An Overview of the Alphasmart Dana

May 07, 2014

The original Alphasmart Dana was released in 2002. Unlike its predecessors (which are dedicated word processors), the Dana features the once-popular PalmOS operating system as well as a backlit touchscreen, a built-in stylus, two SD card expansion slots, and a Ni-MH rechargeable battery. A wireless version of the Dana was added to the Alphasmart lineup in 2003, allowing users to access wifi and other Alphasmart devices; additionally, the wireless model saw improvements to its RAM (Random Access Memory) and SDIO (Secure Digital Input Output) support for its SD card slots.

I bought a non-wireless Dana off of eBay for $23 (free shipping) several weeks ago. I'd read many things about the Dana model that led me to believe I wouldn't like it; particularly the emphasis on the PalmOS operating system and its relatively low battery life (if you can call 20-40 hours "low"). Well, it turns out that I actually like the Dana the MOST of all the Alphasmarts I own (which currently include the 2000, 3000, and Neo). Here's why.

Formatting & Commands

The Dana's screen is delightfully large in comparison to other Alphasmart models, and holding down the on/off button for a few seconds while the unit is on will even enable a backlight. Although a stylus is built into the unit, I haven't really needed it; I just use my index finger like I would on my iPad to highlight text, change my place, or to even adjust the formatting of my document. (To highlight text, simply press and drag your finger over the text you'd like to select.)

One of the things I didn't know about the Dana is that you can set margins, change paragraph justification, and even bold/underline/italicize things. (There's also a plain text option if you want to keep it simple.) Because the Dana (and all later Alphasmart units) allows you to connect directly to a printer via USB, you could theoretically write, spellcheck, and print an assignment without ever sending the document to your main computer. You can also change your font's type and size via the devices' FontBucket app (which comes with basics such as Arial and Times New Roman) and even switch to a DVORAK layout if you'd like. Oh, and popular keyboard shortcuts? Those work here too.

True story: I tried, on numerous occasions, to cmd + z handwritten notes in college. #sorrynotsorry

As follows is a (near-comprehensive) list of Alphasmart's keyboard shortcuts:

Command + A = Select All
Command + X = Cut
Command + C = Copy
Command + V = Paste
Command + Z = Undo
Command + Y = Redo
Command + K = Font Dialogue
Command + R = Right Justify
Command + M = Center Justify
Command + L = Left Justify
Command + B = Bold
Command + I = Italics
Command + -- = Strikethrough
Command + U = Underline
Command + H= Thesaurus
Command + F = Find & Replace
Command + T = Go to Top
Command + E = Go to Bottom
Command + W = Word Count
Command + Q = Set Password
Command + 1 = Full Screen


The set of accessories you'll need actually depends on what you already own. If you currently possess or can purchase an SD card that's 1 GB or smaller and have a way of transferring the contents of that SD card to your computer (here's a nifty USB gadget if your computer doesn't have a built-in card reader), you won't need a USB cable.  If you use three AA batteries instead of the rechargeable Ni-MH battery, you won't need a power adapter. If you're OK with using both the SD card for file transfers and the 3-AA batteries, you can order a Dana from eBay sans accessories (as those tend to be the cheapest) and be totally set for your writing adventures. However, I would recommend buying a cheap Type A Male to Type B Male USB cable from Amazon or eBay to use for text transferring—see this post for more information.

  • Regardless of how you decide to power your device, note that you'll need a small screwdriver to remove the battery panel.

FYI, most of the Danas I see listed on ebay don't come with a power adapter. If you do decide to purchase a nominal replacement, make sure it supplies 7.5v at 500mA. (You might be able to find one of these in a thrift shop power cord bin—those specs were typical of older electronics.) Do note that Dana-specific Ni-MH batteries are similarly old and therefore likely to fail if they haven't already; even if a listing includes one, be aware that it may not be able to hold a charge.

Your Dana can also charge via USB while connected to your computer, but bear in mind that this method is slow and even unreliable on some units (and only works with the Ni-MH battery). In case you already own an Alphasmart, the USB cord that came with your 3000 or NEO is compatible with the Dana—no need to buy another!

SD Cards & Battery Life

Like the other Alphasmarts, the Dana has eight separate files (accessible through the top-row buttons labeled F1 - F8) in which to write. As previously mentioned, the Dana has two SD card slots that can each handle up to 1 GB of storage, although anything over 256 MB is probably overkill. All data stored directly on your device will be lost when the Dana's batteries die or are removed, so saving to an SD card is critical.

