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 text.

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 model.

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 own modem.)

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 it.

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.*

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan