In search of the perfect retro writing machine
A FilmHelp article by Greg Pak
Back in 2001 when my main laptop was a 6.1 pound G3 “Pismo” Powerbook with 90 minutes of battery life, I found out about the Alphasmart Dana, a two pound writing machine with a full-sized keyboard that ran on the Palm operating system, could sync with my main computer, and would operate for 25 hours on a single charge. After getting a Dana as a gift, I used it to keep a journal of the “Robot Stories” distribution process and to write some of my early comic book scripts for Marvel while on the road. I loved being able to carry it around in a backpack or satchel without feeling the weight at all. I liked being able to use it on the subway without the same level of anxiety I’d have pulling out a $3000 laptop. I loved the instant on/off nature of the machine. And I dug the way a simple interface combined with incredibly long battery life and supreme portability encouraged me to write whenever I had the chance or inspiration.
I put my Dana on the shelf and forgot about it for a while after I got my first iBook. The lightness of the iBook (and its fresh, long lasting battery) addressed some of the Pismo drawbacks that had pushed me towards the Dana. But while clearing my office of old electronics last month, I pulled the Dana down from the shelf and began using it again.
I had so much fun typing on the Dana that I found myself thinking about how it could be improved. A better screen, a stronger backlight. A different form factor that would make it easier to write while lounging on a couch or in bed. And lo and behold, while poking around various Macintosh websites, I stumbled across the Apple eMate, a four pound portable computer sold to educational markets in 1997 and 1998 that bore some surprising similarities to the Dana.
Both the Dana and the eMate were designed with the educational market in mind. Both are solid state computers with no moving parts and incredibly sturdy plastic bodies. Both run on software originally designed for pocket organizers and feature a stylus rather than a mouse. Both have black and white screens with green backlights. Both use their own barebones but functional word processors that can export and import rtf files. Both turn on instantly and automatically save everything that you type. And both run for days on a full charge.
The main difference is form. The Dana is the more stripped down machine — with a full sized keyboard and a wide but short, non-adjustable screen. The eMate has a laptop-style screen that shows about twice the number of lines that a Dana does. The eMate’s only four pounds, but the Dana’s just two.
After staring hungrily at eBay listings for a couple of weeks, I finally pulled the trigger on a used eMate — paying ten bucks for the machine and another twenty for shipping. And then I picked up a used Alphasmart Neo, an even more stripped down writing machine with a similar form factor to the Dana but without the Palm operating system and the non-writing oriented software.
So here, at long last, is a point-by-point showdown between the eMate, the Dana and the Neo to determine which computer is indeed the perfect writing machine.
Brand new Danas cost $350 or $429 (for the wireless version). But first generation, non-wireless, 8mb Danas can be bought for $40 or less on ebay , with maybe another $15 for shipping. A new battery (which you’ll probably need, since the original battery on an old Dana will almost certainly be dead or dying) will be an additional $23 from Neo Direct, bringing the total price to $78 or so.
The eMate originally sold for $799. It’s been discontinued since 1998, but used machines can be bought for as little as ten bucks on eBay, plus another fifteen to twenty dollars for shipping. But you’ll probably also need to buy a serial to usb adaptor (look for the Keyspan USA-28x) for another twenty to twenty five dollars. And depending on the condition of the unit, you might need to buy a new battery for another twenty five bucks for a grand total of $80.
A used Neo, surprisingly enough, can be a bit pricey on ebay — typically over a hundred dollars. Brand new Neos cost $219 (or $242, for the model with rechargeable battery).
WINNER: A draw between the eMate and the Dana. Both machines were probably overpriced when they debuted, but used models are very affordable now.
When it comes to synching, all I really want to do is easily transfer word processing files to and from my desktop the same way I’d transfer documents to and from any other computers. Strangely enough, that’s not as easy as you might expect.
