It still can't read, but Newton MessagePad's a great organizer

The first time I wrote "Testing" on the Newton
MessagePad 120, it decided I meant "Entire." My second attempt was successful,
except the capital T appeared as t.

Handwriting recognition--or the lack of it--has brought undeserved ridicule onto
Apple's personal digital assistant. When I looked beyond the writing on the screen, I
found the best personal information management software I've seen on any platform.

If I write "Dinner with David tomorrow" and tap the stylus on the Assist
icon, the Newton pulls up tomorrow's itinerary, checks all the Davids in my database and
selects one (I can change it with another tap). Dinner is assumed to be at 7 p.m.,
breakfast at 7 a.m. and lunch at noon unless you say otherwise.

If I write "Send e-mail to Diana," the Newton prepares an e-mail form
complete with Diana's e-mail address, if my database has it.

In short, the Newton is no handwriting toy. It's a sophisticated, handheld personal
organizer complete with scratch pad, contacts database and datebook, yet it's smaller and
lighter than most DayTimers.

You can send e-mail and faxes with a small, external modem or a PC Card that takes up
the only slot. You transfer files from one Newton to another with infrared signals.

Direct printing is limited, but Apple's connection kit moves documents to a Microsoft
Windows or Macintosh computer for printing. The connection kit even lets you transfer your
own contacts database if it's saved in a comma-delimited, dBase or Lotus 1-2-3 format.

But synchronization between the Newton and desktop computers is miserably slow. When
the software works in background, foreground applications slow down significantly. If you
do something processor-intensive in the foreground, like launching a large application,
the transfer will suspend and you must start it up again manually.

Good news, though: The Newton picks up where it left off.

The desktop software, though basic at best, lets you transfer, view, manipulate and
export information. It would be nice if there were more printing formats--for example,
attractive templates for personal organizer pages. Then again, the Newton should be
replacing those organizer binders.

The MessagePad 120 still doesn't recognize handwriting as well as it should. It
interpreted my name without problems, but simple words like "This" never seemed
to come out right.

When I repeatedly wrote, "This is a test of the emergency broadcasting
system," the Newton once interpreted it: "Wir is a test of the eaurgeua
broadcasting npkem." It missed "This" and "system" every time,
replacing them with different letter combinations. Occasionally it got
"emergency" right.

Deciphering handwriting into digital text goes very slowly. As a reporter, I take notes
fast. The Newton could hardly keep up when I turned handwriting recognition off. If it was
on, forget it. That's why I believe the MessagePad 120 works best as a daily organizer.
Quick notes, appointments and to-do lists don't require extensive writing.

The Newton runs on four AA batteries. Apple sells a rechargeable battery pack and a
trickle-charge stand that holds a full-size stylus. I used the Newton daily for a week
before it needed a charge. If the AAs die, a watch-type battery preserves your data.

No energy gets wasted backlighting the screen--there's no backlighting at all. The
Newton desperately needs this feature, especially in sunlight where the screen looks like
a handheld mirror.

This device is smart enough to turn itself on and off. When you have an appointment, it
comes on and chimes or twitters--your choice--as a reminder. It turns off when you haven't
used it after a set time.

Instead of a PC Card modem, you might prefer a 2M flash memory card so you can load up
lots of names and the software for expense tracking, personal finance, list making or
puzzles. Other applications are available.

Government Technology Services Inc. of Chantilly, Va., discounts the Newton for $599
with 2M of RAM and 2,400/9,600-kilobit/sec fax modem. A 2M flash memory card costs $129
more. The battery charger stand with one battery pack is $69; so is the connection kit for
Mac or Microsoft Windows PCs.

Apple Computer Inc., Cupertino, Calif.; tel. 408-996-1010.

The downside:

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