Column: AlphaSmarts

Loose Wire — Frustrated Writers, Take Note: This Palm-powered, plain-vanilla, word-producing machine has none of the bells and whistles of other computers and won’t break your back or the bank — meaning more time for haiku

By Jeremy Wagstaff from the 26 June 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

I used to write a lot better before I got a computer. Really. The lethal combination of pen and paper ensured that I could write anywhere, anytime. Then, in 1986, I bought an Amstrad word processor and it’s been downhill ever since.

Nowadays I can’t focus on one program for more than five minutes, what with all the distractions: software notifying me of incoming e-mail, software notifying me that my incoming e-mail-to-spam ratio is 96.23%, software notifying me my last e-mail to Auntie Mildred has been read 12 hours and 46 minutes after it was sent, a chat message from an insomniac Australian friend, an alarm alerting me I need to pay rent, my firewall alerting me of yet another assault on my Internet defences. No wonder I never write haiku any more.

Computers are designed to do lots of things, and with graphical interfaces like Microsoft Windows and the Mac, they’re designed to do them at the same time, jostling for room on your screen. That’s great if you’ve got tunnel vision, or are crashing up against deadline [like me right now]. Otherwise, all this extra processing power isn’t matched by any great multitasking ability in our brains. My message this week, therefore, is this: If you’re planning to write seriously, don’t use a computer. Use a Dana.

OK, for e-mails and memos to your vocabulary-challenged boss, you may not need monastic calm and a minimum of distractions. But computers, even notebooks, may not be your friend if you’re trying to compose something masterful and meaningful. Instead, you may want to check out AlphaSmart, a U.S.-based company, which realized early on that there was a market for something to write on without all the extra hullabaloo to distract you. The decade-old AlphaSmart series, now into its third generation with the 3000, has been popular with students, teachers and anyone else needing a decent keyboard and a usable screen that don’t break their back or the bank. They’re robust too: One reader describes on the company Web site [www.alphasmart.com] how her unit — stuck to the floor, and slightly melted — was the only electronic gadget still working after her house burned down.

The 3000 is about the size of a notebook, but looks more like a keyboard with a small LCD display on the top. Powered by three AA batteries, it delivers you to whatever you were writing before you turned it off [or had to flee the licking flames]. The four-line display is simple but shows just enough of what you’re doing without feeling cramped. The keyboard is full sized and there’s a USB socket for uploading files to your computer, and a socket to connect to a printer [or external keyboard, if you wish]. Grey keys line the top of the keyboard, allowing you to store and recall up to eight separate files. It’s the sort of thing a student would love, which is the market AlphaSmart has focused on, but it could just as easily work for you if you’re sick of sitting at a computer all day, or tired of firing up a laptop on a flight and watching the power die just as the Muse kicks in.

Late last year AlphaSmart took the concept one stage further with the Dana. The Dana does everything the 3000 does, only better. The screen is bigger at 10 lines to the 3000’s four, the keyboard’s nicer and the whole thing is a tad sleeker than its forbears. It also runs the Palm operating system, which brings with it plenty of advantages: For one thing, if you’re familiar with Palm, you’ll know your way around; for another, you can do everything a Palm device can do, such as swap Office documents with your computer, store contacts, calendars and whatnot. In fact, to some it could be just a bigger Palm device — most of the software is redesigned to fit a screen far wider than your hand-held — with a first-class keyboard attached. But that’s missing the point: The Dana is a word processor that uses the best Palm has to offer — compact, useful software, immediate access, configurable fonts, low power consumption — without trying to be too much else.

If you’re looking for something to write on during a trip to the country, the dentist or the restroom, and can’t be bothered to bring a laptop [or can’t afford one] then the Dana is an option. If you’re a writer and sick of the distractions of modern computing, the Dana is worth a look.

Gripes? A few. The monochrome screen is nice but looks a bit dated, especially the backlight. With a list price of $400 it’s substantially cheaper than a laptop or notebook, but not that much cheaper than a state of the art, full-colour hand-held device. [Shell out another $75 and you have a foldable keyboard which fits in your pocket.] And without a cover or clamshell, some reviewers have rightly suggested the screen might easily get scratched.

But these are minor niggles. I’m seriously thinking about getting one for my inspirational visits to the hills where a laptop is too much, and the miserly screen of my Palm Tungsten not quite enough. Might even try some haiku.

22. June 2003 by jeremy
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