The Workhorse

Looking for an affordable word processor that will also help you stay focused? Scott McLemee goes low-tech.

May 14, 2008

Laptop computers have revolutionized the art of procrastination. Combining the power of word processing with the convenience of wireless access to the universe of material available online, they make it easier than ever to shift from serious concentration to glassy-gazed spacing out. It takes “just a second,” after all, to “look something up.” Those bland phrases connote a world of barely concealed guilt (as when an urban consumer chooses to buy something that “fell off the truck”). One minute you decide to check the wording of a quotation from Montaigne, and before you know it, you are on YouTube. It happens.

The solution, of course, is self-discipline – in roughly the sense that a cure for poverty is to get a lot of money. Saying this hardly qualifies as good advice. An elementary quality of self-discipline is the capacity to minimize the chances of distraction. And for that, it can help to go (relatively) low-tech. One of the best secret weapons in the battle against psychic entropy is the AlphaSmart Dana, an ideal device for anyone who wants to keep at hand a digital notebook that is just a notebook. No frills, no bells and whistles, no distractions: nothing, in fact, but a tool for turning thoughts into sentences.

The Dana is not really an alternative to having a regular computer. There are lots of things it can’t do. But it’s helpful for bolstering concentration in a crunch, as well as the perfect keyboard for anyone who needs to take notes during a meeting, lecture, or conference. So reports my spouse, who uses her Dana primarily for such occasions. (The only downside might be that people keep asking to take a look at it: the design is sufficiently distinct from the normal laptop to be conspicuous.)

The Dana is the latest version of a product originally meant for use in elementary school classrooms – a cheap, bare-bones, and durable machine consisting of just a keyboard and a small screen. The changes introduced over the past few years suggest that, somewhere along the way, the manufacturer discovered it had an adult market.But the virtues of that earlier model are all preserved in the more recent incarnation.

First, I’ll describe the generic features of the AlphaSmart, found in both the kids’ version and the Dana. Then, we’ll consider the changes introduced into the more recent design making it especially useful for adults. Casual observation suggests that we grownup AlphaSmart users are, so far, rather few in number. But we make up for our numbers by a certain fanatical devotion -- in spite of a few imperfections, which I'll note along the way.

The AlphaSmart, whatever the model, is lightweight (about two pounds) and made chiefly of plastic; yet it surprisingly rugged. It runs on a rechargeable battery. According to the manufacturer, it can run for up to 25 hours of use on a single charge. I haven’t kept track and cannot say if that figure is accurate. But certainly it hasn’t been necessary to charge the battery more than once every week or two. Compare that to the usual experience with laptops, which demand rejuicing every few hours, at least.

If you leave it sitting idle for more than a few minutes, the AlphaSmart turns itself off automatically. But there is no need to keep hitting “save” frantically. Actually, it doesn’t even have a "save" command. Instead, the AlphaSmart just stores whatever you type as you go. Turning the power back on, you go right back to the draft as you left it.

There is a set of buttons along the top of the keyboard marked F1 through F8. Each one opens a document. In other words, you can create no more than eight documents at a time, each the equivalent of about twelve single-spaced pages. You can send documents to a printer via a plug in the machine – or, perhaps more sensibly, you can download them to another computer using a chord. Unfortunately you have to send them one at a time, and the process is rather slow, at least by contemporary standards of instantaneous massive data transferal. (With the Dana model, it is possible to “beam” documents via an infrared transmitter, but I haven’t used that feature.)

A few years ago I bought the AlphaSmart 3000 (the basic model, designed for elementary school use) and found its minimalism and its long battery life quite appealing, at least for a few weeks. Then its deficiencies started to show. The screen was quite small; you could see only three or four short lines of text at a time. And the action on the keyboard was not ideal. You really had to punch each letter to be sure it connected. No doubt this was not a problem for the kids originally intended as its users. But a quicker and lighter touch would sometimes leave me unable to read my own work, as if some sentences were in an Eastern European language.

Both problems have been solved with the Dana model. The keyboard is far more sensitive (no more passages of inadvertent Bulgarianism) and the screen is much larger, holding between six and nine lines of text, depending on the point size of the type you are using.

You can select the latter – along with options for italics, bold text, margin justification, and so forth – via menus on screen. They respond either to keyboard commands or the touch of a little stylus that comes with the machine. (You keep it at hand in a groove along he right side of the Dana.) This model also offers some of the other familiar features of a word processor: spell-checking and a thesaurus, plus the ability to get the word count for a given document.

All of which marks a great improvement over the earlier version. The main problem that the Dana shares with the elementary-school model is that the screen is not brightly lit. No doubt that helps with the battery life. But in my experience, the lack of sharp contrast makes staring at the text rather hard on the eyes, after a while. In practice, it turns out to be an ideal “workhorse” machine for taking notes and pounding out rough drafts, which can then be reworked on another computer.

The Dana retails for $350 from the manufacturer, but you can find one online for a fraction of that price. (The two machines in our household cost around $100 each.) Two slots on the back allow you to insert secure data (SD) cards, which increase the memory considerably. SD cards are sold separately, costing between $20 and $60 each depending on their capacity. I have not yet tried one out, but am sorely tempted – not for the added memory so much as greater ease in moving documents from the AlphaSmart to another machine.

Just for the record, it bears mentioning that AlphaSmart has also introduced a version of the Dana with wireless internet access built in. But I want nothing to do with it, for that defeats the whole point. Such embellishments are the Devil’s handiwork.


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