Sunday, May 30, 2004

A friend called Dana

I left it a while before writing about my Dana, because I wanted to find out all its faults first. That I have since bought a second one for my partner is an indication of my level of success in that quest ...

After more than a quarter of a century in journalism and writing, I'm fairly familiar with keyboards, and before them, old clackety-clack typewriters.

I always liked portability, to the point that I never travelled anywhere without my much-loved Olivetti 25 Lettera. I even used it on airplanes, once arousing the ire of a whole section in a night-time across-US air flight because the clacking was being transmitted along the tubes that carried the movie sound to those pre-electronic earphones.

Then, when I got my first Macintosh Plus, I also discovered the Tandy 102, which gave me something that would allow me work electronically away from the office and feed the results back into my Mac afterwards.

The Tandy was really good, with some 20 hours of duty available from four AA batteries. It was light, and tough, and because it only was for writing, it didn't distract me from that part of my work, which was also increasingly bringing me towards layout and design. It did have a limitation: even though I was able to add a larger chip to it, it only held the equivalent of 4,000 words.

Then, when the first Apple Powerbook came on the scene, I bought in early to what was to be a long line of Apple portables, culminating in my current beloved iBook, which has allowed me do everything from magazine design to website daily management from many parts of the world when I travel.

But I still used the Tandy also until recently, when it rather died at my hand after I tried to repair a broken Caps Lock with superglue. It ended being permanently locked in caps! Sorry, really sorry, old and faithful friend.

Enter Dana, which I'd been conscious of for some time. And coincidentally, though US-spec wouldn't have put me off, a British spec one was available. While on a business trip to Spain I called one of the UK suppliers - Chromasonic Computer Centre - and two days after I got home to Ireland this machine was sitting in a space cleared from the normal debris on my desk.

Have to say, 'machine' is not the right word. Never has been for my various laptop computers, which have for so many years been my constant companions. And after three months with this particular companion, I hope my iBook isn't feeling too jealous ...

The AlphaSmart people really got this one right.

Dana is a beautiful shape. It is trim and trendy. It has probably the best keyboard I have used in a career that has brought me from print journalism through radio, magazine editing and production, photography, and, most recently, internet publishing in both local news and national automotive journalism.

I spend quite a bit of time on airplanes, and like to use that time to catch up on work. Even on the times I fly business class, there's not really enough room to comfortably use a computer with a standard flip-up lid. So now my iBook remains stowed in the overhead locker, while the Dana toils through the airborne hours with me. And in airport bars and lounges.

And in my local pubs too, or maybe the coffee shops, depending on my humour: I'll often move out of my office when I want a change of place to do a different kind of writing. The other customers are used to seeing me with a laptop propped on the bar. Now I've introduced Dana to the same bars. Hope it isn't a corrupting influence.

I've been impressed with the thought that was put into the different facilities which Dana provides. Nothing too high-flying, but all useful for time and work management. I think how the Dana interacts with my desktop eMac and my iBook is as painless as it comes.

There are a couple of minor shortcomings. The screen can be hard to see in poor light. I don't like the backlight, so I'll be buying a Kensington Flylight for those conditions. And I always bold the font when I'm writing because the plain text reads a little thin.

I also think throwaway plastic screen protectors would be a good idea. I've made my own by cutting it out of a 30-cent acetate sheet, and just feel more comfortable that the main screen won't be accidentally cut.

With the help of correspondence in this community forum, I've added functionality: backup to an SD card, a Psion Travel Modem which has already proved its worth, and a USB/SD gidget for transferring files to and from press office computers which don't have synch programmes installed.

In short, my Dana can do almost anything I need to do on the road, or while watching evening TV as I'm doing while writing this. Its basic cost was more than paid for by pieces written on one trip abroad a week after I got it. And the 475 euros cost is at a level where I wouldn't have to worry too much about a replacement if it is damaged or lost.

But I wouldn't really like anything to happen to it. Dana, and all my other computers now and past, have been extensions of myself, have helped me to build a satisfying career, extended my leisure options, and have been largely responsible for me being able to raise my family.

They are more than machines. 'Friends' gets close. Thanks for introducing me to this particular one, AlphaSmart.

NOTE: This piece first appeared on the AlphaSmart Community forum on July 19, 2003.

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