MacUser, June 1997

 

The Newton Weighs In

by Jeff Pittelkau

 

Surf the Web, deal with e-mail, crunch spreadsheets, write real documents, and keep your life together with this 1.4-pound wonder.

 

 

Apple Newton MessagePad 2000

 

Pros: Fast. Accurate handwriting recognition. Digital-voice-recording capability. Good bundle of Internet and productivity apps. Large, backlit screen. Dual Type II PC Card slots.

 

Cons: Large form factor; won’t fit in pocket. Expensive. Modem not included. Optional keyboard is awkwardly big but not full-sized.

 

 

 

You’d be surprised how much a PowerBook, its AC adapter, a few spare batteries, and a charger can weigh. If you’re a business traveler, you already know—have you measured your arms lately? So, what if we told you that for under $1,000 and under 2 pounds, you could possess a self-contained personal information manager—complete with e-mail client software, a phone-call and fax manager, a Web browser, a word processor, and an Excel-compatible spreadsheet program—that ran on alkaline batteries for days or weeks at a time?

 

The recently released Apple Newton MessagePad 2000 is a traveling companion that may displace the PowerBook for many road warriors. We put this 1.4-pound wonder to the test in our labs, in the field, and at home, trusting our daily lives to its scheduler, sending and receiving faxes and e-mail, surfing the Web, writing stories with its word processor, creating spreadsheets—and, of course, transferring information to and from our desktop Macs. In fact, this is the first Newton that really delivers and leaves little for even the most dedicated naysayers to criticize.

 

 

 

A Truly Mobile Computer

With a U.S. Robotics Pilot costing around $200 and Microsoft Windows CE-based palmtops available for roughly $600, Apple is aiming high with its superfast, fully loaded MessagePad 2000, priced at $950USD without the Pelican Ware QuickFigure Pro spreadsheet program, $1,000 with all bundled applications, or $1,100 with applications plus a keyboard and Newton/keyboard carrying case. Unfortunately, none of these configurations includes a modem.

 

A thousand bucks is steep for a PDA (personal digital assistant), until you consider what you get when you pay less: A Pilot has limited functionality, a small screen, no keyboard, and no productivity or Internet applications. A Windows CE-based palmtop has only a chiclet keyboard for input and the look and feel of a shrunken Windows 95 interface (see the “Competition” sidebar for more on these MessagePad alternatives).

 

The Newton integrates PIM, productivity, and Internet applications in a simple user environment that doesn’t—and shouldn’t—feel like that of a desktop computer. Its user environment is further enhanced by Intelligent Assistance, which understands commands in English, such as “lunch with Andy next Thursday,” and remembers things you do often, such as calling friends and business associates. The Newton user environment along with the MessagePad 2000’s tremendous expansion capability, processing power, large backlit screen, and huge library of third-party software (thousands of Newton applications already work on the 2000) make it the only truly mobile computer in the palmtop class. In fact, there is very little productive work you can’t do on the 2000 that you can on a PC or Mac notebook.

 

 

 

 

Newton on Steroids

Forget everything you’ve heard about the Newton. With the MessagePad 2000, Apple has literally reinvented the whole Newton experience.

 

If you’ve tried to use a MessagePad in the past, you probably had three complaints: The processor was too slow; the screen was too small; and, with only one PC Card slot and limited RAM, you had to play shell games with RAM cards and your modem. With the MessagePad 2000, all these problems go away. The 162-MHz Digital Equipment Corporation StrongARM RISC processor makes switching among applications, searching for data, or even using handwriting recognition nearly instantaneous, while still delivering excellent battery life. The large 480x320 pixel LCD screen, able to display 16 shades of gray, is great for reading e-mail, doing word processing, working with spreadsheets, and browsing the Web. Screen backlighting is bright, without being a burden on the batteries. The 2000’s 1 MB of system DRAM and 4 MB of flash RAM leave plenty of room for lots of data and additional applications. Plus, the dual Type II PC Card slots allow users to install both a modem and a flash-RAM card at the same time.

 

The high-quality built-in speaker is handy not only for playing the nifty new alarm sounds loud and clear but also for playing back digitized recordings you can make in the Notepad application. You’ll have no problem waking up to the loud but pleasant daily alarm when it plays from this new speaker.

 

With the 2000, Apple has made great strides in advancing the MessagePad’s communications capabilities. The infrared communications transceiver now supports IrDA for cable-free printing to IrDA-capable printers. There’s also a new I/O port, called the Newton Interconnect, that supports high-speed RS-422 serial communication, LocalTalk, keyboard, power-in and -out, as well as line-level audio-in and -out. Regrettably, to use the supplied serial cable or keyboard, you must use a bundled adapter—one more thing to lose when traveling. Hopefully, Apple will ship keyboards and serial cables with the new connector built in, in the very near future. The 2000 even has an internal connector for a modem or wireless-communications card. Thus far, however, no one has announced plans to take advantage of this slot.

 

The one missing port whose absence will keep some Newton wannabes on PowerBooks? Video-out, for presentations (hint, hint).