The Dana connects to a laptop either via USB or by wireless beaming with IrDA. For full synching and backup, you need to install the Dana Palm Desktop software (which can be downloaded for free at the Renaissance Learning site). I’ve noticed two glitches in Mac OS X when using the Dana software to synch. First, the word processing documents that are transferred from the Dana to the computer have incorrect creation dates — 01/01/70. Secondly, the software has a complicated system of creating multiple versions of word processing documents. A single document on a Dana can show up as three different documents on the computer — document-orig.rtf, document-bak.rtf, and document.rtf. The Dana user manual says that document-orig.rtf file is the original file. document.rtf file is the revised file, and if the document has been edited on both the Dana and the computer, the document-bak.rtf file is the version edited on the desktop. I know all of these different file types are there to ensure that no data or work is ever lost through synching. But the different files are just too confusing for me. I’m also a bit suspicious of the system because I’ve noticed that files I’ve never opened on the desktop have document-bak.rtf versions, which should only be created if there’s been desktop editing afoot.
I believe it’s possible to beam individual documents from the Dana to a computer. But none of my computers have IrDA any longer, so this feature is lost on me. The Dana will also let me plug in a USB cable and without using the synching software, I can upload the contents of a word processing document on the Dana to a new word processing file on my desktop. This feature apparently works by telling the desktop that the Dana is a keyboard. The text actually appears character by character in fast motion in the open document on the desktop, which is pretty darn cool. But that’s still a more complicated way of getting documents onto my computer than I want, and it doesn’t allow for documents to be sent back to the Dana.
The Neo also transfers documents by beaming or by sending the content of a file via USB to an open file on the desktop. Alternatively, the Alphasmart Manager software also allows you to transfer documents on the Neo to an external computer as txt files. However, the files don’t retain the names you might have given them on the Neo – instead, they’re just generically named “File #01,” “File #02,” etc, with the number corresponding to the F key assigned to the document. And to get text back onto the Neo, you can’t just transfer over a file; you have to drop the file into a window in Alphasmart Manager, which fills up with the text of the file and sends that text to the Neo. Again, a bit complicated and not the simple shifting of files from one computer to another that I really want.
The Dana has one more possible ways of moving files — saving documents onto an SD card inserted into the Dana. The minus is that the documents on that SD card are saved in the pdb format rather than the rtf format, which isn’t much use. However, a program called Docs to Go 6.0 is compatible with the Dana’s Palm 4 operating system and allows the machine to open and edit Microsoft Office documents. The software also allows you to save Word documents as Word documents onto the SD card, which can then be removed and plugged into an adaptor on your desktop or laptop. Word documents placed on that SD card can then be read by Docs to Go when the card is inserted in the Dana. That’s right — just like moving files from computer to computer!
But Docs to Go is slow, taking a good three seconds to open and save. And it takes a while to read the contents of the SD card and show the list of available documents. I’ve also had the Dana freeze when I insert an SD card while Docs to Go is running. Things seem to work better when the card is inserted while the machine is off. In short, a workable solution, but not quite as fast and clean as I’d like.
Enter the eMate, which requires a little more initial work to get running, but provides the kind of file transfers that make sense to me.
The eMate’s easiest method of connecting is via its serial port, which requires a serial-USB cable like the Keyspan USA-28x to hook up with a modern computer. But the original connection software included with the eMate only works with Macs able to use Classic programs. Since my main computer is running Snow Leopard (OS 10.6.2), the original software won’t work for me. So I’m using Newton Connection for Mac OS X (or NCX), which works just fine. The software can back up the entire eMate, creating a Newton Backup file with an .nbku extension. I haven’t figured out if you can access individual files within that Newton Backup file. But I think that’s how it’s designed — it’s supposed to be used to restore a crashed machine rather than as a repository of files you can access on a desktop.
More to my immediate needs, NCX also permits me to import and export individual files from and to the eMate, automatically converting NewtonWorks Paper (word processing) files into rtf documents. It can also import rtf documents created on my desktop into NewtonWorks.
