Jot notes, check e-mail, travel light with MessagePad

If you liked the earlier Newton except for its slow response, you'll love the MP 2000.
Its 162-MHz reduced-instruction-set-computing processor operates much faster than other
personal digital assistants (PDAs).


Newton Inc., Apple Computer Inc.'s newly spun-off subsidiary, has targeted four markets
for the MP 2000: health care, sales, service and delivery workers.


Other mainstream users, such as executives, writers, investigators and students, could
adopt this keyboardless recording and communications device.


The MP 2000 is perfect for anyone who sits through meetings, lectures or training
sessions and doesn't need a CD-ROM drive but just wants to take notes, check e-mail and
perhaps compose a report or two.


The MP 2000 could turn into a hot seller as soon as the right people recognize its
advantages: 112-pound weight, good handwriting recognition and long battery life-plus the
fact that it isn't really a computer.


I say this because lots of people-notably managers-are still uncomfortable with
computers and refuse to type. The idea of a noncomputer appeals to them even if it
includes a word processor, spreadsheet and search tool that's essentially a flat-file
database.


Weight is one of the most important factors in choosing a portable computer. Most of us
would prefer a more versatile, full-size notebook if it weighed the same. But the Newton
weighs less than the average notebook's battery, and easily keeps running not just through
a coast-to-coast flight but through an entire business trip.


If you use it heavily, the Newton might run down in 16 to 20 hours-six or seven times
the notebook's battery life. Because the Newton takes lightweight AA batteries, you can
carry extras or buy more almost anywhere.


The handwriting recognition is no longer a gimmick. Whether you take meeting minutes or
just want to jot a quick note, there's no need to tote along the optional keyboard.


The fact that you can delay handwriting-to-text conversion until you have time to
correct mistakes is an outstanding feature.


With the Newton's two PC Card slots, you could add a fast internal fax modem card, so
at first glance the slow, external fax modem Apple offers seems a poor choice. But it
depends how you use the MP 2000.


If you do a lot of World Wide Web surfing, the Apple modem is a bad deal, but few
people would do much daily surfing with a PDA. The modem would be for faxing or e-mail.


The Apple fax works as fast as any other. For e-mail, speed is irrelevant because of
the nature and size of most mailed files.


Even so, why would you bother with Apple's slower, bulkier, less convenient external
modem? Perhaps because an internal PC Card modem draws more power than all the rest of the
MP 2000. An external modem with a separate power source means you need not worry about
draining the AA batteries.


Although the 100-dot-per-inch, backlit LCD display measures only about 5 inches by 3
inches with 16-level grayscale, it's large and sharp enough to do real work. But I
couldn't easily read the screen outdoors, even in the shade, where it still was too bright
for the backlight to help.


The infrared transceiver works with two wireless data transfer protocols: IrDA at 115
kilobits/sec or ASK at 38.4 kilobits/sec. A removable cover folds over the screen and
makes the PDA rugged when closed. Software includes an alarm clock, timer, time-zone
clock, calendars, notebook, e-mail, fax, Web browser, word processor and spreadsheet.


Apple has heard users' complaints about proprietary hardware and software. The MP 2000
comes with MacOS and Microsoft Windows software that lets you update the programs or data
as well as move files from the MP 2000 to a Macintosh with 68030 or faster processor or to
Windows 3.x, NT or Win95.


One drawback is the size of the Windows software-it comes on five high-density
floppies. You can synchronize files, which means only changes will be transferred, or you
can download the entire contents of all or selected databases.


The recognition feature worked pretty well, despite my poor cursive writing. I did have
to slow down somewhat and make an effort to write legibly. But accuracy was acceptable
after the software learned my style.


You can sketch in two modes, one of which smoothes jagged lines. Number recognition
accuracy was 100 percent for me, but that might be due in part to my training at recording
lab data. You can specify whether you want faster or more accurate recognition. One reason
the recognition engine is good is that it's dictionary-based. The software guesses
hard-to-read letters based on the nearest match with the built-in dictionary. This isn't
as restrictive as it sounds, because you can teach it new words by approving the list it
will build of unusual or misspelled words you didn't correct, or by directly inputting
words.


The first thing I taught the MP 2000 was my name, complete with the unusual
capitalization of my last name. After a few tries and corrections, it could nearly always
dig out my last name from a line of scribbles.


Errors can be corrected several ways. The quickest is just to scribble over them in a
path shaped like a W.


You can't easily handwrite a report with the Newton. The handwriting recognition
software is really just a note-taker. You can cut and paste in your notes, so this isn't a
big problem. Full-blown word processing, however, requires the keyboard.


I had trouble connecting the Newton's browser to my local Internet provider, but I
generally have problems configuring any browser for it. When I tried one of the prewritten
scripts (for AT&T WorldNet), the MP 2000 had no trouble making the connection.


Apple shipped with the unit an extra nonvolatile memory PC Card, the external modem and
an infrared link for nearly 1,000 different printers.


The IR link worked well, but if you plan to buy one of the new IR-capable printers, you
can avoid this extra hardware. I didn't need the extra memory.


In addition to keyboard and pen input, you can make digital audio notes at three levels
of quality with the built-in microphone and speaker.


One useful tool is the dialer, which lets you hold a telephone handset to the speaker
and auto-dial numbers. When you place calls this way or through a modem, the unit
automatically times calls and opens a notepad so you can easily track phone calls.


Here are the accessories I recommend you buy:


I don't recommend you buy the slow Apple fax modem unless you plan to do a fair amount
of faxing or e-mail. I definitely don't recommend the rechargeable battery pack for most
users. AA batteries last a long time in this PDA. Why burden yourself with fading
rechargeables and a bulky charging station? You might as well buy a notebook PC and be
done with it.


About the only thing I disliked about the MP 2000 was the serial port connector. Unless
you have an infrared printer and PC link, you will need to use this RS-422 serial
connector frequently. I found it much too small and flimsy for its task.


To connect the Apple fax modem to this port, I had to lay the Newton and the modem on a
flat surface. Connection problems occurred in any other position, and I felt uneasy about
hanging heavy cables from the port.


John McCormick, a free-lance writer and computer consultant, has been working with
computers since the early 1960s. E-mail him at powerusr@penn.com.
 


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