ISSUE 396: THE HIGH-TECH OFFICE--Alan
Apple's Newton has a sense of humour, style and can
read handwriting -- most of the time May 27 1997
Last week, I looked at one of a new generation
of handheld computers -- a Windows CE machine. As all-new models,
sporting Microsoft's newest operating system, the CE handhelds have
been getting more than their share of media attention. This week, I'm
looking at the latest version of Apple's Newton -- the little machine
that in many ways has defined the genre.
When Apple's former CEO John Sculley first
announced the Newton in the early '90s, he believed that what he called
a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) would be a revolutionary product,
just like Apple's Macintosh had been a decade earlier.
And the original Newton had been a dramatic attempt at
a new direction. While the Windows CE machines boast a minikeyboard and
a scaled-down version of the familiar Windows 95 interface, the Newton
moved in its own direction: Users write with a stylus directly onto the
screen, and the computer attempts to translate the letters into digital
Unfortunately, if not surprisingly, the first attempts
were not quite up to users' overhyped expectations. People who couldn't
always read their own handwriting were critical if this little computer
was less than 100-per-cent accurate.
Despite this initial reaction, Apple has continued to
support the Newton and even while cutting a wide range of experimental
technologies recently, has released a new, significantly improved
The Newton MessagePad 2000 features a more powerful
processor, more memory, and a bigger and brighter screen than earlier
models -- or any of the competition's handhelds. Handwriting
recognition is faster and more accurate than before. While it wasn't
100-per-cent with my basic printing, it was certainly usable. In fact,
it's a toss up whether the Newton made more mistakes trying to
interpret my printing than I made trying to type on the tiny keyboard
of the competition's Windows CE model. If you're having trouble getting
the machine to read your writing, you can always call up an on-screen
picture of a keyboard, and tap your text out, slowly with the stylus.
Or back up and make corrections as needed. Or just save your notes as
an undeciphered picture.
Like the CE, the Newton comes with a basic software
package; you can take notes, use a basic spreadsheet, browse the Net,
and send e-mail. You can transfer files back and forth between the
Newton and both Windows and Macintosh big machines. Unlike the case for
CE models, you can print directly from the Newton to some printers.
Battery life is good; a set of four AA batteries last
20 - 25 hours, if you minimize using the optional backlight for a
brighter screen. As with the competition, using a PC card modem while
running is a guaranteed way to run your charge down before your eyes.
Unfortunately, the almost compulsory AC adapter is $50 extra.
Speaking of optional extras, you can also get a
plug-in keyboard ($120), which makes your Newton into a sort of
notebook computer. Of course, then it's no longer really a handheld
unit. In fact, being significantly larger than the competition, the
Newton is too large to fit in most pockets (despite the manual's advice
not to put it in a back pocket where you might sit on it); it's really
designed for purse or briefcase.
Much like the original Macintosh, the Newton benefits
from Apple's sense of style and good design. It has an attractive case,
with a satiny charcoal plastic that's almost sensual to touch. The
well-thought-out interface is easy to customize; for example, users can
choose to use it horizontally or vertically. Again, like the original
Mac, it's fun to use (am I allowed to have fun while being
productive?). Cross-out a mistake and it disappears in a puff of smoke,
along with appropriate sound effects, for example.
It also benefits by building on a basic design that's
a couple of years old. Unlike the new-to-the-world Windows CE models,
it has a range of software and hardware add-ons. There's even a Newton
Store in town (1251 Pacific Blvd., phone: 899-0425), specializing in
things you can add to make your Newton more capable or just more fun.
The downside? This Cadillac of handhelds is not only
the biggest and brightest of the bunch, it's also the most expensive.
About $1,200, before adding the optional keyboard and the must-have
(for modem users, at least) AC adapter. (And yes, you need to buy your
As well, expect to spend a bit more time learning to
use this elegant and innovative interface, which is unlike the more
instantly familiar Windows CE. But with time, the Newton will learn the
quirks of your writing just as you'll learn to adjust your writing for
If you need a little computer and can afford the best,
you'll find this MessagePad 2000 very useful -- a digital assistant
with a sense of humour and style.*