WINNER: The eMate. My tired brain just understands the NCX file transfers better than the Dana Palm Desktop’s system or the slow Docs to Go/SD card method.
The Dana has a fantastic full-sized keyboard with great action. A huge pleasure to type on. However, it has a small screen that can only show a few lines of text at a time. Its screen is also highly reflective and the backlight is weak, which can make it hard to read under certain conditions. I also find that when lounging on a couch or bed, the Dana’s almost too lightweight. It can slip and wobble on my lap and become a little difficult to type on.
The Neo has the same great keyboard as the Dana, although on my particular models, the Neo seems a touch louder than the Dana. The Neo’s screen is even smaller than the Dana’s and lacks a backlight, but it’s actually higher contrast and more readable. The biggest drawback to the Neo when compared to the Dana is that there’s no stylus for moving around or selecting text within a document. It’s all done via keyboard commands, which can feel a bit clunky if you’re trying to edit a document of any length.
The eMate has an undersized keyboard. The action is fairly good. But it feels cramped compared to the Dana’s or Neo’s full sized keyboards. When I first started using it, I’d frequently hit the up arrow rather than the shift key by accident. But the eMate has a narrower but taller screen that’s shaped more like a traditional laptop’s screen and has a much better backlight. It’s possible to see much more of a document, which makes editing much easier. Partly for that reason, I wrote the first draft of this document on an eMate instead of a Dana. Like the Dana, the eMate has a stylus. I found the eMate’s stylus easier to use than the Dana’s, partly because the larger screen gives you a little more working space, and partly because it has a nice slot right above the keyboard that makes it a bit more accessible.
The eMate weighs four pounds. The Dana only weighs two, and the Neo feels a bit lighter than that. I could carry a Dana or Neo and a Macbook Air in the same satchel without feeling the strain. An eMate and a Macbook Air would be pushing it.
VERDICT: This will depend upon individual’s needs and hand size. At first, I thought the eMate’s small keyboard would be a dealbreaker. But I’m getting used to it — and I’m becoming more and more enamored of its bigger screen and brighter backlight. However, when on the road, the extreme lightness of the Neo and the Dana is a huge bonus.
None of these machines has any kind of powerhouse processing power. But the Dana generally feels snappier than the eMate when switching from program to program. The eMate takes a second to think when switching around, which is a small annoyance. When the operating system’s so stripped down, you kind of want the machine to do everything instantly. Having to wait two seconds to switch programs seems antithetical to the whole fantasy of saving time by going old school. And if you’re a very fast typist, you may notice that the eMate has to struggle a bit to keep up with you — the letters take a fraction of a second to appear on the screen. That tiny lag hasn’t bothered me at all, but it might annoy some users. However, it’s worth noting that the Dana actually feels just as sluggish and suffers from the same slight typing lag as the eMate when using Docs to Go .
The Neo takes a second to switch from file to file and has no noticeable typing lag. All this machine does is word process, and it feels pretty darn snappy, as it should.
WINNER: The Neo.
The Dana and Neo allow for individual files to be given a password, protecting them from prying eyes. The eMate allows the whole machine to be password protected.
WINNER: The eMate. I actually like the Dana/Neo system of protecting individual documents a bit more in terms of everyday usability, but the eMate’s solution is more thorough and probably safer. Also, I’m not certain that non-Alphaword files can be password protected on the Dana.
If the power runs out completely on a Dana, it loses all its non-ROM memory, which means the system won’t be affected, but any word processing files will be totally lost. The Neo has an internal lithium backup battery that protects those files in the case of the main batteries dying. The eMate will keep files even if its battery is completely drained.
WINNER: The eMate. I’ve lost files three times on my Dana when the batteries died and I’d failed to backup. I even once managed to lose files that I’d backed up to a SD card — not quite sure how I managed that trick. That’s more my fault than the machine’s (particularly when it happens three times), but it’s still a minus. The Dana’s touted for automatically saving everything you type on it. It’s counter-intuitive and just plain annoying for it then to lose everything if the battery dies.
