I AM WRITING this column with its subject, the Newton Messagepad 2000 from Apple Computer Inc. It is a direct descendant of the original Newton, the pen-based, hand-held computer widely ridiculed for its perversely hilarious attempts at turning people's block printing into computerized text.
So why does the opening sentence not read "I an Uriting this Co/snn lit3 its Subjait. tha Nanton MassogcrPcd Zooo," which is how this new model recognized my scrawl? Because I cheated and used the keyboard.
The Newton's handwriting recognition has improved significantly, but it remains too inaccurate to be of much use unless your printing is clear and consistent, or you are willing to spend hours learning to write the way the computer wants you to. Even that is not always easy, in part because the stylus tends to slip on the screen, affording less control than you get with pen on paper. And the documentation does a very poor job of explaining how to make handwriting recognition work better.
A pen does beat a keyboard when you have to work standing up in a crowd, but Apple has grudgingly begun to accept the obvious: Where accuracy is crucial, as in phone numbers and addresses, the system helpfully pops up an on-screen keyboard on which you can tap in the data. The word processor that comes with the machine goes one step further and demands TC real keyboard to work at all.
Without that keyboard, a case and spreadsheet software, the MP2000 costs about $950; with them, the price is about $1,100, about what a decent laptop unit costs. But no laptop machine weighs as little as 1.4 pounds (plus 10 ounces more for the keyboard), has the approximate profile of a videocassette and runs on four AA batteries. Though the MP2000 is bigger than pocket-sized devices (and the case that also holds the keyboard is exceptionally bulky), it is faster and more useful.
The MP2000 includes two standard PC Card slots for modems, memory cards and other devices, though some power hogs can drain the batteries quickly. Serial cables and software can connect it to Macintosh or Windows computers, transfer and synchronize data from them and use them to store backup information. Built-in software includes not just the expected calendar, address book and calculator but also e-mail programs and a Web browser.
The case includes a handy stand that props the unit up at a decent viewing angle. Even on an airplane, the small but readable screen caught enough overhead light to let me avoid using the power-eating backlight, but the operative words in the company's claim that the battery will last up to six weeks in normal usage are "up to."
An Apple spokesman suggested that 40 hours of operation is a more reasonable guess, but the unit's on-screen meter said the batteries were halfway to exhaustion after I had used the machine for less than 10 hours. Still, a spare set weighs less than a power cord, is available almost anywhere and eliminates worries about international power standards. Instead of making you wonder if the juice will hold out for a trip across the country, the MP2000 might well take you around the world.
Unfortunately, the MP2000 is less interesting in itself than as a precursor of what little machines might one day be. The Newton operating system's user interface is just different enough from others to be confusing and frustrating. The combination of pen and keyboard is awkward at best; even the simplest operations require that you move your hands off the keyboard, pick up the stylus, perform an action, put the stylus back and finally return to typing. The pointing device this keyboard needs is sorely missing.
There are other design flaws. Although the keyboard is easy to type on, it embodies some long-standing Apple annoyances, including cursor keys arrayed in a straight line and omitting a key to delete characters to the right of the cursor. The keyboard mates to the main unit through a special little connector that is also needed for the serial port and is almost guaranteed to get lost or mislaid. The infrared port can exchange data with other Messagepads but not with other kinds of computers.
A built-in microphone and speaker let you record and play back voice dictation. It could have been a boon for those who must produce transcriptions, but the rudimentary software supplied does not let you jump into recordings randomly, mark significant points, or even rewind or fast-forward them.
The MP2000 offers lots of ways to hook up to the outside world, but its oversimplified modem setup kept me from testing its remote abilities. The hardware acknowledged the cheap PC Card modem I use, but the software did not. Unfortunately, it did not offer tools to test or fix the problem either. If you plan to buy hardware to use with the Newton, first make sure that it will work. A list of tested modems can be obtained from links to be found at www.newton.apple.com/newton/- solutions/solutions.html. The site also includes listings of a surprising variety of Newton software from other companies.
For now, the MP2000 is too quirky and too expensive for most users. But it strongly suggests that a similar machine with a more accessible user interface and a built-in keyboard could begin a very interesting new product category: lightweight but heavy-duty replacements for fat laptops.
Pub Date: 4/21/97