 

At first glance, the MessagePad 2000 seems a bit larger than the MessagePad 130 and 120, which came before it—it’s 4.7 x 8.3 inches. But at 1.1 inches thick, it’s actually a tad thinner than its older cousins. Weighing 1.4 pounds with batteries, it’s a tad heavier too. The new form factor is great for a backpack or briefcase, but it’s too big for a pocket.

 

The full-sized, brushed-metal pen that hides inside the MessagePad 2000 is the most elegant we’ve seen with any palmtop. There’s also a pop-out pen holder, which, coupled with the 2000’s ability to rotate the screen to any of four orientations, allows you to place the pen near your right or left hand or keep it handy but out of the way of the keyboard, serial, and modem cables. Finally, the new design features a sturdy lid that opens and tucks away behind the 2000 or that can be removed entirely. The new Newton has mounting holes for other lid designs as well as a place for a connection for a rumored-to-be-possible lid that doubles as a keyboard. We’re eagerly awaiting this option from Apple or third parties.

 

 

 

All the Software You Need—Well, Almost

No more nearly worthless implementation of Pocket Quicken. This time out, Apple got the bundled Newton applications right.

 

Preinstalled on the 2000 are the usual Newton applications for managing calendar events, to-do items, names, and phone calls and taking notes. Apple adds to this its own word processor, called Newton Works, which includes PelicanWare’s QuickFigure Pro spreadsheet program; Netstrategy Software’s EnRoute i-net e-mail client software; and AllPen’s NetHopper Web browser. And most important, Apple includes the Newton Connection Kit 2.0, albeit in a beta form; the final release will come sometime later this year and will be free to MessagePad 2000 owners.

 

Little has changed in the calendar, phone-call-manager, names, or Notepad applications that come with the MessagePad. Dates support all the event types you’d expect: repeating and special events, to-do items, and meetings. The Notepad supports recognized and nonrecognized (“ink”) text, sketches, and shapes in your choice of notes, outlines, or checklists. You can purchase hundreds of third-party Notepad stationery plug-ins that add everything from graph paper to boilerplate business memos.

 

The word processor is pretty basic—supporting justification, page breaks, multiple fonts, and choices of type sizes and styles. It features a find-and-replace utility as well as a spelling checker and QuickSketch, which lets you embed sketches by using the Newton’s Shapes or Sketches tool, but it does not support handwriting recognition, so you’ll need to peck away at the on-screen keyboard or attach the optional Newton keyboard.

 

The QuickFigure Pro spreadsheet module in Newton Works is a capable enough program, featuring rudimentary built-in functions; a simple bar-charting utility; and QF Exchange, which allows direct uploading and downloading of Excel 5 spreadsheets. But although it’s Excel 5-compatible, it is not Excel 5 and does not support many of that application’s advanced capabilities.

 

Apple’s Internet Connection Kit is preinstalled on the MessagePad 2000, which makes setup for Internet communications a snap. The EnRoute i-net e-mail client software is integrated into the Newton’s in/out box. Customizable features include the ability to receive only a limited number of messages at a time (to save memory and battery life), to download only messages under a certain size, and to schedule communication sessions. Scheduling e-mail can automatically activate the Newton at, say, 5 A.M., so all your mail is ready for you to read with your morning coffee. The bundled Web browser, NetHopper 3.0, supports image downloading and automatic image resizing to the 2000’s smaller-than-a-desktop screen.

 

 

 

Torture Test

We used the 2000 for nearly a month. During that time, we were completely sans PowerBooks and instead tried to manage exclusively with the MessagePad.

 

At conferences and meetings, we scrawled notes into the Notepad, where handwriting recognition worked quite well. This is one area in which the 162 MHz StrongARM really shines—handwriting recognition is quick and accurate.

 

Digital sound recording also worked well for these meetings; even at a bitrate of 2K per second, the lowest quality setting, recordings were intelligible. And because the Newton’s operating system supports multitasking, we were able to work with other Newton apps while recording churned away in the background.

 

We used the spreadsheet program for personal cash-flow management, migrating what used to be an Excel 5 spreadsheet on a desktop computer to QuickFigure Pro. In its horizontal orientation, the 2000’s screen displayed only 7 columns by 13 rows, which made it difficult to work with large spreadsheets. The addition of a split-screen view would be helpful.

 

For text-based e-mail—or sharing of information among MessagePads—En Route i-net worked extremely well. Web access was also surprisingly good, as long as we could do without multimedia, color, or frames and didn’t mind poky redownloads of images when we navigated graphics-heavy sites. (The Newton’s limited memory necessitates very small page caches.) Luckily, Net Hopper lets you turn off image downloading, which makes Web browsing downright snappy. Also, the browser can selectively lock pages in cache memory—particularly useful with forms-based Web sites—allowing you to download the forms you need, complete them off-line, and then upload them when you next connect.

 

The multitasking Newton OS really pays off when you’re accessing the Internet, as we found out when a previously scheduled e-mail communication session started up during the middle of a browsing session. Very cool.

 

The 2000 uses four AA alkaline batteries or a rechargeable nickel metal hydride battery pack that can be charged inside the unit in under an hour. Battery life varied greatly, depending on how we used the MessagePad. We found that heavy use of a PC Card modem drained the batteries very quickly, within hours. We recommend connecting the optional AC adapter when using the modem for prolonged surfing. The backlighting, however, is quite power-thrifty. Even when scribbling notes with backlighting on during a multiday conference, we got several days’ use before we had to replace the batteries.

 

With everyday use—checking e-mail a few times a day and syncing files with a desktop machine twice a day, plus periodically checking the calendar and doing some note taking and word processing—battery life was anywhere from one to two weeks, certainly less than Apple’s claim of three to six weeks but more than acceptable.

 

One major advantage the MessagePad 2000 has over any portable we’ve used is ruggedness. We dropped our 2000 several times on hard cement with nary a scratch. Try that with a PowerBook.

 

 

 

The Bottom Line

Although pricey and a bit big for a PDA, the Newton MessagePad 2000 delivers first-rate performance with a full set of applications. The PIM functionality is excellent, and the synchronization software works well. The 2000 is a lightweight, less expensive alternative to a PowerBook for handling e-mail, taking notes, recording meetings, faxing, working with spreadsheets, and doing basic word processing. But some work needs to be done to improve the robustness of Web access.

 

As the first of a new generation of fast, capable Newtons, the MessagePad 2000 is also the first Newton we can, with a clear conscience, recommend to our friends. It proved good enough to replace a PowerBook in many instances. Basically, if you don’t need to make a presentation, don’t have to run a Mac application such as Photoshop, and don’t mind playing games in 16 shades of gray, the 2000 is more than sufficient to fill your mobile computing needs.

 

A word to the wise: If you’re a current MessagePad owner, don’t try out a MessagePad 2000 unless you’re ready to shell out 1,000 clams on the spot. Once you’ve tried this thing, you won’t want to go back to your old Newton.

 

 

 

Jeff Pittelkau is director of MacUser Labs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sidebar: The Competition

Pilot and Windows CE-based palmtops

 

Although the MessagePad 2000 will no doubt supplant portable computers in many situations, the products this new Newton must beat to be successful are not PowerBooks but the U.S. Robotics Pilot and Microsoft Windows CE-based palmtops.

 

U.S. Robotics Pilot

What’s so great about the Pilot? It’s tiny—4.7 x 3.2 x .7 inches and under 6 ounces—and it runs for months on two AAA batteries. It has no keyboard or handwriting recognition, instead relying on a small on-screen keyboard or its proprietary glyph alphabet, called Graffiti, for input. Learning Graffiti takes practice and patience. Once you’ve learned the special character strokes, it offers an accurate way to input characters with a pen.

 

The Pilot’s basic PIM applications are fast and simple. And the Pilot includes a desktop docking station that has a single button for starting file synchronization with your Mac or PC. Although this is nice, the new autodocking capability in the 2000 works just as well, if not better. The latter allows you to back up your Newton and/or perform calendar, to-do-item, and contact-information synchronization automatically.

 

As to how the 2000 stacks up against the Pilot, it’s not really a fair comparison: The Pilot is a basic PIM you can carry in your pocket that has no communications or document-creation capabilities. The 2000, on the other hand, can do most things a portable computer can do. If all you need is what a Pilot does, then a 2000 would be overkill.

 

 

Windows CE-Based Palmtops

Think of Windows CE as Windows 95 Lite—it looks like Windows and acts like Windows. And, whether you’re a fan of the Windows 95 interface or not, the look and feel does not scale well to a palmtop’s tiny screen.

 

Although its interface may be as wooden as some United States vice presidents we know of, Windows CE does deliver when it comes to productivity applications. Pocket Word and Pocket Excel, although limited in their abilities, let you view files from their desktop PC counterparts. And thanks to the momentum created by Microsoft’s ability to promote licensing, Windows CE-based hardware will be available in many shapes, sizes, and price ranges from such vendors as Casio, Hewlett-Packard, NEC, and Philips. Windows CE-based palmtops each typically include a chiclet-style keyboard and a pen that functions like a mouse, but they are missing handwriting recognition of any kind.

 

Of course, none of this does you any good if you have a Mac. Currently no Windows CE connection software is available for the Mac.

 

A Windows CE-based device is functionally more comparable to the MessagePad 2000 than to the Pilot. However, as is often true of Microsoft’s first attempts, Windows CE leaves a lot to be desired. We can’t say enough about how elegant and easy to use the Newton is, especially when compared with Windows CE devices. You just can’t beat Intelligent Assistance for making personal-information management simple. Setting a lunch date or remembering to call someone is as easy as writing ”lunch with Bob” or “remember to call Sue” and tapping the Assist button. And the Newton interface fits beautifully on the small screen, something Windows CE is never going to do as long as Microsoft stays dogmatically devoted to the Windows 95 interface.

 

And then there’s reliability. As it turns out, the MessagePad 2000 is the most reliable product in the entire palmtop category. And ironically enough, it’s Windows CE-based devices that are currently plagued by bugs, including a data-loss problem on the Casio version of the PDA.