The Dana goes for days and days — up to 20 or 25 hours. And if the battery dies (which it will after a few years), a brand new replacement can be bought online from the folks at Neo Direct. The Dana can also be powered by three AA batteries, so even if Neo Direct goes under, there’ll be a way to keep the machine running as long as standard consumer batteries are manufactured.
The Neo lasts a mind-boggling 700 hours on three AA batteries or 200 while using the rechargeable battery. Its rechargeable battery is the same as the Dana’s and can be bought through Neo Direct.
The eMate is also supposed to go for days and days — but when my unit first arrived, the battery would last a half an hour at the longest. That’s big limitation that strikes right at the heart of the unit’s appeal. But after a few charges and discharges, the battery began to last longer and longer. Now I’ve gone three days without charging the machine, which is getting closer to the kind of mind-blowing battery life I want from a supercool retro writing machine. Still, I know this old battery isn’t letting my eMate achieve its full potential. A number of websites have posted instructions for rebuilding the eMate’s battery with new cells. I’m seriously considering giving this a shot, but the soldering requirement makes this more challenging than the average DIY fix.
WINNER: The Neo. By several hundred hours.
LONG TERM VIABILITY
All of these machines are solid state, with no spinning hard drives to fail. They were both built for educational use and abuse by schoolkids. But the eMate has two major potential pitfalls. First, the hinges of the eMate are poorly designed and can pop loose, puncturing the cable connecting the screen to the motherboard. A number of dedicated eMate users have posted detailed instructions online about how to undertake a DIY fix (here’s a great pdf), but once again, the project requires some soldering, which is probably a bridge too far for the majority of users. The eMate also has a software bug that may wreak havoc on the machine’s programs when 2010 rolls around. Fortunately, there’s a user-created Y2010 fix available for download.
It’s also worth noting that the Dana and Neo are still being manufactured and sold, which means that new batteries are available, as well as AC adapters and styluses. I’ve called the Neo Direct Customer Care folks multiple times and they’re always friendly and helpful and even sell items that aren’t listed on their website — like replacement keys. That’s an advantage over the eMate. If your eMate battery dies, you might be lucky enough to find a replacement online — but that’ll probably be a 12 year old “new” battery that might not hold a charge for long. To get a fully functioning battery, you might have to build your own.
WINNER: The Dana and Neo. There’s just a lot less DIY work required to keep a Dana or Neo up and running.
GEEKY FUN FACTOR
When I first started using a Dana while traveling in 2001, two or three people would stop and ask me about the machine every day. These days, not so much, probably because netbooks are so prevalent. But I’m guessing that taking an eMate out into the wild just might cause a bit of a stir, at least among Apple afficionados. It’s still a pretty darn unusual machine. I’ve been using Apple hardware for over twenty years and I’d never heard of it. I’m sure I’d stare if I saw someone using it in the real world.
WINNER: I’m giving this to the eMate. It’s just weirder and somehow more compelling. Once you see it, it’s hard not to want to touch it. It also wins on that nerd-pride level since it takes a bit more work to get one up and running properly. And we’re always a bit prouder of the ones that take more work, aren’t we?
When I first started writing this article, I was convinced I’d give the brass ring to the Dana — largely because of that amazing keyboard. And then I was briefly seduced by the Neo, with its clearer screen and utter simplicity. But after working with all three machines for a while, I actually look forward most to typing on the eMate because of its larger screen and the ease of moving files back and forth between my desktop. So in a shocking upset, the 11 year old eMate takes the title of the greatest lo-tech writing machine on the planet!
That being said, I’m still a giant fan of both the Neo and the Dana and will almost certainly continue to use them — particularly when I’m traveling and their ultra-lightness combined with their incredibly long battery lives make them indispensable.