When the announcement of the Newton MessagePad 2000 coincided with the end of Citibank's Apple Mastercard promotion, I jumped at the chance to spend my saved-up "Appledollar" rebate coupons on Apple's next-generation handheld computer. Though I had long coveted a Newton, and played with earlier versions on a few brief occasions, this is the first one I've owned. If you had asked what I planned to use it for, I would have told you I was going to use it instead of upgrading to a new Powerbook.
Well, the MessagePad will not completely retire my Powerbook. I'll still require hundreds of megabytes of disk storage, the ability to run FileMaker, and a word processor with footnotes, in a form that I can carry with me when I leave Chicago to do serious research work. But the MP2k has likely allowed me to postpone the purchase of a new laptop indefinitely - maybe even until I get that first job! And it has already replaced my Dayrunner, a spiral notebook that used to contain meeting and lecture notes, and various other paper-based methods of organization that I have used as long as I have been a grad student. About the only thing in my shoulder bag besides the MP2k these days is a thin folder for loose pages or xerox copies, and whatever book I happen to be reading.
What follows is a description of how I've used the MP2000 in the last month in my life as a doctoral candidate in History. I've tried to anticipate the needs of academics in general, at least those in the humanities. Those who don't know anything about the Newton OS or the new MessagePads should probably first peruse Apple's Newton web site for specifications, pictures, and links to more general reviews, and the Newton Primer, newly posted. Anyone considering a purchase would also do well to spend a few weeks perusing the discussions on the comp.sys.newton.misc newsgroup, where the benefits and limits of the Newton platform are vigorously argued and the readership is very responsive to questions.
Finding the right metaphor
The hardest part about judging the MessagePad, or even describing it to colleagues and friends, has been figuring out what category to put it in, what metaphor to employ. Is is more like a Pilot or a Powerbook? A notebook computer or a digital pad of paper? The fact is, the Newton creates its own category of mobile computing, and the best way to judge it is by its usefulness for everyday tasks - in my case, for research, writing, organization and mobile communication in a university setting.
Still, I've noticed that people's reactions to my MessagePad generally depend on whether they see it as a "big Pilot" or a "small laptop." The success of US Robotics' Pilot has done much to popularize handheld computers, and so has probably saved me from many of the strange looks that earlier Newton users got when they pulled out a chirping little box and started tapping on it. As a digital organizer, the Pilot is cheaper, smaller, and synchronizes more smoothly with the desktop than the MessagePad. For these few tasks, the Pilot is by all accounts superior to the MP2k, and those who only need a digital contact manager would likely find the latter to be expensive overkill. But this comparison is inappropriate in most respects: the Newton is designed to be much more than an organizer, and what it lacks in focus is compensated by power and flexibility. Editing a 50-page chapter or browsing the web, for instance, is unthinkable on the Pilot; as is writing with your natural handwriting.
Nor is the MessagePad a "laptop replacement" when compared to the price/performance of the latest whiz-bang notebook computers (though it does much better when compared to my own five-year-old Powerbook 160). It can't be used for mobile presentations, nor for CD-ROMs, nor full-color, high-speed web surfing. It can serve many of the same basic functions as a laptop, such as note-taking and simple word processing, email and Internet use; and it is especially well-suited for "cafe computing" - reading, writing, and taking notes away from the usual home or office surroundings. Its battery life puts laptops to shame: it was only after more than two weeks of heavy use that I had to replace the four "AA" Duracells that came with the MessagePad - and its instant restarts and wake-ups are the envy of anyone who's had to sit through an entire boot-up just to access a single scrap of information. (In these aspects, as several newsgroup posts and newspaper reviews have noted, it is a wildly upgraded throwback to one of the original laptops: the TRS-80 Model 100 - the "Trash 80" still used by globe-trotting journalists.)
This stability and general handiness suggests that the MP2k can be fruitfully compared to a traditional paper notebook rather than a notebook computer. It's a clumsy analogy in many ways - why would anyone pay $1000 for a pad of paper? - but usefully shifts one's perspective on the Newton's abilities and limitations. The MP2k is portable in a way that a laptop can never be, and in way that goes beyond specs like size and weight. Besides its battery life (no more looking for the seat closest to the wall outlet) and the ability to use it while standing up, the Newton's pen-based input, pad-like size, and literally silent operation allow it to fade into the background in settings (such as seminar discussions and even one-on-one conversations) in which firing up a laptop would be awkward or disruptive. After only a month, my MessagePad has already been to more places - and become more indispensable - than my Powerbook ever did. It's not terribly off the mark to consider the Newton the closest existing thing to a digital pad of paper: a notebook that is globally searchable, can be used as a date book (with reminder alarms), can serve simultaneously as a free-form notepad and a project-specific notebook, can record verbal notes for later transcription as well as sketches and drawings, download information from the Internet, and even store a novel to read during unexpected delays.
A month at work
I've used the Newton in a fairly "bare-bones" fashion. I certainly have nothing against third party products, but my own limited resources, along with a desire to test the limits of the Newt OS out of the box, confined my testing to the bundled software plus a few freeware essentials (with the exception of database software, as explained below). A huge range of add-on software packages exists to improve almost every function of the system software. What follows is a description of what I tried to do with the Newton and how well it performed. (To get a sense of the variety of software that is available for the Newton platform, browse or search Clay Irving's Newton Reference.)
As I've already suggested, the MessagePad is an ideal computer for taking notes during meetings, seminars, or lectures - especially in an academic setting, where technophobia commonly persists enough to frown upon the sound of keyboards and hard drives and power outlets can be in short supply. I have found the handwriting recognition to be nearly instantaneous, and accurate enough to sustain the natural pace of a discussion - it's really quite amazing. (The Newton can also be set to capture writing as "ink," i.e., a graphic file which can later be translated into text - this effectively removes all limits on speed, though increases the burden on internal memory). These notes can be seamlessly printed, emailed, or faxed directly from the Notepad, or copied to the word processor to be incorporated in a larger document. Notes can be filed, and searched globally or by category. There is a fairly small size limitation for each individual note, but new notes can be created with a simple pen gesture (a straight line across the screen) that does not break the flow of notetaking. This is one of the strongest features of the Newton OS.
The built-in NewtonWorks word processor is able to handle much larger blocks of text than the Notes function, can import and export text files as well as RTF format, and provides basic word processing capability. This does not include, unfortunately, the ability to handle footnotes - a significant failure in the context of academic writing. Several third-party packages have already appeared that greatly improve the features and power of Works (I have not used any of them, but suspect that they are varied and important enough to be worthy of a separate review), but none adds footnote capability. Strangely, Apple chose not to support handwriting recognition in the word processor; but this oversight can be fixed by a number of freeware extensions as well as by commercial Works-enhancers. The Newton keyboard is a bit smaller and much noisier than the Powerbook keyboard I am used to, but has a much more responsive feel and is surprisingly lightweight. In addition to writing this review, I've used Works to write the comments for my student's BA theses, and imported and edited a fifty-page chapter draft. (I experienced the loss of special characters when importing the chapter, but this turned out to be a problem with Word 5.1's RTF translation, not the Newton.) On a sunny but windy day in Chicago, it was nice to be able to edit my chapter on a campus bench without worrying about pages blowing away. Another "gee-whiz" moment was walking into a crowded computing cluster, stepping up to an open Appletalk port (by chance, next to the line of students waiting to use the computers) and printing through one of the networked laser printers without even having to sit down. (If the printers had been IRDA-capable, I wouldn't have even needed the wire.) Until Apple or a third party adds footnote capability, however, no dissertations will be written on the Newton.
Internet functions are well-integrated into the MessagePad; almost any kind of text (calendars or to-do lists from the "Dates" function, contact information from "Names" as well as Works documents and Notes) can be emailed from within the function that created them. The included software from Enroute functions capably; I also tested a demonstration copy of Eudora Pro for Newton, which is noticeably faster and has a slightly better interface as well as the ability to synchronize mailboxes with Eudora on the desktop. (GoFetch, another Newton email client, is also widely considered to be superior to Enroute.) But since I don't need to sync with Eudora on my Mac, nor use the Newton as my main email client, the improvements are not worth spending an extra $50. As a workaround for synchronization, I simply set Enroute to leave messages on the server, and pick them up later from my desktop.
Web browsing with the bundled NetHopper software has also been trouble-free. As might be expected, sites with heavy reliance on graphics lose much of their effect on the Newt (though happily NetHopper will scale the page to fit the screen, rather than forcing endless scrolling), and tend to quickly fill the limited memory cache. For the sort of web browsing I expect to do while on the road with the MP2k - library catalogs, a few favorite news sites, Macintouch, etc. - NetHopper works well. One of my favorite features is its specialized pop-up onscreen keyboard, which includes keys for common web-specific terms (like "http://", "www." and ".com"). It will also download pages for off-line reading, useful for conserving battery power.
Configuring Enroute and NetHopper to work with my university dial-up account was no problem, even though the University of Chicago doesn't even officially support PPP, much less the Newton. Anyone who has used Internet Config or configured OT/PPP on their Mac will find the process very familiar. The Newton system comes configured for several popular ISPs, so it was even easier to set up and test on my parent's Earthlink account. My Megahertz 14.4 PC-card modem - bought used for $35 - has worked without a hitch, though I would advise against getting this specific model (the discontinued XJ1114): due to a documented bug, the MP2 will temporarily freeze if the machine should reset while the XJ1114 is inserted.
More specific academic uses are, of course, not anticipated by the built-in software. But the MessagePad has obvious potential as a bibliographical tool: its size and handwriting input make it ideal for jotting down references and filing them for your next trip to the library, as well as for browsing or searching stacks once you get there. NetHopper works well with web-based catalogs, and can save search results to the Notepad for later reference, printing, or manipulation. One of the first things I did with my MessagePad, in fact, was to consolidate (using the "Checklist" function of the Notepad) my collection of various paper pads, computer printouts, and text files into a single list of books and articles that I need to look up at some point in the future. Although a clear improvement, the limits of this method quickly became obvious: for example, the Notepad has no ability to sort records or manipulate their format.
What I would like is a Newton analogue to my desktop bibliographical software (Endnote Plus, by Niles, Inc.). Some research and a post to comp.sys.newton.misc, however, soon established that no such package existed. One respondent to my newsgroup posting confirmed this, but described a number of ingenious workarounds [reprinted here] that can be used until such software appears. In a testament to the vitality and responsiveness of Newton developers, this will be soon: a bit more correspondence has resulted in the beginnings of such a program. Hardy Macia of Catamount Software now plans to modify his media organizing package, MORGAN, into a new bibliography management tool according to the needs and input of academic users - including the ability to transfer records to and from EndNote and other desktop programs. (Readers who are interested should email email@example.com with their needs and suggestions for such a program.)
One of the most critical tools for academic research is database software, and it is to this issue that I have devoted the most time. Like many H-MAC members, I rely on FileMaker for collecting and managing the varied and ever-growing fruits of my research. I have several large FMPro databases that I use constantly: one for book notes, another for archival information and viewing notes on several hundred early films, yet another for written archival sources. A version of FMPro for Newton has long been rumored, and at one point was even announced by Claris; but no release seems imminent and the program remains (as someone put it), "the biggest piece of vaporware in the history of the Newton." Meanwhile, there are many database packages for the Newton, several of which I tested for this review and for my own use. I hoped to find a solution with which I could do archival research away from Chicago: that is, to import all the information about a certain archive or collection from FMPro into the MessagePad; take the MP2k into the archive and input notes on that material; and synchronize, or at least back up, that information within FMPro each night (I don't mind bringing along the old Powerbook if I can pack itinto my luggage).
The MessagePad's bundled spreadsheet, QuickFigure Works (a limited version of QuickFigure Pro by PelicanWare) is of little use for notetaking, since the height of cells - one line - cannot be modified, making any text over a few words invisible. It's a spreadsheet, not a database, so the comparison with FMPro is unfair; but it might work in a pinch, if your data can be entered in small enough portions. (Note also that the spreadsheet software is not included with all configurations of the MessagePad.) Like all the programs that I tested, QFWorks requires separate utilities in order to transfer information to and from the MessagePad. This is due to the fact that Apple does not allow developers "direct access" to Newton Connection Utilities (NCU), the backup/synchronization software that is bundled with the MessgePad. In addition to its own utility, QuickFigure Exchange, QFWorks requires Excel on the desktop to export spreadsheet data. (This cumbersome process - and the general clumsiness of NCU, which just left beta - explains the popularity of more robust and flexible third-party transfer utilities, like Landware's X-Port.)
QFWorks screenshot (PelicanWare')
More promising for academic use than the bundled spreadsheet are several third-party database packages that have been developed for the Newton. I tested the demonstration versions of three: Leverage, by Balcones Software; FilePad, by HealthCare Communications; and NewtDb, by DMPSystems. With each, I attempted to create a new database comparable to one on my desktop, and tested the program's ability to transfer large blocks of my desktop databases to and from the Newton.
