New Power Tools For Journalists

When it comes to their tools, working journalists tend to be a very conservative lot. Even the smallest change is fiercely resisted. A few wordsmiths I know are still clinging desperately to their typewriters, horrified at the very idea that one should "process" words.


Those who are open to change should be interested in two new devices that offer genuine benefits to reporters of all kinds -- whether they work in TV, radio, print or on the Internet. One is Dana, a new laptop computer alternative with the heart of a Palm PDA, and Sony's MZ-B100, a new-generation MiniDisc recorder designed for those who want serious quality audio recordings in the field with a minimum of equipment.

Dana is from AlphaSmart, a Los Gatos, Calif.-base company specializing in word processors for students. A few months back we reviewed their original product, the AlphaSmart 3000, a device that's become a cult favorite of many writers. Now, this company-made up of some bright Apple Computer alumni-has transformed the Palm organizer into an ultralight laptop.

(click thumbnail)Dana has transformed the Palm organizer into an ultralight laptopWhy should journalists care about Dana? It's cheap (under $400); light (under 2 pounds); power-efficient (25-plus hours runtime on three standard or rechargeable AAs), super-rugged (ABS case designed to take a four-foot drop), and it offers Internet access, e-mail and Microsoft Word-compatible word processing with a full-size keyboard. In a way, it's the next generation of the much-revered Radio Shack Model 100, a reporter's favorite of more than two decades ago.

I've been working with a Dana for a few weeks and have been constantly surprised by its thoughtful design and excellent performance. Since it runs on the stable Palm 4.1 operating system, it connects with either Macs or Windows and easily syncs existing contacts, datebook, documents and other Palm data. The difference is the information from standard Palm applications is displayed on a screen that's 3.5 times wider than a standard Palm PDA. (Other Palm applications still work in a smaller screen size.)

But it's the full-sized keyboard, big clear monochrome screen, and advanced word processor that takes Dana beyond any existing PDA. Important files can be saved directly to SD or MMC flashcards inserted into one of its two rear slots. Transfer to a PC or Mac can be accomplished through Palm sync or directly via USB to a word processor with the push of a single button. Ease of use is amazing and flexibility with the outside world is built-in.

Another small, but important, detail: Unlike earlier ultra-portable devices that included internal modems, the Dana does not. At first one might question this omission. But the dirty little secret was that those internal modems drew so much power that they practically demanded AC power in the field-a convenience that's not always available.

Dana works with Palm-compatible outboard IrDA or USB modems or cellphones and can avoid that battery drain issue. I've been using a Dana successfully on Earthlink with a self-powered, cigarette pack-sized IrDA modem called the Pegasus II. Its performance with the included widescreen Aileron e-mail app has been flawless.


A super companion for Dana is Sony's MZ-B100 ($399 list), the latest MiniDisc portable targeted to journalists. It replaces the workhorse Sony MZ-B3, an $800-plus model introduced almost a decade ago. The B100 is much lighter (only 5.7 ounces), has significantly longer battery life (14 hours on a single AA battery), and features a pair of built-in microphones for stereo recording.

Though not perfect, the B100 is an excellent portable field recorder with some useful improvements over the B3. Its compact size and weight make it much easier to carry, it has multiple record modes allowing up to 320 minutes recording time, and it offers a new feature called Voice Up that can enhance voice clarity during playback of stereo recordings.

The Voice Up mode emphasizes the left-right orientation of individual voices, making them easier to distinguish and hear. The function is most effective when using headphones to do transcriptions of stereo recordings made at meetings and conferences.

Yet the improvements in the B100 come with a tradeoff. With the B3, the user- after "track marking" a recorded segment-can quickly locate and transcribe it. This is because the B3 can rapidly shuttle the audio backward and forward while in the play mode, allowing for quick transcription.

This audible mode usually takes from one to two seconds to activate once the user presses and holds the appropriate rewind or fast forward button. With the MZ-100, however, this shuttle function takes at least twice the time to engage. Transcribing spoken words-a breeze with the B3-is now a more laborious process.

Also lost with the B100 is the quick two-secondish TOC (data save) function of the B3. Expect now to wait as long as 10 seconds at the end of a recording. I find it frustratingly slow while working in the field.

I have a vintage B3 now undergoing its second overhaul at Sony. My plan is to use it for transcription at home and use a new B100 for field recording. This way I get the best capabilities of both recorders.

For more info on Dana: On the MZ-B100:

Frank Beacham

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.