motive to develop for this amazing device.

Limitations 'out of the box', as it may be seen, are largely connectivity related regardless of what you want to use the Dana for. Connectivity to your computer, printer, or the internet can be a challenge for Dana users in today's world, lets examine why:

Printing: The Dana comes with PrintBoy software which is very handy indeed for printing from most all your apps, and this version has been modified to not only support Infrared printing, but direct USB connection to a printer using Dana's unique hardware. The problem comes in when you try print to one of today's printers and it doesn't work. Traditionally printers had software built-in that included a uni-directional printer driver, a simple control language (PCL), and support for specific document formats (PostScript, PDF, etc). Today however all this is done using complex bi-directional printer software that resides on the computer not the printer. Thus the Dana is only going to work with old printers that may be hard to find, which support basic PCL/Postscript printing which works basically by the device formatting the document it wants to print into PostScript format, then saying to the printer "hey, print this". This is one of the most complex issues to overcome on the Dana, and would require serious effort in developing new printer software specifically for this device. In short, you either find an old printer or you have to transfer your documents to a computer to print. It is by far not out of the realm of possibility however to develop modern printer drivers for this device if you know how to do such things, its just remotely impossible that any commercial developer will do so because there is no market for it.

Internet: The Dana has no networking other than Infrared port, the Dana Wireless has built-in Wifi, and the Dana is able to have a Wifi or phone modem attached to its USB printer port or Infrared port. Issues with this include limited out-of-production hardware are required, and the available software. The built-in networking software only supports WEP or Open Wifi, which is almost impossible to find these days as everything uses WPA. Then there is availability of browsers and other internet software that supports today's protocols and languages used on the web. With careful configuration of custom hardware, you can however get POP/SMTP email, read news feeds, and browse many websites, and chat on jabber or irc. With further development it is entirely possible to support modern network devices, WPA, and better browsers that can support modern SSL encryption, Javascript, etc.

Computers: there are many open source projects available to aid in the computer connectivity. Jpilot for example is an open-source GUI for syncing with Palm OS devices that works well with the Dana, and pilot-link is a suite of command-line tools that also works well with the dana and can be used as-is or wrapped with a GUI frontend to offer additional support. This is perhaps the easiest issue to overcome as there are fully functional open source utilities already in existence to address these issues and the Dana has both USB and Infrared connectivity with computers, which makes it easily adaptable to modern Mac, Win, Linux operating systems for linking with computers.

The Dana CAN however do all sorts of things your computer can, Palm OS software still available it can read native formats such as Jpeg, Gif, PNG, Zip, Txt, Doc, Xls, etc. It can also encrypt and decrypt data. By converting data to various palm database enlosed formats it is possible to support even more types of data such as PDFs or Gameboy roms among others. With further development its not impossible to support things like audio (Wav/mp3) playback, video playback, or other complex things you may not think possible. I've personally tested a palm app that played a Wav clip of a song through my Dana's built in speaker which was totally not intended to play actual music, but did so reasonably well. I've also found a copy of kinoma player that runs on the Dana. The problem however with such programs as Kinoma and that audio player is that they require special format data that is neither documented nor has conversion utilities available anymore. It does however serve as a proof of concept, that the Dana is capable of doing these things.

Maybe later I'll talk some about the various configurations, apps, and issues I've encountered and how I've addressed them. I hope this post helps some people understand that the dana is more than a word processor and less than a laptop, but what it can do is only limited by development of new and better software. I think that development is worth the effort if for no other reason, due to the amazing battery life and extreme portability of this device. I personally bought a pack of Energizer 2500mAh batteries to replace my nearly dead factory battery pack, and I had the dana with the backlight on, randomizing sudoku puzzles and playing chess against itself for over 40hrs straight on a charge.. that's unbelievably good performance for a portable computer. I have always wanted something that could perform this way with long battery life, a readable screen, usable keyboard, and that I could program on to expand it's capabilities. Now I found it, and you'd have to pry my Dana from my cold dead fingers! :-P
9:12AM, 6 February 2017 PDT (permalink)

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marockyster says:

k3twm:

Hey, nice summary. I got myself Dana few days ago and I'm in a process of getting to know what it can do. This forum seems to be the biggest source of information I have found so far.
As to printing, I connected my Dana to all in one HP printer via USB and after changing the setting in the print app to HP DeskJet and Compatibles and USB it printed straight away, nice and clean without problems. It had to be set as default printer though, or it wont work. The printer is about 10 years old.
I've read few of your posts here and they are great help. Thanks for sharing.
44 months ago (permalink)

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k3twm says:

What is the model on that printer? I have yet to get anything to work. I was looking at a laser printer online that may work, but I was hoping more to find something local like at a thrift store. I know what technically is required, but there is no way to tell if something uses PCL or such, they don't even put that kinda info in the users manual for printers.. heh. I need to be able to print and so far have no solution. All the printers I've tried are too complicated they're worried about ordering ink and sending emails.. its like trying to get a young person to work, when they're on their phone tweeting all the damn time.. thats how new printers are.. always trying to do anything but print.
44 months ago (permalink)

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dougwalkabout is a group administrator dougwalkabout says:

Printing is a major challenge. Any printer that requires a software driver installed on the PC/MAC (which is most of them) seems like a pretty long shot.

You can search this site (suggest Google Advanced Search) and pull up a list of known compatible printers, most of which are likely defunct by now. Not necessarily all that helpful.

Two thoughts, though:

1. Networked printers are all the rage. Is there a network protocol that bypasses the 'installed driver' problem?

2. Linux nerds love to mess with barriers like this, as a matter of principle. I run Linux on several boxes, but have never messed with printers. Possible crossover solution? I wonder.
44 months ago (permalink)

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k3twm says:

Yes, the bachmansoftware that made the printboy software has a printer support matrix, but its really not all that helpful because most all the printers they know work for sure are small like receipt printers, and most of the rest is speculation, this MAY work. I know enough about the issue to know as I said that much like you're saying, the more advanced drivers that require fancy software that establish two-way communication will not work. The printboy wants a printer that supports PCL and PostScript ON THE PRINTER, so that all it has to do is format the document into postscript then send the data to the printer with a PCL instruction to print. Modern printers want to do all this extra stuff, talk to you when your paper jams, ink is low, order you new ink automatically, receive emails, etc... printboy or the Dana for that matter in general doesn't have the kind of support for this extended architecture that requires a long two-way conversation, it simply expects the printer to print when formatted data is sent to it. This is how printers used to work, they were uni-directional drivers, and the drivers were ON THE PRINTER, they had built in support for PostScript/PDF, fonts, etc. All they required is for the computer to send an instruction to initialize the buffer and then send the data, with the only fancy work on the computer side being to make sure that the document was converted to PostScript or PDF depending on what the printer supported. The thing is, as I said before, when you look at specs on printers they tell you what the MFG's part number is for the ink, how many pages per minute or dots per inch they print, they don't typically mention PostScript or PCL support.. heh.. which are the only features I'm really concerned with. Thus it helps to have first hand accounts of people who actually used the Dana with a particular printer.. because even Bachman software is not a good source for info because their software wasn't made for Dana it was made for Palm OS and most palm OS devices only had Infrared and maybe Serial or in case of OS 5 or greater, the phones had bluetooth, very few if any other devices had an actual usb port and could handle a USB printer being plugged directly into it. So saying a printer works with printboy doesn't necessarily mean it'd work with the Dana, it may only work over bluetooth for example which the Dana doesn't have. Best option I've seen so far is I found a particular Lexmark Laser printer on ebay for about $50 that I am fairly sure will work, and you can still find toner cartridges for. I'd rather not order a used printer online though, I've been keeping my eye out at thrifts stores locally, but its hard to say what will work and what wont. It would be very nice though to be able to print. More than anything I'd like to get a feel for how printing works on this device because it doesn't have a ruler or a print preview for me to really tell what the document is going to look like. I'm not even certain aside from page layout issues, about the fonts.. because the fonts can only have 3 visible sizes on the Dana, but yet will let you set the font size to anything, even if that size is not one of the 3 visible sizes in your font. Idk if it will print at the selected size even if it doesn't show it at that size on the Dana's screen or what.
44 months ago (permalink)

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marockyster says:

I'm away from home at the moment and can't remember the model but will post when I'm back next week. I tried to print on similar model to the one I have but few years newer and had no luck.

The printer is HP Photosmart C4180
Originally posted 44 months ago. (permalink)
marockyster edited this topic 43 months ago.

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