Portability For the Rest of Us

What do we really need in a laptop?

For some, power is necessary. For the jetsetting executive, whose time spent going through security is time that could be spent sitting at the gate or in the plane working on several different high-powered reports at once, a high-powered laptop is required, with all the top specs and all the usual programs. For the rest of us, we're lured by the expensive gadgets. The ability to play a DVD movie in competition with the in flight movie? Score! The ability to burn music CDs in Starbucks? I'll pay $2000 for that!

But what do the rest of us really *need*? For most, a word processor, an address book, and perhaps the ability to e-mail and browse the web. Erin and I have a laptop. It cost us around $400. It's a Toshiba 486, years old, still running Windows 95. It uses AbiWord to read my Microsoft Word files. It's perfect for when I was proctoring exams, three hours to myself, out of reach of a desktop computer, spending time writing when I'd be staring out at silent students otherwise. When I was commuting to Toronto by train, the laptop allowed me to make use of my 90 minutes of commuting to do things like write letters and craft updates to my website (although I generally used the time to sleep).

The only problem with the laptop, with its single floppy drive and no other way to hook up to my desktop computer (okay, more than one problem) was that it was thick and heavy. At two inches thick, it made my briefcase bulge like I had two encyclopedia volumes in there. At its age, its battery life was negligable (okay, three problems), but I could make things work if I had a plug handy and used my AC adapter. Still, what a chore to lug it around. This is one reason why The Young City is being handwritten at coffee shops and not typed into computer.

Oh, if there was only some light laptop out there that could act as a word processor, a contact list, interface with my computer easily, possibly even browse the net when needed, lasted for hours on batteries, and was under $500!

Turns out there is.

Charles Deemer pointed this product out in his blog, and it's caught my imagination. It's called Dana, and it's a lightweight word processor offered by AlphaSmart. The earliest version (the AlphaSmart 3000) marketed for under $200 and was just a simple word processor that could be hooked up to your computer (PC or Mac) via a USB port. It could store up to one hundred typewritten pages, lasted seven hours on three AA batteries and was thin and light. It tempted me, but I wanted a little more from it for the price of a low-end palm-pilot. Then the later version of Dana came equipped with Palm OS software and stylus, meaning that it was now not only a word processor but an address book and calendar. Getting warmer...

Finally, AlphaSmart has announced the upcoming release of its Wi-Fi capable Dana word processors. Simply by accessing any free hotspot in a local coffee shop, library, or anywhere else these Wi-Fi things are turning up, you can browse the Internet for free. Not only could I now take my writing work anywhere and upload it to my computer later, I can update my blog from anywhere. It's the perfect tool for the Neil Gaimans out there who don't have Neil Gaiman's funds to purchase a high-powered laptop.

And, in one fell swoop, AlphaSmart has basically duplicated the key functions of a laptop at one quarter of the laptop's price. Sure, you won't be able to play your CDs (although MP3s might be another matter), or watch DVDs on a train, and you won't be playing around in Microsoft Office, but you will get the job done, and it won't pull your arm out of its socket or lighten your wallet either. I want one of these things! And I suspect the company will get some attention as more people realize that these things are out there.

Maybe someday... Right now, $500 is about as affordable as $2000 for me. Which is to say: not very.

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