Speaking of battery life, a representative from Alphasmart (now called Renaissance Learning, BTW) said that with rechargeable or standard AA batteries, you can expect 40 hours of use without the backlight, 30 with periodic backlight usage, and 20 with constant backlight usage. It's nowhere near the NEO's impressive 700 hour battery life due to PalmOS constantly running in the background, but it sure as hell beats the battery life of my MacBook Pro.

File Transfer

There are several ways to transfer files from your Dana.

1. USB. Use a Type A Male to Type B Male USB cord to connect your Dana to your computer. (Look for one on Amazon—they're cheap!) Open both a program capable of receiving text (Word, a blank email in Gmail, etc) on your computer as well as the document on your Dana that you want to transfer. By pressing the "send" button on the upper right-hand corner of your Dana, your keystrokes will be re-typed into the open document.

  • You won't lose the copy that's currently on your Dana once this process is done—you'll need to delete it manually from the Dana itself.

2. SD cards. Click here for the tutorial.

3. Infrared. I have no experience with this, but you can actually beam documents from your Alphasmart to an older/capable computer using infrared.

4. Print. As mentioned previously, you can simply plug your printer's USB cord into your Dana and print out your document—no computer intervention is necessary!


I hope this overview was helpful. (If it wasn't, well...shucks.) If you have any questions, let me know—I just might have an answer!


  1. Hi there! I did enjoy your Dana Shakedown! My main worry was confirmed, that all data was lost when the battery ran out. I swear to all that is holy, that that has got to be the absolutely STUPIDEST design flaw OF ALL TIME!! I had a Clie and when I found out that it was the case, I nearly had a fit. Makes you wonder who on earth heard this during the first product presentation within the company and said, well, who needs to keep their data? Keep the flaw, focus on something else! Anyway. I also appreciate your listing power supply specs and maximum memory card size. Very useful. Now that you have used it for a while, what do you think of it now? I'd love to hear a follow up with suggested software (especially a backup system, since everything is going to be lost...)
    Take care, Louis

    1. Unlike today, Non-volatile ram in mobile devices wasn't common at the time of the Dana's release. It was much more expensive. It wasn't stupidity or even a design flaw as such. SD card slots and some backup software were pretty standard fare throughout the industry. Only the last few devices from Palm had NV ram.

  2. Right?! (Worse yet is that the Dana is the only Alphasmart model with an SD card slot—you're even more out of luck when the batteries on one of those die!)

    Someone suggested a PalmOS application (Wordsmith?) for transferring writing from the Dana, but I wasn't ever able to successfully install it. My current process is to save everything I'm working on to the SD cards, change the batteries as necessary, and use the printer cable/"send" button combo to move the text stored on the SD card to my computer.

    As neat as the Dana is, though, it's been gathering dust—out of all the antique writing devices I own, my 1999 Apple iBook Clamshell gets the most use because the internet browser is next to useless and can even run Scrivener when upgraded to OS 10! (The clamshell definitely deserves its own post. I should probably get on that, shouldn't I?)

  3. The battery life of the Dana has always been a big issue for me. I like the Neo2 because it seems to last forever. I back up every few weeks using the alphasmart software (much faster than sending each file one at a time). The more I use it, the more I find clever things the software writers included. Great device and cheap enough that I bought a bunch of them in case my main one died as well, as to have several available in different locations in case ideas come to me and I left my main one home.

  4. I enjoyed your post on the Dana. I own three Alphasmarts and it's my favorite, also. I recently purchased a Freewrite and I'm so unimpressed, I'm getting ready to sell the big chunk of metal on eBay. It's been a few years since I've had a novel published and was having a hard time getting back in the game and thought the Freewrite might inspire me...NOT. Pulled the Dana out of its storage spot in my file cabinet today and now have 6,000'words.

  5. I had a Dana from around 2003 to maybe 2015 or so. I used it heavily during a period when I had retired from the computer industry and taught in a small rural private school (2005-2007). My current writing tool is a Samsung Chromebook 3. Pretty good battery life and when you use it with Google Docs or (or Office 365 in the Android subsystem it now supports) its matte screen is about as paper-like as you are going to find. Your article brought great nostalgia and I am sorely tempted to go to eBay, pick one up, and stop at the local store for a bunch of AA alkaline batteries! Do you still use your Dana much? They were really great when laptops weighed 7-10 pounds and had 3-hour battery life at best. Still the best keyboard of any laptop device!

    1. I don't use my Dana very often these days, but it's because I haven't been writing like I used to! I do bring it out for NaNoWriMo every year and still enjoy using it (and would still recommend it!).


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