The least expensive of these programs is NewtDb: $29.95 for a basic version that allows four databases, $59.95 for 16, less an informal 20% educational discount (unpublicized but available upon request). For its price and its small memory footprint, NewtDb is a remarkably full-featured relational database. It is capable of indexing three fields per database, allowing for very fast look-ups and searches. Before my existing FileMaker file could be imported, I had to duplicate its fields on the Newton with a companion package, UtilityDb. Connectivity with the desktop is accomplished with a third package (XferDb) on the Newton, which works through any standard terminal emulator on the Mac. Though NewtDb has been around for a while, this feature is new and hence not as well implemented as in the other programs I tested - for instance, UtilityDb contains a "Synchronize" button that bodes well for the future, but is not yet functional.
At about the same cost (an educational price of $49), FilePad offers a much better interface, but a little less muscle. FilePad is a flat-file database, not relational, yet seems slightly slower than the other two programs I tested. As with NewtDb, fields have to be designed on the MessagePad before they can accept data from FileMaker (through a separate program, also nicely designed); however, the tools to do this are much more intuitive. Custom "pages" for each new "cabinet" are designed using a button bar reminiscent of graphics software, an interface I found even better than FileMaker's. The desktop half of the transfer software is similarly easy to use, with a nice Mac interface. For simple data collection, FilePad is probably the best choice; for instance, if I discovered a new collection while I was in the archives and wanted to quickly make a new template for the information (and didn't have to worry about lookups from my existing data), FilePad would let me do this easily and quickly.
Leverage is the powerhouse of the bunch, a fully relational database program that, in many ways, is specifically designed to work with FMPro. Unlike NewtDb and FilePad, its views are not fully customizable - they only display field names and fields from top to bottom, like a newly created FileMaker file. But Leverage has significant advantages over both of the other programs, most importantly the ability to duplicate FMPro fields in a new database: as long as the FMPro export (tab- or comma-delimited) has field names as its first entry, these fields are created automatically as the data is imported. Another unique feature of Leverage is its ability to synchronize Leverage and FileMaker files, which it accomplishes through AppleScript and the addition of some date/time fields to your FMPro databases. In a nice touch, the latest version of Leverage (I tested both the 2.0 release and the 3.0 alpha) supports the stationary function of the Newton's Notepad - allowing data entry by creating a new note, without the need to launch Leverage. The database creation and import capabilities are integrated with the single Leverage package, rather than split into separate programs. Leverage also allows two databases to be displayed simultaneously, using a 'split screen' function. Unsurprisingly, given its power, Leverage is the most expensive of the three programs: its academic price is $99 (or 5 for $399).
FilePad's toolbar (HealthCC)
I haven't yet tested any of these programs in "real world" research conditions - outside of Chicago, far from the safety of my desktop, where unforeseen difficulties always seem to crop up. I'll probably delay my own final database decision until after I have done so. None of these programs were designed with academic use specifically in mind, but as with bibliographical software, I found developers to be very responsive to my questions and suggestions. Dave Pompea, for instance, has already started rewriting XferDb to add the ability to automatically create and name fields in NewtDb upon import (an initial version may even be finished by the time you read this). If money were no object, Leverage would be my choice right now: its interface is the most familiar (i.e., most like FMPro), and the ease of importing Filemaker files without having to first create empty fields on the Newton is a significant advantage. It is the only program with synchronization capabilities, and judging from my correspondence with Balcones, it is likely to maintain its lead: plans are to add the ability to tranfer scripts, functions, and pop-up lists from FMPro to Leverage rather than just fields, data, and sound/graphics. But of course money is always an object for a graduate student - especially considering that to get the full benefit of these programs I will need to purchase additional storage for the MessagePad (in the form of a flash memory card, currently about $25/Mb). Given this constraint, I'm likely to give up Leverage's integration with my "legacy" data for NewtDb, which offers similar power for a much lower price.
As I finish this review, Apple has announced that the Newton Systems Group will be reorganized into an independent subsidiary. Given my concern with Filemaker, this seems fitting: if the new company can be as successful as Claris has been on its own, then the Newton's future will be bright. It is all but officially announced that the eMate will be reconfigured as a high-powered business product with an integrated keyboard (a "form factor" that some readers may prefer); many expect this to be the new company's first product. On the other end of the product line, I wouldn't be surprised if prices dropped even further on the MessagePad 130, which is already available new - or used and loaded with accessories - for about the same price as a Pilot. If I had to pay "real money," instead of Appledollars, I would seriously consider snapping up a 130 while I waited to see what shakes out.
Whatever its future, the MessagePad works for me now. My experience with Apple's newest - and apparently last - handheld computer has been almost entirely positive. It has become an everyday tool, not only for me but also for colleagues and friends, who no longer bat an eye when I pull out my glowing green tablet. This is how computing should be (and perhaps, someday will be): portable, effective, and personal.