Thursday, August 29, 2013

Dealing with Digital Distractions, pt. 2

In Which I Review, At Length, a Ten-Year-Old Gadget.

Yesterday, I shared my frustration with the constant dings, buzzes, notifications, alarms, reminders, IMs, texts, and e-mails that constantly use the very same device on which you're trying to be productive to distract you and keep you from any real productivity. I promised that today I'd tell you about my new (old) gizmo that has me less distracted than ever when I sit down to write. (Don't worry; it's not a typewriter).

First, a little background on me and my preferences, technologically speaking. I'm still rocking my Palm Pilot from 2003. I don't like learning new devices or transferring all my info and I get very attached to the status quo. Plus, you can get outdated technology on eBay for a song, which is awesome, and all of its bugs are already known and usually fixed, and you deal with almost no learning curve. I was recently told that this is "hipster" of me (collecting outdated tech), to which I replied that I was into obsolete electronics long before the latest incarnation of hipsterism existed. But then I remembered that claiming to have been into things before everyone else is just another sign of being a hipster.

Anyway, for a good ten years, I was getting around any and all laptop-related annoyances by doing 90% of my writing (including seminary papers, etc.) on my palm with an infrared collapsible keyboard, which was very easy to transport (one in each pants pocket), requiring no case, no cords, nothing. But then my keyboard broke and the only one I could find to replace it wouldn't lay flat on my lap and kept wanting to fold in half over my leg. Besides, while the backlight on a palm works fine inside, it's very difficult to read out in the sun (and let's not forget that staring into a blue light for extended periods was helping to cause mine--and everyone else's--insomnia). It was getting to the point where these distractions were more annoying than the Internet itself.

Then, a couple months ago, I happened upon this device:

It's called the AlphaSmart Dana and it reminds me a bit of the old word processor I had my freshman year of college (before laptops were affordable). That thing was a monster keyboard/display/printer combo with no battery, which sat permanently on my desk in my dorm room. It was the opposite of convenience, but I remember getting into the zone on that beast: minimal formatting (italics, bold, three font choices and three font sizes) and no graphics to fiddle with. I was just concerned with the content of the paper. 

Then I think about the challenge of writing papers in seminary on a desktop computer with a T1, four diferent kinds of Bible software, nineteen different windows open at a time. Facebook wasn't huge yet, but there were plenty of other websites and message boards calling to me (IMDb, anyone?), bringing us back to the problem I described yesterday.

Here's why the Dana works for me: it's as much about the neural pathways in my brain as anything else. As I mentioned earlier, I struggle with insomnia. One of the things experts advise is to avoid working, reading, e-mailing, watching TV, etc. while in bed--so that your brain has just one (okay, two) activities associated with that place and isn't all amped up and confused when you lie down at night. Ideally, your mind and body immediately associate laying head on pillow with sleep. Well, my mind associates my Dana with writing...not wasting time screen-sucking, e-mailing, playing games, editing pictures ,etc.  Just writing.

You can get one of these bad boys cheap. Originally about $400, they're being unloaded in lots as part of school surplus sales on eBay for about $25 a piece (a little goo gone and mine was in like-new condition.) Despite being a decade old (which, in tech years, may as well be a century), the Dana has a loyal following among writers and journalists, which is why its Amazon ranking is still so high.

Because I'm me, I made a list of pros and cons, as if it were 2003 and these devices were just hitting the market, and as if there weren't already a hundred such lists floating around tech site archives everywhere.

  • Simplicity. There are different levels of simple from which you can choose. From the completely bare (memo pad, with one font, one size, just text) to a little more complicated (Word to Go, with the ability to set margins, rich text formatting, tables, etc.; one can even import true type fonts through a conduit). I prefer to keep it simple.
  • Accessibility. There are several options for how to save and open docs. You can write directly to an SD card (there are two slots), working with native Word and Excel files, or you can plug into your computer's USB port and have the Dana "type" your text into whatever program you like.
  • Generates no heat. Unlike a laptop (and much like a tablet), the Dana is cool on your lap. Unlike a tablet, it's natural to actually use it on your lap.
  • Fairly large display. I'm typing this blog post on my Dana and I can see nine lines of text at a time.
  • Great battery life. As in, twenty-five hours on a single charge.
  • Touch screen. Another shared feature with your uber-expensive (and rather distracting) iPad. But when it comes to ease of use when writing, the Dana has some advantages. For example:
  • Very Rugged. AlphaSmart devices were originally designed for teaching kids typing in the classroom, which means they can survive many drops from four feet off the ground and come off unscathed. Try that with your tablet.
  • Outdoors-friendly. I love to work outside, but if the sun is out, it's almost impossible to see your laptop or tablet screen through the glare and reflection. Not an issue with the simple display on the Dana. (This is also why I prefer my black and white Kindle e-ink device with no FB, movies, etc. over a tablet or Kindle Fire.) The Dana's screen is not in the same league as e-ink when it comes to non-reflectiveness and readability outside, but it's worlds better than a laptop screen or similar backlit color LCD display. Unlike e-ink, you have to get the sun at the right angle to the glass surface of the Dana's screen, but after a minimum of shifting, the big light in the sky is illuminating your text, not obscuring it.
  • Optional Backlight.  Remember "indiglo watches?" Well, the Dana has the same thing going on: a gentle green light that glows behind your text, allowing you to easily read what you're typing in low-light conditions. While writing in bed (yeah, I know; the insomnia), this has the two-fold benefit of not waking my wife with a harsh white light and not jacking up my Circadian rhythm by telling my brain it's time to get up when I'm actually about to turn in for the night.
  • Two SD card slots. And automatic scheduled back-ups so you don't lose anything.
  • Can print directly to most any printer.  Using either USB cable or wireless capability.
  • Super light. Weighs way less than a laptop.
  • No bootup time. Hit the power button and there you are where you left it. You can store eight of your documents in eight quick-load positions that can be brought up with the touch of a single button. This allows you to work on that annual report or short story during the five-minute wait in the doctor's office, whereas your laptop would barely boot up and load your document before you had to turn it back off.

  • Accessibility, again. The file syncing software for the main word processor is not compatible with Windows 7 64-bit or Windows 8 (however, there are ways around this, such as the keyboard functionality, infrared beaming, and using SD cards).
  • Built-in word processor doesn't like graphics or hyperlinks, so editing existing documents can be challenging.
  • No built-in music player. On one hand, this means fewer distractions, except that headphones can help drown out chatty Cathies in coffee shops and other public places. But once you start getting into semi-vintage electronics and dedicated devices, carrying extra hardware is expected. Anyway, iPods are tiny.
  • People think you're either a hipster or way behind the times. Not sure which is worse, but I don't really care.
  • Dynamic flash memory. If the battery does completely die (which takes another couple weeks of neglect after it refuses to fire up), you lose all your documents.  However, you can do manual and automatic scheduled backups to the SD card, which removes that danger.
Anyway, that's my current preferred solution to the constant annoyances and distractions of the digital world. I hope you find yours. And for twenty-five bucks, you may want to consider picking up a used Dana.


  1. Zach, I may buy one of these today. Found the AlphaSmart 3k on eBay for $15 delivered. This post may rank up there with the one on the theological acuity of Valu Pac!

  2. it reminds me of an Intelliwriter my dad got his last year of seminary. Instead of he or my mom typing papers on an old manual keyboard (this was the late 80's), this device would hold one line at a time, and you could proof it before hitting print.

  3. @AuthorZBartels I'm not sure about that device, but I'm certainly interested in your next book. Demoniac sounds absolutely my sort of thing!